Monday, August 23, 2010

We All Survive For A While And Then We Don't

Yes, but will any of us survive the coming zombie apocalypse?

So I’m sure you’ve heard about Anis Shivani’s Huffington Post pieces on over-rated writers and journals that might survive the Internet. If you haven’t, a quick google can get you to them. Lists such as these are a gamble, because they can be initially exciting, but then start to wear thin as the idea keeps playing out, and one has to decide why these lists are continuing to be created.

Still, a lot of people got excited by the list of over-rated writers. Which caused me to go to my bookshelf to see if I could make a list. I decided not to make a list of over-rated poets, as I got myself all twisted up with questions such as “over-rated by whom?” and “what does it mean to be ‘rated’ as a poet anyway?” So I looked for books I’ve thought were excellent by people who are older than I am (or more deceased than I am) who I don’t see talked about much, or as much as I would think, looking at the work.

Here are some under-rated poets (a very partial list) then, and, again, by under-rated, I simply mean I don’t see them talked about as often as I feel they could be:

William Bronk
Norma Cole
Wayne Dodd
Claire Bateman
Kenneth Fearing
Laura Jensen
Bin Ramke
Martha Ronk
Gustaf Sobin
Rosmarie Waldrop

Sorry, the canon is full.

Speaking of surviving: then there’s Shivani’s list of 17 literary journals that “might” survive the Internet. The list thing seems to be working for Huffington Post readers, I guess. But I find something kind of easy about making them, and rather disingenuous about the whole thing. Shivani and I had a brief and pleasant email exchange a couple months ago, and he said at that time he wanted to get people talking. Lists, apparently, are the way.

This list of the 17 that might survive is similar to his other lists. It seems rather arbitrary and with a hint of ulterior motives. And, oddly enough, the easiest two literary journals to choose as potential survivors, Poetry Magazine and American Poetry Review, are not on the list (the claim I guess, would be that they are poetry journals, not literary journals, but even so, to narrow the list as he has does not give a very clear picture or the whole). (And also, they’re not university-based. So why is this university base so interesting to Shivani?)

Not to mention the aesthetic bias. Yes, these 17 literary journals might well “survive” (by which I believe he means “will still exist in print editions”), but they’re also, by and large, what Ron Silliman refers to as “Quietist.” What about jubilat? Or Denver Quarterly? Or Colorado Review? (Or, more recently, journals such as Copper Nickel, that are just starting up) Is it really that he sees a better funding structure (or university involvement) for his 17 or something? How can one tell such things from the outside anyway? Who would’ve thought TriQuarterly was about to go zip before it happened?  We all know that a long history of support at a university does not mean there will be support in the future. Or the other way around.

And what about more experimental, independant, journals like VOLT and Conduit and ForkLift Ohio? These are all very well respected small journals that will last as long as the editors have the energy . . .

It's all a matter of perspective.

So anyway, I don’t have a list. I prefer to think of it as Stephanie G’Schwind does, in a recent interview conducted by Shivani:

+ + +

From Huffington Post:

Shivani: What are the prospects for the long-term viability of the most prestigious literary journals, among which is Colorado Review?

G’Schwind: I think more and more of us will likely migrate from print to online. And while I, like many literary journal editors, love print, I'm not overly concerned about that move. I'll make it if I have to. Fortunately, technology is allowing us to do wonderful and interesting things that mean it doesn't have to be one or the other; a journal can be online and still offer die-hard print lovers the option to subscribe in the traditional way: a paper copy sent through the mail.

Shivani: TriQuarterly, one of the most prestigious literary journals, recently went online--abruptly, taking the literary community by surprise. How do you feel about this?

G’Schwind: It's not the decision to have TriQuarterly go online that was disturbing (the online version recently had a "soft" launch, and it looks quite impressive); it was that the two editors, Susan Hahn and Ian Morris, were not retained. I feel their longtime dedication, expertise, and vision, which inarguably contributed to the success and fine reputation of TriQuarterly, were rather unceremoniously discarded.

+ + +

[Disclosure: I’m partial to Colorado Review, as I’m friendly with several of the editors, including Stephanie G’Schwind and Matthew Cooperman]  The above snippet of conversation reminds me that to “not” survive the Internet isn’t the same as “not” surviving. A journal could go online and stay that way, or perhaps it could go online and become hybrid (as Stephanie suggests), or it could even go back to print at some point.

To not survive the Internet means, really, to be obliterated by it, and I don’t’ see that happening to any literary journals. What I mean is that literary journals are going to be obliterated by economic forces and the priorities of administration officials. And some of those priorities could be funding journals to a higher level, if the journal is tied to some program or initiative that is important to the university.

So, really, what the Huffington Post list of 17 journals is doing is giving some advertizing to some journals, which I’m very sure is welcome by those journals right now. (Which is another reason to read his list with a grain of salt.) But it says nothing about the future.

The future is apples!


At 8/23/2010 10:50 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a regular reader here, John, I appreciate your meditation on, and skepticism of, these Huffington Post lists. They seem arbitrary and mischevious at best--no better than, say, Rolling Stone's 100 Greatest Guitarists of all time. To defend them by saying "they get folks talking" is to ignore the ugly truth: they perpetuate a literary paradigm where some poets are winners and others are losers. It's not much different than choosing dodgeball teams in gym class.

Regarding under-rated poets, your list is a good start, although 1) Fearing wrote a lot of dreck and 2) Ramke is tough to stomach knowing, well, what we all know.

My taste is quite different from yours, but I'd propose adding Robinson Jeffers, Lynda Hull, and Robert Hayden to your (more benevolently intentioned) list, although none of these are "contemporary." Still, I'm dismayed by how often they come up in conversation.

At 8/23/2010 11:26 AM, Anonymous A. Leahy said...

The lists do get attention, lists seem really popular right now, and I've discussed them a little on Facebook. Here's a piece about list-making I posted there:

Like you, I'd rather see lists of underrated things--books to read, rather than books not to read. That said, it struck me that the literary journal piece was an interesting sampling of interviews with journal editors that had been slapped with a headline to recast it as a provocative list.

At 8/23/2010 12:14 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


I agree. List-making of this sort is the easiest form of journalism. It's what the travel channel used to do to fill time . . . but what’s doubly interesting about this list is (by and large) it’s lack of aesthetic diversity. I’m not knocking the journals on the list (PLEIADES, especially, is edited by friends of mine and I’ve published [or attempted to publish!] in several of the others]), but wondering why this was the list. It seems there were aesthetic criteria at work that he doesn’t own up to, as well as a university bias.

I wish he’d be more up front. I keep having this suspicion he’s working less on any real question and more just to stir things up and have people mention his name (which I’ve now done as well . . . there’s no such thing as bad publicity . . . ).

I’m going now to see your post.


Fearing DID write a lot of dreck! But he also had a completely interesting and vibrant voice that was almost Beat (and almost Sandburg!). I think to talk about him is to complicate the coming “out of nowhere” aspect of Beat poetry (or to have it be the lineage of Whitman through WCW).

As for Ramke, I’m biased on this one a bit, or at least I’m closer than some, as I’ve known him, though only slightly, for 15 years now, and have been reading his poetry with enthusiasm for longer than that. I know the events you’re nodding toward, but, I don’t know, I’m done with it. I mean, I sent manuscripts every year as well, but I also have to say that it was an excellent series.

And Anon, did you mean to say they “come up” or they “don’t come up” in conversation? Jeffers, I remember, was popular as recently as the 90s, but I haven’t heard his name come up much in the last few years.

At 8/23/2010 12:27 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Forget about all that stuff about lists! Don't you see?!?


(It was a nice reminder.)

At 8/23/2010 4:12 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I keep having this suspicion he’s working less on any real question and more just to stir things up and have people mention his name (which I’ve now done as well . . . there’s no such thing as bad publicity . . . )"

Well, maybe.

Thanks to all the fuss, I found some of his poetry online, and it's inspired me to publish, right here, my own "Top 1 List of Justifiably Unheard of Writers:"

1. Anis Shivani

Ok, discuss ...

At 8/26/2010 4:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Cole, Ramke, Ronk and Waldrop strike me as farrrrr from un-discussed--when a new book comes out reviews tend to come out quickly too, for example. And is it just me or is Waldrop basically a contemporary "canonical" writer?

I hope all's well!

adam strauss

At 8/27/2010 10:39 AM, Blogger Jordan said...

I've said it here before: there is a preposterous kind of person who makes a tidy career flinging that which is flung. This kind of person identifies weaknesses and exploits them. Systems that tolerate and support this kind of person, the Huffington Post, for example, are suspect.

At 8/28/2010 5:13 PM, Blogger Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

Anis Shivani should be given the Presidential Medal of Freedom for cultural honesty. If he’s wrong then what, exactly, is the purpose of language? Poetry without a message is like tea without tea… hot water. If nothing is said, no ideas conveyed, nothing gained or learned, then what’s the point? Why bother with words at all? If the intent is to merely set a 'mood', to tap the subconscious, then how is this any different than music? Why not just listen to Mozart or Jazz?

Shivani has exposed the literary equivalent of Bernie Madoff. What a con! I find it difficult to believe that anyone with any education in poetry (at least anyone over 30) could possibly disagree with him. Is this some kind of paradigm shift for you guys? Have your gods been proven false, your idols been broken? Shivani has it right on!

This animosity to Shivani is perplexing . . .sounds somewhat defensive and just a little guilty to me. Kind of like: “Oh, shit…does this mean that my copy-down MFA template poetry really actually sucks?”

Well, Um….

At 8/28/2010 6:19 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


If Shivani were really doing what you say, I would respect him more. But I don’t think he is. There’s plenty of poetry with a message in the poets he says are over-rated. Billy Collins, etc., has a strong message in each of his poems. Shivani really just wants to, as he said, “get people talking.” Take that as you will.

He IS anti-MFA, that much I’ll go with you on. But such arguments have long ago stopped being relevant. The fact is we have MFA programs. If you don’t like MFA programs, then, rather than say do away with them (which is a useless argument) and instead talk about how they could be made better, or at least less offensive.

At 8/28/2010 6:25 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


I agree those writers are not “un-discussed,” but what I’m saying is I think they are not discussed as much and as widely as they should. Ramke, for instance, does get reviews of his work, but when his selected poems came out, it only got three reviews (I think).

Is Rosmarie Waldrop canonical? That would be nice!

At 8/28/2010 8:43 PM, Blogger Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

John said:

"Billy Collins, etc., has a strong message in each of his poems."

Really, John? Billy Collins? Surely you jest. Is this what we've come down to?

Shhhh! Did you just hear that?

Did you hear that noise?

Sort of like a whirring sound.

Do you hear it?

Wait! I know! I recognize it now.

It's old Bobby Frost, little Willie Blake and poor sad Dylan Thomas all spinning in their graves! But laughing!

"Strong message", indeed. Ha!

At 8/29/2010 2:22 AM, Blogger MASchiavo said...

"If the intent is to merely set a 'mood', to tap the subconscious, then how is this any different than music? Why not just listen to Mozart or Jazz?"

What's the difference between poetry and music any way, except that one uses words (sounds) and another uses music (sounds)? Poetry is closer to music than it is to fiction or nonfiction (writing).

At 8/29/2010 5:58 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


They can spin all they want, but it's true. I don't care for his poetry, but yes, when one reads a poem by him, they do find a topic, a set-up, and a resolution. If that's the only criteria one wants to look at, then he passes. I hope that's not the only criteria one looks at, however.


I have a lot of sympathy for your position, even as I don't quite go as far with it as you do. Poetry does play with sound, but for me, what draws me to it is the way that it also plays with the tension between content (the way language reflects the world) and surprise (the way language can invent an alternate world).

Music and tone and image and such is all part of that, but for me, job number one is going to be that.

At 8/29/2010 11:58 AM, Blogger Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

@ John: I never learned to make a lanyard, but I’ve sailed around a room or two.

@ Michael: Regarding musical sounds and word sounds:

WORD: Cat = my sweet little kitty, purring on my lap, a deadly tiger in the Asian jungle, a lion hiding in the grass, a woman in a fight, a cool dude, Chicago fog, a witch’s familiar, a god in Egypt, a thousand more symbols and images in every culture throughout history. Pretty good for a small creature described by a simple three letter word, no? Rhymes pretty well, too.

MUSIC: B flat = B flat.

If meaning in words is irrelevant, then here's a good poem:

"Ooo, eee, ooo ah ah,
ting, tang, walla walla bing bang."

I see a Pulitzer here! :-)

At 8/29/2010 12:31 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


Well then you've already made my point for me, as long as you sailed alone around that room. Now please don't make me talk about Collins any longer. I really might implode.

As for the B flat. It's not fair to the point to isolate one note. Music doesn't work that way. It's the tone and math of the intervals and setting that creates something that I've seen bring people to tears.

At 8/30/2010 12:48 PM, Blogger Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

Okay. No implosion.

Regarding music, my parents made me study piano when I was seven. I played clarinet in the band in elementary school and Junior High. I began playing guitar at thirteen (I’m now fifty-eight). I played lead guitar in two bands. I went to Woodstock! Neil Young is one of my heroes. I understand the concept of music.

It is, indeed, unfair to compare music to poetry…in many ways. I am only saying that if the “tone and math of the intervals and setting” creates something that brings people to tears, how much more can words do?

Bob Dylan has brought me to tears and so has Dylan Thomas. But both Dylans used WORDS!!

I don't remember ever crying at the symphony.

At 8/30/2010 12:56 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Neither have I, but swear others have. I'm really the wrong person to argue this point with you, as the music thing in words isn't my way in, but it is for some. I don't really get it, but they seem to. That's all I'm saying.

I'm 45, and mostly played rhythm guitar. Too young for Woodstock, but I've seen Neil Young something like 7 or so times.

At 8/30/2010 4:26 PM, Blogger Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

"I've seen Neil Young something like 7 or so times."

I think I hate you, John! :-)

I did see the Dead at the Fillmore East, though (with Jimi and Janis)! Ha ha.


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