Monday, April 02, 2007

Gerald Stern on Corruption in the World of Poetry

from Number Your Answers: An Interview with Gerald Stern
Lia Purpura
March/April 2007

Stern: . . . But at the same time there is so much corruption in the world of poetry. I guess there’s corruption in every world, but I’m embarrassed by it. Because poetry is holy, and we confound it with corruption—and there isn’t even much money involved. If you want to make money, go out and make real money, not be a famous poet. I guess it doesn’t behoove me to get into details, but I watch the careers of people who start magazines and, typically, get people to do favors, who scratch backs, who write letters—and I get a lot of these letters—who are relentless, and finally they make the connections, and get their books published. They do it endlessly! Do I talk about this too much?

When I lived in western Pennsylvania, we had rats in the cellar. We couldn’t get rid of those fucking rats, and we had to move away. We gave the house to the rats. Some of us have to move away from the house of poetry because the smell of rats is, as they say in French, partout. Everywhere. It’s absolutely revolting. I’m in my last decade, or next to last decade… I don’t how long I’m going to live… I watch this, and I know all the moves that people make but it does poetry no good. Why don’t we say anything to each other? Why don’t we say, “Shame! Shame!” Does nobody say, “The emperor has no clothes.” Am I the only one who says it? You say it, too, I know. All right, go ahead, next question. Enough of that.


If it were up to me, I'd ask Stern to go back to this little bit and be more specific as to his actual complaint here. I have to admit I’m not sure to whom he’s specifically referring with the rant about journal editors writing him letters, but whomever it is, I’m glad to know not to send him one. On the other hand, I’ve sent out plenty of letters and emails to poets, and the goal has not been for me to publish a book. The goal has been for those poets to send poems to The Laurel Review for consideration.

I mean, who wouldn’t want a poem by Charles Wright or Jean Valentine?


At 4/02/2007 2:02 PM, Blogger Matthew Thorburn said...

I'm with you there -- when I edited Good Foot I wrote lots of the kind of letter you describe, to get poets I liked to send in poems for the journal. To me that was one of the best parts of journal editing, getting in touch with some of those people. And not all "famous" poets -- though we did actually send a letter to Stern, since he'd visited one of our classes (we editors were all in the same MFA program) (he didn't respond) -- but in most cases people whose poems I'd enjoyed in other journals.

At 4/02/2007 2:17 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

It's been the same for us here. I did contact Wright and Valentine, but I've also contacted many poets through finding their poems in other journals. Joshua Marie Wilkinson, for example. Or Louise Mathias. The list is long. Jaswinder Bolina. Hadara Bar-Nadav.

I think Stern is letting himself go a little with this broad accusation against young (do I still count as young?) journal editors. I'm sure he has some sort of point, but it hasn't been my experience.

At 4/02/2007 2:24 PM, Blogger C. Dale said...

He may be talking about letter some young poets write to ingratitiate themselves as opposed to soliciting poems.

At 4/02/2007 2:26 PM, Blogger C. Dale said...

And I think, if you look at the syntax of that sentence, that young poets do things that irk him, part of which is to edit and start magazines. I don't think this is a blanket statement against editors, young or otherwise.

At 4/02/2007 3:34 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

"I guess it doesn’t behoove me to get into details, but I watch the careers of people who start magazines and, typically, get people to do favors, who scratch backs, who write letters—and I get a lot of these letters—who are relentless, and finally they make the connections, and get their books published."


I'm sure the intent isn't to give a blanket condemnation on young poets who start journals . . . but, even looking closely at this sentence, it's hard for me to figure out what he's railing against.

What are these letters for? He hates networking, is that it? But really, can't pretty much anything a young poet does, if that poet goes on to publish a book, be seen as some sort of networking?

Really, if he's going to say there's an emperor without clothes, I wish he'd really say it. A condemnation like this one has all the punch of saying "there are bad people in the world."

By the way, I like his poems, and I've met him, and he's the genuine thing. And I'm not saying there aren't people out there who are more careerist than artistic (though why someone would expend the energy in poetry, when there are so many other routes to go, makes me wonder), BUT, if you're going to go out and begin a condemnation, and SAY something, you really should just say it for real. If he wants to clean house, he should clean house.

At 4/02/2007 3:53 PM, Blogger morescotch said...

It seems a little ridiculous for Stern to be ranting about corruption in poetry. I mean he seems to me like the archtypal now-it's-Kumin-now-it's-Gerry's-
of-anyone-better-to-give-to with the big end of career awards, which is essentially de facto corruption, right? I don't think that sort of thing is really intended in a malicious way, or that there's some mysterious cabal giving out big awards, or that Stern made relationships for a hundred years so that he could win prizes later, I'm sure he didn't ever do anything to ensure he'd win the Stevens award, but there is a set of poets who win things because they win things, stern is one of them, and let's not going throwing the C-word around so easily, eh gerry?

At 4/02/2007 4:12 PM, Blogger Steve said...

I agree with, um, it looks like everyone here that it wasn't entirely clear who or which letters Stern was ranting against. I have heard tell of people who overdo requests for recommendation letters, requests for blurbs, etc., so maybe he's aiming for something like that in there too. But yes, specifics would be helpful in a case like this, though I'm glad he's saying something at least.

When I send out notes to poets asking them to send poems, it's always because I like their writing. It seems to me like I'm presenting a mutually beneficial arrangement in itself (I get work by a poet I like, you get your work in a good small journal), rather than a setup for some future thing of whatever nature.

And I'm very, very much in agreement with Sam's statement about the unfortunate spoils system of lifetime achievement poetry awards for poets whose work all too often has gone into stasis 30 years previous.

At 4/02/2007 4:22 PM, Blogger C. Dale said...

Clearly I was at work when I wrote my previous comments. I do know how to spell ingratiate. Anyway, I think it is clear that Stern is just complaining. Who knows if he himself knows exactly what he is complaining about? I certainly don't know reading this. I say, WHATEVER....

At 4/02/2007 5:02 PM, Blogger morescotch said...

Oh, and I meant to say, does corruption in poetry really matter anymore anyway? I mean doesn't the fact that the young poets Stern's bothered by (or really anyone with a computer) can start some kind of journal, and that there are so many presses now, and that smaller presses become more and more relevant and recognized all the time, doesn't all that render corruption largely irrelevant?

At 4/02/2007 5:13 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Or anyone can get a blog and go blabbing! Hah!

It's great though, the impact that the small presses, and the host of small journals, has made, and is making.

Etc Etc Etc

At 4/02/2007 5:35 PM, Blogger Steve Fellner said...


I'm glad you were critical of Stern's quotation. Who else is one going publish if not their friends? Their enemies?

I've been reading your blog for a while now, and thoroughly enjoy it. It was an honor to be mentioned in the same review as you that appreaded today in the Atlanta Journal Consitution.

At 4/02/2007 6:35 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


Atlanta Journal Consitution? Tell me more!

At 4/02/2007 7:05 PM, Blogger Steve Fellner said...


Sorry didn't mean to leave you hanging. I feel like a jerk.

Here's the link:

At 4/02/2007 7:07 PM, Blogger Steve Fellner said...


Let me try again:


At 4/02/2007 7:15 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Steve, I have a copy of Blind Date With Cavafy at my office. I'm looking forward to reading it.

Thank you for the link!


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