American Poetry Watchdogs: Garrick Davis on Foetry

An Interview with the Editors of Foetry

Conducted by: Garrick Davis

Interviewer’s Note: This year, a new website was launched in the National Poetry Month of April-not to publish poetry or fiction, but to examine the ethics of the poetry world. With its mission of exposing fraudulent book contests, and corrupt judging practices, the editors of Foetry aim to be a watchdog agency in the so-called Po-Biz. The editor of the Contemporary Poetry Review conducted the following email interview with Foetry’s editors, who shall remain (by their own request) anonymous.

How did Foetry come into existence? What served as the catalyst for this project?

Ethics and economics. It’s an excellent idea to charge an entry fee for a competition. Funds collected support the actual cost of running the
contest, which might include paying screeners and a final judge. They might also cover the printing and marketing of a poetry book.

[private]Poets enter contests with the belief that they have a chance to win. When publication and prize money is awarded to an entrant recognizable to the judge, or worse, a predetermined or solicited entrant, that competition is bogus and probably illegal.

Foetry is here because we believe there are many contests and other publishing venues. Students and friends of the judges should recuse
themselves and enter other competitions. Judges who recognize and select work of poets they know in a “blind” reading should realize that there is the appearance of a conflict of interest to the rest of the entrants.

There are plenty of people who claim Foetry is for whiners; we say that outside of American Poetry, there is no other competition that charges entry fees and gets away with awarding prizes to friends of the sponsors and judges. People were arrested when Simon Marketing rigged the Monopoly Game for McDonalds. John Ashcroft even held a press conference. Why should we be complacent simply because a smaller amount of money is involved?

Why is it international news when Olympic figure skating is judged unethically, but Pulitzer Prize-winning poets are permitted to continue
their bad behavior? Salon writer Kerry Lauerman said, ” . . . as long as figure skating is controlled by a bitchy sewing circle it won’t be a real
sport.” We love that quote.

Why are certain poets engaging in such behavior? Why are they allowed to choose their own students, and so forth?

This behavior dates back quite a ways. So perhaps the contemporaries feel it’s their right to choose their students. However, it is illegal, and
for some reason, no one has taken the lead to stop it. Perhaps a class-action lawsuit is what it will take. Or an organization, such as
Associated Writing Programs, should write and pass a set of recommended contest guidelines for ethical publishers.

What do you think of the vast subsidized system of grants, prizes, and awards that poets currently compete for-the so-called Po-Biz?

In some ways, it would be nice to think that poets’ books would sell enough to support an existence, but that’s not going to happen. Grants
are a wonderful thing, but they should be awarded on merit. There are far too many Cheney-Scalia duck hunting trips. Until contest guidelines include what’s become known as a “Jorie Graham rule,” those being judged by a friend and/or professor, should not be entered. There are other competitions. Frankly, all competitions should include and abide by a simple statement, already adopted by Associated Writing Programs and the Walt Whitman Award.

It’s disturbing to hear the stories of manuscripts that don’t make it past the initial readers, only to be summoned by the final judge. We picture them on cell phones, calling from the toilet: “Send me the manuscripts of Iowa graduates!”

Much has been made in recent years of the proliferation of creative writing programs in the United States. Do you think this academicization has had a beneficial or baleful effect on poetry?

We disagree on this amongst ourselves, but we are in agreement that too many people are getting MFAs for the wrong reasons. Obviously there won’t be teaching positions for all of the graduates. And until things change, good poets are going to go through these programs without the attention they might deserve, simply because they are unwilling or unable to suck up.

Why are good poets going through these programs at all?

Perhaps good poets need the credentials to teach, which many poets need to do in order to support themselves (whether they’re good teachers or not). Some people say that an MFA program merely affords poets the time to write and a community in which to do so. Many poets we know argue that they did not want to become poets; rather they were always poets. It’s a calling rather than a vocation.

You name Charles Wright, Bin Ramke, Richard Howard, Mark Strand, and Jorie Graham as “ethically-challenged” judges of various book contests. Are they particularly corrupt in your estimation, or is this problem (of awarding
prizes to former students) simply part of the larger problem of the Po-Biz? Your list, after all, includes, some of the most distinguished poets in America. If you teach, and therefore, sanction students getting degrees for writing poetry you can’t very well deny them getting into print, can you?

These poets are becoming distinguished more by their unscrupulous behavior than their writing. These are the poets that we had heard about: they pick their favorite students, award them prizes, and launch “careers.” Or they do favors for each other: you publish my book and I’ll publish your student’s book. That, at least, gives the illusion of legitimacy.

As Foetry has ended its first month, visitors to our site have been extremely helpful in our Forums and by private message. We have learned of many more connections than when the site launched, and we anticipate finding out more.

Students should get into print honorably. It won’t be as simple as having someone choose their book as winner of a contest while it’s still an MFA thesis, but they may have more time to revise and have the satisfaction of one day getting their polished work celebrated by someone they don’t know.

Some authors would have us believe that the MFA programs and the contests are corrupt, not occasionally, but by their very nature. Would you agree?

No. But we do believe the contests need major reformation. And a few judges should be spanked.[/private]

About Garrick Davis

Garrick Davis is the founding editor of the Contemporary Poetry Review, the largest online archive of poetry criticism in the world. The magazine was founded in 1998, and was one of the earliest literary reviews in the United States to be published exclusively on the Internet. His poetry and criticism have appeared in the New Criterion, Verse, the Weekly Standard, McSweeney’s, and the New York Sun. He is the editor of Praising It New: The Best of the New Criticism (Swallow Press, 2008) and Child of the Ocmulgee: the Selected Poems of Freda Quenneville (Michigan State University Press, 2002). His book of poems, Terminal Diagrams, is also available (Swallow Press, 2010). He served as the literary specialist of the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington, D.C. from 2005-2008. He currently serves as a multidiscipline specialist responsible for the NEA’s Arts Journalism Institutes.
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