What Is Careerism for Poets These Days Anyway?
The following exchange from the interview of Ed Sanders that Poetry Daily had up last week as its prose feature caught my attention:
New Letters: I wanted to return to something you said yesterday, an offhand comment speculating as to whether you were literary enough for a literary quarterly. What did you mean by that?
Ed Sanders: I was more or less jesting. I did not follow an academic career. I was offered all kinds of jobs as a professor, which I turned down. I have by my bed Aeschylus in Greek. My Greek is still pretty good. I always read quite a bit of Greek, but I am not up on post-modernist theory. So I was joking. I don't write for The New York Review of Books. I'm not much of a careerist. I don't go out of my way to get published in the right venues. There are in-crowd places. I used to try to do that, to write stuff for the Village Voice or Paris Review. I don't know the answer to forging quote a career unquote. So I deliberately didn't take a faculty position. I wanted the personal freedom of seven-hour writing days or really writing around the clock if I wanted to.
What strikes me as interesting about this is that Sanders has in his mind that writing for The New York Review of Books, the Village Voice and the Paris Review as the things one must do if one is going to be noticed (careerist!) as literary. Granted that these are going to be examples, and not an exhaustive list, it got me wondering. If he says it’s the case, I’m sure it was at one time, but certainly that’s not what poets these days think of as being careerist, is it? Is it APR now? But what is a career these days anyway? Is it just being part of a coterie? Well, then, isn't whatever we do, wherever we publish, careerist? Like maintaining a blog, for instance?
So, just to wonder a bit, and to maybe take a poll, what is the current “careerist” thing to do? A “faculty” position, as Sanders suggests? Of course a faculty position is, by definition, a career, but I’m thinking he’s meaning careerist in a more po-biz sort of way. A kind of “getting noticed” thing, right? Was a faculty position ever that? Really, I think when people talk about “a faculty position” they’re really talking about a BIG faculty position in a large urban area where one supposedly has a lot of grad students and influence? Most faculty positions aren’t that, but it seems that most people who don’t have a faculty position tend to conflate faculty positions into this monolithic ACADEMIA. Blah blah.
So what is the careerist thing to do these days? Maybe I’m just obtuse, but I’m a little clueless. I’m guessing it has something to do with going to conferences or something? But certainly not AWP. I mean, I’ve been going to AWP every year since 1996. It’s a madhouse. Maybe there’s something one could DO at AWP that would be careerist? Those "in-crowd places"? Certainly careers have been advanced there. AWP, I believe is where Zachary Schomburg met Black Ocean. But it wasn’t “careerist” in the sense I think Sanders is meaning it. The editor of Black Ocean saw Schomburg as part of a reading, and approached him. That seems more like good fortune than careerism. So what is it?
A grad program? Is it careerist to go to grad school? How about the Iowa workshop? But then if it is, why does a large majority of people who do that (grad school &/or grad school at Iowa) stop writing within five years of graduation? (And the other careerist moves? Going to Breadloaf, I guess? Or making out with Allen Ginsberg? Is there something we could really point to as the “careerism” of our age?)
I’ve always been a little skeptical of careerist talk. It often seems to come from someone who seems to feel they’ve been neglected in some way. And isn’t down-talking “careerist” a form of careerism itself? A way for one group to call itself NOT another group? Or maybe I’m getting it wrong and am just revealing my own naïveté? Well, which is it?