Quick, name a literary journal off the top of your head!
You thought of Tin House, didn’t you? Or was it The New York Quarterly? Or Ploughshares? Or The Paris Review?
What about Compass Rose? Or The Same? Or Skidrow Penthouse? Or Artichoke Haircut? Or Sentence? Or New Mexico Poetry Review? Or KNOCK? Or Whiskey Island? Or Porcupine? Or Liebamour? Or BigCityLit? Or Natural Bridge? Or Maintenant? Or River Oak Review? Or A Clean, Well-Lighted Place? Or The Chaffin Journal? Or Plain Spoke? Or The Associative Press? Or … et cetera, et cetera, et cetera …
As a poet in the age of cyberspace, I’m flabbergasted by the plethora of literary journals, both print and electronic. Duotrope, a resource I use all the time when I submit work, makes room in its database for over 1,100 electronic journals and more than 500 print-only journals that accept electronic submissions. Moreover, it adds new listings weekly. That so many literary publications live is evidence of a Milky Way-size supply of writers, established, emerging and aspiring. Case in point: I appeared in the latest issue of Fulcrum, along with 79 others poets. I recognized two, and I knew one only because I know the poet personally. The other was Gerard Malanga, who is known to just about anyone who has ever looked at a Warhol soup can or listened to the Velvet Underground’s first album.
I always ask myself questions when I browse literary magazines: Who reads any of this work besides the poets who are published in a given issue? Does anyone? Someone must; why else would editors devote so much time and energy to fielding submissions from thousands of writers and producing these publications?
As literary journals have multiplied, so, too, have presses that publish poetry collections. My current publisher, for example, didn’t exist when my first publisher issued my debut collection in 2000. At the time I published my first book, there didn’t appear to be as many poets with books as there are today. Now it seems everyone has one or more books. The Poetry Society of America website lists around 200 major, university and independent book and chapbook publishers, but the inventory is incomplete; I identified at random several presses that don’t appear on the roster. In addition, for those who are so inclined, there are easier and cost-effective means of self-publication, like CreateSpace and Lulu.
If someone buys one of my books, I’m very happy, of course, but I ask myself is the person going to read it once, more than once or at all? How many other poetry books stand on the individual’s shelf, cooing for attention?
Those of us who write and publish poetry are obviously committed to the discipline, but poetry is a hermetic world, whose inhabitants are the poets themselves, David Orr notwithstanding. Moreover, with the proliferation of creative-writing programs, the academy clearly exerts formidable influence on the direction of poetry, which leads to another question: Do poets writing today produce much of their work in the hope of contributing to the canon or as a supporting mechanism for their academic careers? I’ve been exasperated by the sameness of a lot of poetry, particularly among younger poets. The guiding principle seems to be cleverness that revels in its own cleverness, resulting in poetry that isn’t about anything. The non sequitur reigns because the dossiers were misplaced in the Department of Feline Introspection. But this type of poetry consistently wins acclaim and awards, and acclaim and awards are essential for securing creative-writing professorships. I remember reading an Iowa Prize-winning book almost 10 years ago. I wanted to throw it across the room. My reaction: This means nothing. Aside from that, I thought the writing was dull, formulaic and silly.
How, then, do I decide what to read? There’s no definitive answer, unfortunately. As I’ve developed as a poet, I’ve noticed a broadening of my tastes. I bought Song by Brigit Pegeen Kelly for the title poem alone. There’s an evocation of an earlier style of writing. The poem almost tells an old-fashioned ghost story – almost. It appealed to the Joel Allegretti whose favorite literary character is the Phantom of the Opera and who has been a Poe fan since childhood. One day at the late, lamented Gotham Book Mart, I picked up on a whim a book called Controvertibles by Quan Barry, a poet I had never heard of before. I leafed through it, liked what I read and later decided to buy it. Barry writes poems with titles like “the 1984 Apple Super Bowl commercial as intervention,” “domestic violence as Noh play” and “Nick Drake’s ‘Pink Moon’ as Infatuation.” I borrowed James Merrill’s Selected Poems from my local library once upon a time and fell head over heels for his exquisite command of the English language. All three poets are different and appeal to me for different reasons. Or maybe for the same reason: They exploit to my satisfaction – and satisfaction is always subjective – the alchemical properties of our language; they transform the same substance into something that’s theirs alone.
Or maybe my poetic tastes are just catching up with my catholic musical tastes. I like Muddy Waters and Ravi Shankar.