Saturday, January 23, 2010

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?


At 1/23/2010 8:17 AM, Blogger Justin Evans said...

I'm with you. I suppose we are supposed to have a negative view of careerism?

I know I look to my career to be a function of giving me the things I need to get for my family.

Here then is one possible negative perception of careerism:

Teaching at one MFA program, constantly trying to 'trade up' to a more prestigious MFA program, stepping on people to get there.

Even that seems a bit stretched.

At 1/23/2010 8:27 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


It DOES seem that there's a tone of "someone getting stepped on" to careerism. And it seems like places like Breadloaf (where I've never been so what do I know) and Iowa (where I've never been so what do I know) ae often painted with that brush.

Either that or it's just a "doing it for the wrong reasons" aspect to careerism. But how could publishing in APR (where I've never published so what do I know) be "for the wrong reasons"?

Oh well, it was just a thought I had when coming across the Sanders bit. I really don't think about this much, as my muddled thoughts betray.

It's a big issue for some though.

At 1/23/2010 9:18 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I suppose anything other than having "the personal freedom of seven-hour writing days" is careerist. In other words, being rich as hell.


At 1/23/2010 9:20 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Or, what I think is more often the case, having the kind of work that allows for a very flexible schedule. Sanders I know put out a newspaper for some years . . . other than that I don't know.

James Merrill, on the other hand: Loaded!

At 1/23/2010 11:07 AM, Blogger Pirooz M. Kalayeh said...

Success in anything is working hard. Ed was someone who put himself out there for the sake of an idea. He has followed his heart and it has lead to success. That drive is what makes an artist. If you follow ideas through, then people take notice and want to hear what you have to say. They will even offer money and grants, so such an artist can continue working.

Some people make a choice to do an art over living a particular life of stability. That would take moving to a rural community where the standard of living is low, getting lots of grants, and publishing and doing small talks for money here and there when possible. I wouldn't call that loaded. I would actually call that recognition of wealth in terms other than money.

As far as careerism in poetry, I would say attaining a professor position or going to grad school would be one of many paths to getting recognition and advancing one's career. It actually is a smart path forward, considering that the majority of poetry funding and readership comes from the academic community. Since the academic community holds the keys to money, it is natural for poets to seek positions in such communities to continue refining their craft and obtaining opportunities for publication...

(Blogger wouldn't let me post over 4,096 characters. I just put up the rest at Shikow.

At 1/23/2010 5:51 PM, Blogger Lyle Daggett said...

The way I've always understood "careerism," at least in connection with the poetry world, is that it might involve a kind of ruthlessness in dealing with other people; and/or might involve a willingness to compromise with one's writing or with one's time, and possibly pandering (in one's writing) to others' tastes that aren't necessarily one's own, in order to make money or to achieve prestige (which in turn might, in theory, lead to money).

When I think "careerist," related to poetry, I guess the vague image that pops to mind is of a poet who (for instance) goes to writers' conferences and applies to MFA programs based on how famous (relatively speaking) the faculty poets are, rather than based on whether the poet thinks they write well; who tries by whatever means to gain favor with (for instance) poets who edit prestigious literary magazines, or who teach (or are department heads) in M.F.A. programs, in order to (in theory) increase their chances of getting published there or getting accepted as a student there and (maybe one day) teaching there; that sort of thing.

So that writing poetry as such takes something of a back burner (temporarily or permanently) to the money-making efforts of the poet.

Obviously everyone has to pay rent and bills one way or another. I suppose that the reason academic work tends to get into the same discussion with poet careerism so much is that if a poet does academic work it often affects the choices they make about the kind of poetry they write (the publish-or-perish syndrome), which poets they read (in order to try to curry favor with department heads etc.), where they try to publish, and so on.

Whereas a poet who works for a living outside of the academic world (at an office job, doing health care work, as a taxi driver, as an auto mechanic, waiting tables, as a lawyer or an accountant, or any number of other possibilities) might some of these issues, or not to as great a degree.

I've never been in an M.F.A. program myself, have never taught for a living, have been to writers' conferences a couple of times (not Bread Loaf; twice to the one in Port Townsend, WA), have been to AWP twice (last year, and in 1992), Ed Sanders may or may not have been talking about anything like what I've said here above, I've known of Ed Sanders and his work for years (decades) though have known little about the details of his life, my first thought when he talked about "the personal freedom of seven-hour writing days" was "Hm. Lucky SOB.", and, likewise, what do I know?

Appreciated your remarks here, and those by the other commenters. Thanks for posting this.

At 1/23/2010 7:14 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


Thanks for stopping by. I had no idea there was a word limit on blogger!

First off, I'm not arguing against Sanders, just to be clear on that. Just wondering what "careerism" looks like then and now.

I agree with you when you say that Sanders was one to "put himself out there for the sake of an idea." But what I'm wondering is if one could do so in say, his version of Paris Review or The NY Review of Books . . . and, of course the answer is yes.

Same thing with a faculty position, which really, for most of us is just a job, you know? The only way I can see my faculty job being po-biz careerist would be in that I can invite a few people here to read. And that I edit a small lit journal funded by the university. But are those things careerist or maybe putting myself out there for an idea?

It seems "careerism" is an internal conversation. It's hard for me to visualize it on the outside. What someone who's careerist might look like to others, as opposed to someone who is putting her/him-self out there for an idea.

At 1/23/2010 7:19 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


Indeed. When you write:

"it might involve a kind of ruthlessness in dealing with other people; and/or might involve a willingness to compromise with one's writing or with one's time, and possibly pandering (in one's writing) to others' tastes that aren't necessarily one's own, in order to make money or to achieve prestige"

I can only agree, while repeating what I just wrote above, that such a thing might well be true, but it would be nearly impossible to tell from the outside. This seems an internal conversation?

So when we say someone is "careerist," someone that we see, what are we reacting to?

At 1/23/2010 7:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wouldn't consider something as sinful as "having a job" or "getting published" to be careerist (whatever that means). Seems more survivalist to me...

For us poor folks, anyway.

At 1/24/2010 5:47 AM, Blogger Pirooz M. Kalayeh said...

I hear you, John. Poetry has an attitude about it that could jar against academic tradition, especially if you are challenging tradition in topic matter or style. For some, that is the essence of doing an art form. In such a scenario, I can see how doing something that runs in line with rules/order/academia might somehow be counterintuitive to breaking boundaries. At the same time, I don't think being responsible and helping other students/writers could ever be seen as pejorative, unless you have someone who is making a judgment call based on a set a parameters that wouldn't include financial responsibility, the value of dedicated instructors, or stability.

Trying to adhere to a set of standards that are denoted as "careerist" by others does not make you any less of a poet or "careerist." I would say that each of us is the best judge of themselves, and that's where it can stay.

Personally, I don't believe anything is wrong with communicating to others, offering your book to a publisher, or mingling in hopes to build relationships. Maybe, that's how the perspective on this topic changes. If we switch the goal oriented thinking of what careerist is with the reality of how "relationships" are the cornerstone to any art and business form, then it won't seem like a careerist move to interact with human beings who could potentially help you/an artist move forward. Does that make sense?

I just don't believe that anything is wrong with anything that promotes an artist's work. I also believe that building strong relationships with other human beings is the purpose of art, and what is necessary to procure its distribution. To utilize academia or other networks is completely permissible. In fact, a poet could do anything he or she wanted to help bring his or her work in the world. Who said there needs to be rules? What if careerism as a concept did not exist? How do you feel when that thought no longer exists?

Those might be the questions to ask. Then it might be easier to see whether you want to do what you might have been thinking.

Personally, I could care less about "pushing" artistic work out to the world. I am much more of the mind that things happen organically when you are open to the possibility. That means that when someone volunteers to publish something or distribute something, I'm not going to turn down such an offer. I'm open to all outcomes.

At 1/26/2010 6:42 AM, Anonymous Jeff said...

Late coming to this one, John, but to speak for Sanders, he wrote what I consider a masterpiece of documentary narrative (The Family), and his work in The Fugs is a high point of second generation New York-Beat fusion. So if he's grousing, I'm listening, whether or not all his categories hold tight. P.S. What you write about AWP is funny.

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At 2/03/2010 8:29 AM, Blogger Paul Gibbons said...

I have a friend who's a freelance illustrator/Graphic Designer and a sculptor. I asked him how he felt about "careerism" in the art world, and he said, "Rich people talk about art, artists talk about money." Hmmmm.

At 2/03/2010 9:01 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

First off, what a great place for some product spam! Oh well. I'll leave it, just because.

Jeff, likewise, I've read some of his work some time ago that I really liked. So yeah, I hear you.

And Paul, that is beautiful. I just took an informal poll and it seems to agree with your sculptor.

Eat the rich, as they say.

At 3/03/2010 1:07 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You seem to take Sanders comments a little personally. I wonder why. I mean, if there is no monolithic identity and no in-crowd at these little conferences, then why does the shoe fit, so to speak? I mean, you seem to identify with the sort of Other he is talking about. That in itself verifies it somewhat.

Not that it matters to me in the slightest. I am trying to scale your towers as we speak. Blah blah. But we shouldn't pretend like it doesn't exist at all, no?

At 3/03/2010 4:19 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Do I? Could be, I guess. But mostly I'm, well, quizzical about all this.

It seems to me that Sanders was making some claim about having an academic career as if that was some form of careerism, and to me a career and careerism are different things. I teach at a college, so I suppose you could say that I feel all implicated, true. But I can't figure out in what way I'm being "careerist" with all its scare-quote glory. Mostly I reach general education classes. It's not very glamorous.

I was curious when he said:

"I don't write for The New York Review of Books. I'm not much of a careerist."

It made me wonder the current version of careerist might be. It seemed interesting to me at the time.


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