Tuesday, August 09, 2005

here are both questions on competition again... 

This first one is only for those of you who were in a creative writing program. How do you feel about creative writing programs and competition? How was the competitive atmosphere? Was this atmosphere mostly student directed, or from professors? In the end, do you feel this competition moved you and your poetry forward? Or maybe that it kept you back in some way?

How do we all feel about Walt Whitman writing reviews of Leaves of Grass under various pseudonyms? This was something I didn't know about until one of my visits to the Whitman house in Camden, when a young history student was the curator. He showed us pictures of what a mess Whitman's room had been at the time of his death with trash to the knees. In that trash is where they found drafts of his reviews of his work.

But is it unethical to write glowing reviews for yourself? What are your feelings?



Tim Peterson:

Tarzan Workshop

Here is poem. Describe poem. Does poem feel "earned"? What are "formal characteristic" of poem? Is A) lyrical, B) narrative, C) meditative, or D) rhetorical? Because those only options for what poem can be. Is better than last poem? If not, Tarzan think student slipping. Write down suggestion for poet, and now Tarzan proceed to "fix mistakes" in poem. Does poem feel "welcoming to Tarzan reader"? Tarzan personally think "loaded gun" is mistake -- poet should change to "fluffy bunny rabbit" to not intimidate Tarzan. That cheap move. Describe "music of poem" – do poem voice sound "flat" here? Do poem show "Tarzan mind at work"? In order to "fix," poet need make exactly like ideal poem which Tarzan have in mind but which he never reveal. Student keep until get right. Other student here write more close to Tarzan ideal poem, so Tarzan make jealous by give other student all Tarzan praise and attention!!! Tarzan bet student feel shitty now, right? Tarzan know how to write Tarzan poem, student not allowed artist. Student apprentice, Tarzan train student write poem like Tarzan write. Have read all book on Tarzan syllabus composed entirely of book written by friend of Tarzan? Good, if student write like friend of Tarzan book student soon publish by Copper Canyon Press no time! But wait! Tarzan no got to best part, which mean REVISION! Ah, yes, revision. Do student know Louis Gluck make over FORTY DRAFT of single poem, and over half of draft just CHANGE SEMICOLON? Do student know that most "serious poet" do nothing than sit at desk and REVISE POEM ALL DAY LONG? Because Tarzan poem "never finished"! Tarzan teach strive toward make "perfect" curious “inwrought Tarzan thing” which ideal form and which also Stand Up To Test Of Time, because Tarzan poet not live in this world. Nosirree, live in next. Ugh.


I started college (Columbia College, Chicago) when I was 17, and my
first poetry teacher, Paul Hoover, was amazing in the way he framed the
competition issue within a serious career context. I wasn't in a
"program" per se (this was in 1978, before the MFA era) but I did take
many, many workshops and lit classes with him, and he pretty much
introduced me (and others: Kim Lyons, Connie Deanovich, Elaine Equi) to
the Chi literary scene, such as it was then: post-Berrigan and Notley
(they'd live in Chi for awhile and pollinated), post-Yellow Press. His
take on competition was sort of like, it's there, you can't get away
from it, but be prepared, and find some positive way to deal with it.
So, from 17 on I pretty much understood the dynamics. That doesn't
mean I was any good at competing (I wasn't and I'm still not,
unfortunately), but at least I was prepared for it even back then.
When I did get into an MFA program, it was at Brooklyn College, and
Ginsberg was my teacher. Now, for better or worse, he was all about
the work, and the issue of competition was not something he wanted to
deal with, although he was always helpful with career stuff like
recommendations, introductions, etc. And -- for better or worse -- he
was one of the most magnanimous, generous people I've ever dealt with
within any poetry scene. (Why "worse"? Because one could always talk
to him, and now he's not around.) He once called me at my boyfriend's
house at 11 in the morning on a Sunday (after calling my apartment
first and asking my roommate whether she thought it was okay to call at
the other place) to ask if he'd already done a recommendation for me
because he woke up worried that he'd forgotten to do it. He once said
to me, "You got some information, why not share it?" While that may
prepare for you for your karmic errand, it doesn't quite translate into
advice on career moves. However, I can only hope their examples
translate into generosity that I can extend to my own students. I
really try to pass that on whenever I can.

My Columbia experience was about cultivating talent and finding a place
in a literary scene. There were students there who, like me, were
interested in writing as a career, and we worked/drank/ slept together
and then bitterly resented each other forever after. But we were all
writing pretty good poetry for people in their teens and early
twenties, and I think **that** aspect is competition at its best.
(And also "academic poetry" was a different animal in 1978.) The
Brooklyn experience (1988-1990) was not about competition because most
of the people in my class had never even been published. I was quite
appalled to discover that. I had been published (in Maureen Owen's
TELEPHONE) at 18, had edited a couple of Chi lit mags (B City and
letter eX) by the time I was 23, and then there I was at 27 with people
who'd never even sent out a poem (tho I know that isn't the case there
now). So I just sort of put my energy into spending as much time as I
could with Allen and learning certain things from him.

About competition: when funnelled into the energy that makes you write
better and better work because your friends/colleagues are really
producing, it's great; when funnelled into the energy that makes you
boring because you're all worried about getting a job, it's fucking

I love it. I totally agree with what Holman said. In fact, I'm gonna
do a few myself. Right now. So look for reviews of my new book by the
eminent critic Norah S. Remsem.



I wasn't in an MFA and/or creative writing program. But I can't imagine that I would like to be in a competative atmosphere. I now teach in an MFA. I don't really see much competition; it seems to me as if everyone gets along fine. But I might just not be able to see it. Sometimes the poets and the fiction writers seem to get in little fights. Or say they can't understand each other. Or complain about who gets more of what, when. Once I gave an assignment where everyone had to fill out one of those Duncan influence charts and then discuss it for the first class and I inadvertantly created a huge name dropping session and some people in the class freaked out and I had some visits to my office that week.

It is cute. Although the idea of dying with papers to the knees makes me scared.


For the Whitman, I share pretty much your take.... I find it amusing: "I Write of Myself" - who better?. With contemporary sophistication though I'm sure he would have written first an essay attacking his work, and THEN one praising it, under two pseudonyms. As I remember, the novelist Anthony Burgess did something similar back in the sixties. Yes, I find it:

Burgess was the maiden name of John Wilson's mother. He also used the pseudonym Joseph Kell and once reviewed Kell's novel INSIDE MR ENDERBY (1963) for the Yorkshire Post; when the editor sent him the author's novel - Burgess thought it was a practical joke but it wasn't. Burgess himself wrote letters to the editor of the Daily Mail as Mohamed Ali, an outraged Pakistani moralist.

I imagine those who object would be mostly critics whose self-importance blinds them to the walls of the teacup.

There were no Creative Writing programs when I was young. I can only comment from the experience of having "taught" briefly in several MFA programs over the decades. From my point of view there was no possibility of "teaching" creative writing. The writers in each group were obvious, and the smarter of them were simply using the time to write. I did find it useful to expose them all to as wide a range of writing as I could... on several occasions the work of an until then unknown to them poet was a trigger. I tried not to create clones of myself and my tastes, and when talking about their own work concentrated on what (sometimes only a few words in a long piece) I found interesting rather than the surrounding reams of dross. My sense is that I didn't do too much harm, many of them continued to write, then to publish. Some of them became good friends. But in all instances I heard horror stories from students, of other, or previous, experiences in programs.

I didn't go through the education system myself. I went to work at 16. So I do appreciate the need for time. But I can't say I write more since I have that time. My first book was written, on scraps of paper, on bus tickets, wherever I could, while working full time and running a small press in my spare time. But then cliché'd everyone is clichéd different: that's what makes it interesting.


I think WW is all-around fabulous and I love that he published himself and promoted himself. His was the best brand of boldness--he didn't elevate himself over others, he raised all to the same stellar heaven-toppling level. These days we suffer from so many silly attitudes about publishing and legitimacy and all of that. People tend to forget that the "publishing industry" is new fangled, relatively speaking. So many of the writers we admire "privately printed" their own work and published themselves and their friends, and like Walt, did their own publicity too. And aren't we glad they did? Because the legitimacy any writer possesses originates from her writing, not the circumstances surrounding its publication. You know? And damn it, somebody has to be your champion. Personally I have no problem saying that I like my own poems and that I want lots of people to read them. I did write them for you, after all. What Would Walt Whitman Do could be a very electrifying mantra for many younger poets intimidated by what they perceive to be seemly poetic behavior, particularly since it requires them to tamp down their own enthusiasm for...well...themselves. No fun.

Anyway, take care...



I teach at Columbia, where I went to school (undergrad – my only formal degree), so I am in that most wonderful position of becoming the person I used to laugh at. As Milosz says, “The man I used to be no longer embarrasses me.” I am astonished at how the world turns ferriswheelishly: I was at Bard teaching undergrad Poetry Performance when I started the Bowery Poetry Club, but Bard had no interest in Club-Academy synergy. Columbia did, so here I happily am. “Exploding Text: Poetry Performance” is offered by the MFA Writing Program– that’s anti-competition, right, a Performance course in a Writing setting? I thank Alan Ziegler, head of the department, for having the vision, and my coworkers for okaying it. The course is all about collaboration, uncovering new inspirations via others and their art and their approach to art. Coco Fusco teaches Performance as part of the Visual Art Dept, and I talk poetry film with the Film Department, but for Writing I’m the guy who critiques the students’ reading (as in perf) skills. I’m outside the Inner Circle. Now if you want to talk about my work in Slam, and my nights at the Nuyorican – woowie! But, alas, there’s no degrees, no competition.

Hilarity! How American! United Statesian! Truly the Father of US Poetry!



I got my MFA at the New School. I had the privilege of studying with some truly fantastic people, and still keep in touch with many of them. I am not a competitive person, at least I do not see myself as one. One thing I got out of the MFA program was a sense of myself as a poet. My writing definitely changed a lot and I think I learned a lot about how to stick up for myself and how to deal with criticism.

This is a great question, something I've not really thought about. My gut instinct is to think more about the time period and society Whitman was living in, rather than the notion of writing a review of oneself. I think that Leaves of Grass was initially self-published. If this is true, it makes complete sense (rationally) for Whitman to write reviews under a pseudonym. The publishing world in the 1850's was much different than now, so I think he had to write these reviews in order to get any sort of attention for the book. And, Leaves of Grass is a masterpiece and deserves as much attention as possible. And I love the idea of the floor of Whitman's room being covered in papers, some of which were drafts of these self-composed reviews. But, I also agree with Conrad, in that reviews seldom affect how I read something. They open my eyes to books I want to explore, but do not shape my opinion. Because of this, I think writing reviews of oneself is completely ok. I doubt I would ever do it, but I see no problem in it being done. And, I love the idea of pseudonyms.


Maybe I’m the exception here in that I WASN’T in an MFA program but am IN one currently. I’m a second year Poetry candidate at Naropa University, a San Francisco transplant and a competitive person (in the most generous and community based way...duh...). I received my BA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University, a competitive university in that they host departmental and pan-State-university competitions each semester. Most universities do. Naropa doesn’t. On its masthead Naropa actually bills itself as a “noncompetitive” university. This is hilarious (as ANY student in the program will tell you). What Naropa means by noncompetitive is that they simply don’t have the contest money (unlike Iowa) to offer its students. Well, that’s not exactly true, during the summer semester two students, one Prose concentration, one Poetry are selected to be the Ted Berrigan and Jack Kerouac scholars. Naropa also has the Zora Neale Hurston award for students of color. Hold up! wait a minute...yeah, I thought Naropa was supposed to be a noncompetitive university? These scholarships sure sound like awards to me, and last I checked one needed to compete to be rewarded. Like I stated above, the whole non competitiveness thing seems to be an easy, less embarrassing way for Naropa to dodge admitting that it’s Writing and Poetics Department is somewhat lacking in funds (and I know a little about this, I was MFA representative to the university council last semester). Of course this is all layed out for the incoming student as an “university philosophy” (which is great! which is fine! awesome, uf’ the bullshit of contest...only...). But what really gets me is that our MFA student advisor periodically sends mass e-mails to the MFA student body announcing competitions at Iowa, Brown, SFSU et al., “you guys should totally submit!”...Look, is this “kind” (because there are plenty of other) of competition that interesting? (the question certainly is).
One more quick anecdote on competition of a different ilk. A new chapbook of mine, BOUT BOUT was recently published by Farfalla Press. The publisher and I are in contact about the book pre-published. The publisher continuously talks shit about his other writers. Something like “I can’t believe I gave such and such a perfect bound book...he better know I did him a huge favor...” or, “yeah, his book never sold so I use copies to balance my TV stand.” Oh man, this is getting weird, I should have anticipated what was to come. BOUT BOUT is published it looks good. Everything is fine. I soon find out that the publisher suddenly yanked the book out of distribution with SPD (now it’s back). I’m wondering, hmmm, what happened? A couple days later a few students tell me that the publisher burned the remaining copies of the book. I’m like...hmmm, what happened? (though not THAT surprised). It turns out the publisher “only” burned 15 copies of the book...lucky me (sarcasm). I approached him about this. Basically, to make a long story short he thought he overheard something I said that I never said (you’ve got to love the private liberal arts university scene), he soon realized this. He then goes on to tell me that “if only I was a major author” he wouldn’t have done what he did. That I “was lucky to have a book from Farfalla” etc. etc. The psychology of this character and this press goes much deeper than I have room to properly explore but in my mind, and in the minds of a few others who know this character, and have worked with his press it mostly stems from a totally misguided feeling of competitiveness. As in, “I’’m Farfalla, I’m publishing your book, Why isn’t anyone publishing my book?” This is needless to say, an incredibly unhealthy and damaging way to look at what your doing (ostensibly a great and difficult thing...publishing poetry). I wish this guy and his press the best. Under it all he’s a pretty good guy with a pretty good (prodigious) press. So there...

2. I’ve taken up way too much space with the former question but I will say that I don’t think it would be possible to review yourself and get away with it in our current poetry climate (what the hell does that mean?)...unless you’re Kent Johnson of course.

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