Thursday, May 31, 2007

Christopher Woodman Speaks

Greetings to Foetry and Post Foetry friends,

Christopher Woodman has asked me to republish his last post from Foetry; I have agreed to do so because he raises some important issues regarding self publishing. I, of course, have my own opinions, but for now I'll simply present Christopher's viewpoint and allow others to jump in, either via the blog team or comments:

« on: May 24, 2007, 05:51:57 AM »

Dear Friends,

I hope I can be forgiven for venturing one more Foetry post—it’s not actually a farewell but more of a greeting, a hope even, a brave new world for those who are being left behind.

Two new ideas have been suggested to me in the last few days, and I want to try to address them because I’ve never seen either of them discussed on this site. Indeed, as we close down they both certainly do open up--wonderfully!

The first is that an uncompromised poet like myself should give up on conventional publishers altogether and do it himself. In this, my last Foetry post, I want to explain why I feel self-publishing can never be a viable alternative to conventional covers and blurbs and reviews, even for an old man like me. For I feel strongly that with the exception of those blessed interventions that friends make in one’s personal life, the True Poetry I crave by my bedside will always have an established Publishing House on its spine—which tells me the poems got verified in the first place, that they got out there, heard and reviewed, and of course that they got sold. For this simple reason the job begun at Foetry can never be over until all the naked emperors have been laughed off the stage, and all the tin-pot cultural tailors and their sycophants, the Jorie Grahams and Bin Ramkes and Jeffrey Levines and Janet Holmes, have been sent packing. Others will come crawling out of the woodwork at that point, of course they will, so I for one am prepared. Because as long as there are tenured positions that depend on what you publish, and students willing to pay to be trained in the skills you need to get one, there will always be unethical editors and publishers, and unethical poets too, mind you, sort of poets anyway, who will fiddle the lists in their favor!

So why, then, can self-publishing never take the place of house-publishing?

Start like this. The authorship of a poem is as much involved in its fineness as the provenance of a prehistoric bone or artifact. If you can’t be sure whether a bit of bone is human or simian, as in the case of the Piltdown Man fragments, for example, it has no intrinsic value. The same can be said of a newly discovered painting by a painter I much admire, the Sino-Cuban Wifredo Lam, because although the painting will undoubtedly be just as erotic and mystifying as any Wifredo Lam, it will almost certainly have been turned out by one of the numerous Cuban counterfeiters that manipulate the contemporary art market. And as soon as I know its not really by Wifredo Lam it’s no longer erotic or mystifying for me—in fact it doesn’t interest me at all anymore because it’s never been touched by him! And the same can be said of a previously unknown haiku by Basho, for example, or a fragment by Sappho—because we all know that such poems are routinely turned out by junior high students under the guidance of gifted teachers. Indeed, one of the most wonderful things about art in general, and poetry in particular, is that on occasion almost any human being can create a work as moving and profound as a master. By the same token, we also know that any master is capable of dashing off an adolescent sketch on a wine-stained tablecloth, yet you or I would give an arm and a leg for it and hang it on our walls forever if we could be sure. And the converse applies too, of course--if some other Tom, Dick or Harriet did it we’d throw exactly the same sketch straight in the machine, and never invite them again!

The fact of the matter is that everyone self-publishes every time they open their mouths or doodle by the telephone, but what is created only becomes valuable as a created object if it can be tied irrefutably to the life-time struggle for perfection and meaning of a man or a woman with a name. I myself have a poem on [the Foetry site]—but because I am so little known by the poetry reading public it is only of value because Alan Cordle, the Founder of Foetry, pinned it up on his bulletin board in imitation of Jeffrey Levine (go for the archives if you’re so new here you don’t get that joke. Indeed, I was so slow myself I didn’t get the joke until a few days after the image appeared on
Alan’s Latest News--I didn’t even see the pins!) If I had self-published the poem it would still be fun, I grant, but it would have only a fraction of the value it gained when both Alan Cordle and Jeffrey Levine chose it for their bulletin boards!

Poems need contexts, they need dates, they need provenances and they need to have been worked on by credible masters, and hard. It's as if they have to be notarized with a heavy stamp, certified as genuine articles—and that’s what publishers do, or at least that’s what we pay them to do. For publishers too must be certified over time. We have to come to trust them or we don’t pay them anymore, as we’ll never pay what-his-name at The Tupelo Press ever again for his services. Great editors win their reputations in time--little ones lose them, for sure and forever!

And as a footnote to that I’d like to say again that it’s my fondest hope the good and worthy poets among those published by The Tupelo Press will not be damaged by their publisher’s subsequent fall from grace—but hear me, I for one would refuse my book to Jeffrey Levine even if he could guarantee me a Nobel Prize in the deal! And similarly, I do hope the Crazyhorse Publishing Institute at the College of Charleston gets off the ground, but it won’t unless it jettisons the baggage of its unsavoury partner!

Yes, a poem does need a pedigree—a found poem can delight you but it remains flotsam for the rest of the world if its provenance cannot be determined. Indeed, without accountability and transparency you’d be foolish to drink too deeply at the source of any work of art in our times!

The other point has already been covered—that I should start up my own blog and write for the world as I am writing for you here in the last few moments at Foetry. But as a writer I too need the sense that someone is listening, indeed I need the sense that you are listening, my friends at Foetry and my borderline acquaintances that are still visiting (are you there Bob’s friend?) and my enemies even (Kate, are we still having fun?).

I’ll stop on this now—but should you approach me with a question or incite me, should you stand before me with a name, even if you made it up, should you be there in front of me as a person, I’d write, oh I’d write and I’d write. What did Jonathan Swift say about Doctors and Generals and Lawyers as opposed to Edward and Edith, that he hated the latter as much as he loved his dear friends with their own private names? Me too!

So no blogs, thank you—round-tables maybe, and forums to good causes or among real people, but even then you’d have to come and get me, and by name!

Christopher Woodman

Best, Bugzita, a.k.a. Jennifer Semple Siegel

1 comment:

Matt said...

Hi Christopher (et al),

Since you bring this up . . . we had extensive discussions on the forums about self-publication that you may have missed.

You can still read them here and here.