A Smorgasbord of Craziness: An Essay by Joseph S. Salemi The Society June 8, 2020 Beauty, Culture, Essays, Humor, Poetry 15 Comments I recently discarded some unnecessary texts, and among them were two past editions (the 17th and the 20th) of Len Fulton’s Directory of Poetry Publishers. This venerable publication, from Dustbooks in California, has for decades been an indispensable resource for poets seeking to find possible places for their work. It lists thousands of magazines and small presses, along with their editors, addresses, formats, submission guidelines, policies, and statements of general preferences—exactly what a poet needs when deciding where a particular poem is best sent. Fulton’s Directory is now available only as a CD, so the hardcover versions are a thing of the past. But it is always entertaining and informative to thumb through an old Directory, simply to see the kaleidoscopically varied nature of the po-biz scene. I decided to give one more look at the two editions before sending them to the recycling bin. What follows is a brief glimpse into some of the sheer off-the-wall craziness of contemporary poetry, at least as evidenced by the stuff in these two books, which date from 2001-2002 and 2004-2005. I doubt that things have changed very much since then. The first noticeable reality is the odd particularism and specificity that many poetry magazines insist upon. These are not just “small” publications—they are often minute in both theme and expected audience. When I first began consulting Fulton’s Directory I assumed that some of the entries were jokes or spoofs, but it soon became clear that they were not. Like rare strains of yeast, these magazines actually exist. Many small magazines are strangely self-sequestered and exclusionist, either in their appeal to a very limited niche market or concern with a fanatically focused topic. Examples are The Pipe Smoker’s Ephemeris, which only wants “poetry related to pipes, pipe smoking, or tobacco,” or Silver Wings Mayflower Pulpit, whose editor favors “Christian evangelical haiku.” Kaleidoscope wants “only poems relating to disability and disabled persons.” I suppose it’s perfectly understandable that The Wallace Stevens Journal only publishes “poems that relate to Wallace Stevens,” or that Lost Generation Journal should warn potential contributors to “send only poems about Paris in the 1920s, and the American expatriates who were there.” But how crazy is Dry Krik Review, which insists that all submitted poems “must speak in terms of the livestock business or the experience of range livestock culture”? I mean, how the hell many poems could there possibly be on those subjects? A magazine with the bizarre name of Literally Horses announces that all poems sent to the editor “must have a horse, rider, cowboy, or western theme.” There’s also Checker Cab Magazine, which only wants poems on—you guessed it—Checker cabs. The parochial localism of some journals defies belief. The Kelsey Review says that its contributors are limited “to people living and working in Mercer County, New Jersey.” (The magazine is published—mirabile dictu!—in Mercer County). The journal Manushi wants only “poetry relating to the lives of women in the Indian subcontinent,” and Driftwood Review says “We publish Michigan poets only.” Blueline says that “poems should be of a rural nature and relevant to the Adirondacks.” Red Rock Review proclaims that “we want works that treat of the southwest landscape.” But the weirdest of all is Acorn, the editors of which proclaim that their “focus is on the geography, environment, history, and society of the western slope of the Sierra Nevada.” Anyone writing a poem about the eastern slope is out of luck, I suppose. Another maddening tic of some editors seems to be their fixation on avoiding not just the disturbing and the controversial, but anything at all that might unbalance the equanimity of their mentally bovine readership. The tic expresses itself simply at times, as when the editor of Red Owl urges submitters to “Try and stay upbeat,” or more explicitly when Nostalgia lays down the stricture that it will accept “no sexual references, no profanity, no long poetry.” St. Joseph’s Messenger emits the following saccharine bleat: “Poems should be contemporary, clear, concise, blithe, beautiful, and meaningful.” (Blithe? Gimme a break, please!) Bellowing Ark is “interested in a poetry which explores the human, the affirmative, poetry which transcends pain and opposition.” Then there is the bucolically named Country Charm Magazine, which warns “no religion, politics, sex, and/or violence.” (By my calculation that leaves out about eighty percent of human experience.) But the apotheosis of cutesy-poo niceness appears in the description of Writer’s Monthly Gazette, where the editor burbles “No morbid death poems, please! Only positive upbeat poems. Think positive, believe and have faith in which that, which is good [sic], and expect a positive response. Never falter from your positive outlook.” This Norman Vincent Peale mentality is common among American editors, whose kneejerk positivity is stronger than their command of syntax. There is hardly any need at all for me to mention the one nearly universal stricture laid down by poetry editors, and that is the frosty declaration that they will not accept any metrical or rhyming poems. Such work, despite the minuscule formalist revival, is still as unacceptable as sending the editors the corpses of strangled kittens. This attitude is the product of several things: a century of pro-modernist propaganda put out by academics, critics, and publishers; the financial interests of those who run poetry workshops; and the sheer laziness of wannabe poets who can’t be bothered to study prosody. You have to go through Fulton’s Directory with a fine-tooth comb to find journals that will even consider formal, metrical verse. What is amazing is how utterly New-Agey so many of the descriptions given by editors can be. They sound like Ram Dass addressing a 1960s hippie commune. Each editor wants his contributing poets to “open up new boundaries,” or “explore higher dimensions,” or “connect with the universe,” or “listen to the inner child.” It’s hard to believe that these pathetic clichés have survived, but they seem still to be in the mouths of po-biz editors. Consider this solipsistic absurdity from the editors of ME Magazine: “[We are] only interested in poems about ME as an idea. Art is self-involvement and manifestation. Send poems about the ME, poems written to ME.” But beyond all this, there is an asphyxiating gas-cloud of Smiley-Face benevolence in many descriptions, as when one editor writes “When a poem reaches the reader deeply and says something important or comic or human or sweet in a fresh way—we joyously publish it!” Now there is nothing at all that one can object to in such an effusion—it is a good description of how any thoughtful editor works. Nevertheless, there is something so oleaginous and icky-poo about the tone of the sentence that it makes my skin crawl. Can’t you just picture the glassy-eyed, mooncalf face of that editor, like an ecstatic Justin Trudeau gazing in adoration at some Indian guru? In fact, it’s the insufferable gassy jargon expressed by many editors in the Directory that makes me lose all hope for a restoration of sanity to the po-biz world. I simply cannot conceive of how any literate human being could publish this sort of mindless effusion, which comes from the editors of Pavement Saw, talking about the kind of poetry they want: “The work should not merely startle, but rather employ academic structural techniques to indirectly encourage the readers to search for resolutions within their own experience and context of the work.” Huh? Does the writer of that atrocious sentence have some cerebral disability? But it is hardly less vacuous than this one, from Ebony Energy: “[We want] diverse expression that embraces human experience with keen awareness of both the failures and successes within the collective human desire for community, healing, and health.” This is the kind of helium-pumped balloon ride that H.L. Mencken contemptuously called “the Uplift.” Of course the great majority of poetry journals are boringly leftist or left-liberal, in accord with the requirements of the po-biz establishment. Typical is the Minnesota Review, which wants “writing which is socially engaged, in radical, progressive ways.” Both Sides Now is dedicated to “nonviolence, eco-spirituality, grassroots democracy, and social responsibility.” Left Curve is more explicitly radical, declaring that “our general orientation is the recognition of the destructiveness of commodity capitalist systems to all life, and the need to build a non-commodified culture that could potentially create a more harmonious relationship among people.” (The left is notoriously verbose.) The aptly named Struggle calls for poetry that is “critical of any facet of the oppression of modern capitalist life, including cultural life.” In other words, the struggle is not just against capitalism, but all of Western culture. One of the most off-putting quirks of poetry editors throughout the United States is their reflexive need to give their magazines silly and goofy names. It’s as if they were preadolescent grade-school kids, coming up with deliberately puerile titles that proclaim “Hey, Look at us! We’re playful and creative and not hidebound by stodginess and formality!” Here’s a representative list of some actual magazine names, along with their provenance: Kumquat Meringue (Pine Island, Minnesota) The Imploding Tie-Dyed Toupee (Columbia, South Carolina) Jack the Ripper Gazette (Jefferson, Louisiana) Fuck Decency (Sacramento, California) Bathtub Gin (Bloomington, Indiana) Medusa’s Hairdo (Ashland, Kentucky) Ant Ant Ant Ant Ant (Eugene, Oregon) Nanny Fanny (Indianapolis, Indiana) Lilies and Cannonballs (New York, New York) Erased, Sigh, Sigh (Cleveland, Ohio) Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet (Easthampton, Massachusetts) The Dirty Goat (Austin, Texas) Creosote (Lake Havasu City, Arizona) The Ram’s Chin’s Goatee (Grand Rapids, Michigan) Nuthouse (Ellenton, Florida) Pogo Stick (Tuscaloosa, Alabama) When one sees title after title like these in the Directory, one’s immediate reaction is This must be a goddamned joke. Why would an editor, presumably dedicated to the world of letters and literary endeavor, come up with a name as stupid and tasteless as these? But when I ask this question of certain persons in the poetry world, they reply by saying that I don’t appreciate “the comic spontaneity of the creative process,” or some similar jargon-laced excuse. Well, comic spontaneity may be acceptable in a kindergarten fingerpainting session, but in a literary magazine’s name it looks like a symptom of arrested development. For this reason, when I teach my poetry seminar I warn students never to submit work to any magazine that bears a name that is stupid, outré, bizarre, goofy, or weird. Do you really want your poem—no matter how good it is—to appear in Orange Ourangutan Maypole? (Yes—that’s also listed in Fulton’s Directory). I’m not making fun of Fulton or his Directory. He’s done the poetry world a major service by providing a convenient place for finding potential venues of publication. And Fulton is not responsible for what’s out there; he simply makes the names and addresses available. The larger point is this: poetry is in the terminal state that it is in today because of certain ingrained and intractable attitudes shared by millions of persons. And these attitudes are peculiarly American, although at this point they are becoming world-wide in scope. The first is a cultural tendency to worship hyped-up creativity at the expense of craft. The second is the strong American dislike of formality, ritual, and hierarchy. The third is the unshakable conviction that poetry is about your feelings and personal experiences. The fourth is the idea that poetry above all is a form of communication, and therefore should be at the lowest possible level of discourse and vocabulary. The fifth is the notion that poetry is about emotional effervescence rather than aesthetic restraint. You can put all of these things into one word: Whitman. And the ghost of Walt Whitman hangs over the Directory of Poetry Publishers like a mushroom cloud over an atomic detonation. As long as we let these five attitudes dominate our thinking and reactions, we will never make the long trek back to genuine poetry. We’ll just have a smorgasbord of craziness, where people think of poetry as an “anything goes” parlor game where you can do whatever you please as long as you are honest, sincere, positive, open, friendly, center-left, and nice. And come up with a silly name for your journal, of course. The kids will like that. Joseph S. Salemi has published five books of poetry, and his poems, translations and scholarly articles have appeared in over one hundred publications world-wide. He is the editor of the literary magazine Trinacria and writes for Expansive Poetry On-line. He teaches in the Department of Humanities at New York University and in the Department of Classical Languages at Hunter College. NOTE: The Society considers this page, where your poetry resides, to be your residence as well, where you may invite family, friends, and others to visit. Feel free to treat this page as your home and remove anyone here who disrespects you. Simply send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Put “Remove Comment” in the subject line and list which comments you would like removed. The Society does not endorse any views expressed in individual poems or comments and reserves the right to remove any comments to maintain the decorum of this website and the integrity of the Society. Please see our Comments Policy here. Share this:Click to share on Twitter (Opens in new window)Click to share on Facebook (Opens in new window)Click to print (Opens in new window)Click to share on LinkedIn (Opens in new window)Click to share on WhatsApp (Opens in new window)Click to email this to a friend (Opens in new window)Click to share on Pinterest (Opens in new window) 15 Responses Peter Hartley June 8, 2020 An interesting read and just one small point that must be a conscious or unconscious influence on people who compose these obscure directories and the rare and minority-interest books and periodicals that they promote: if I felt inclined to pick my subject for the sort of very restricted poetry society you describe, mine would be the most obscure, tiny niche arcane subject you could imagine. This would be at least partly to feed my own ego under the no doubt mistaken impression that the more abstruse or recherche it sounds the more impressed people will be with my scholarship. An expert in c17th Flemish agricultural implements has obviously only studied his subject to a cursory level compared to The Last Word in poplar-hafted trowels of the 1690s, even though the chances are that the former has a far larger corpus of knowledge between his ears. Some people want to be obscure to impress, or because they want to be big fish in small ponds, so they can lord it over the guppies, or they want to be masters of a rare body of knowledge that few others are qualified to corroborate or refute; or indeed to be able to know very little about something and to make out they are the great panjandrum. Once upon a time I could have bruited at enormous length about my knowledge on the identification of stranded turtles on British coasts, having read a slim pamphlet in the BM on the subject. Knowing how many inframarginal scutes a Kemps Ridley Turtle has doesn’t mean you know more than anybody else, doesn’t give you a higher IQ or make you a more vibrant personality. But it CAN make anybody a crashing bore. And each of the presidents of these obscure poetry societies you enumerate together with their respective entire memberships are unmitigated CRASHING BORES, but they probably all think they are a bit clever too. Reply Martin Rizley June 8, 2020 Your essay made me chuckle at the utter zaniness that characterizes so many poetry journals– and also at your colorful descriptions of that zaniness. (I will not soon forget the “asphyxiating gas-cloud of Smiley-faced benevolence” that you met in one editor´s comments.) Your analysis of the sorry state of much modern “poetry” makes a lot of sense. Where is there art in the absence of craft? Some things that pass for poetry today exhibit no craft at all, but are the verbal equivalent of Jackson´s Pollock´s “plaint splash” creations made by swinging punctured cans of paint over a canvas. They make as much sense as that. I only have one question about your essay, and that is to understand why in your view poems that exhibit formal structure cannot be about personal experience. Certainly Wordsworth´s “Daffodils” is based on personal experience, but that does not mean the poem is lacking in craft, or that it is without rhyme and meter. When it comes to content, why can´t formal poetry exhibit a wide range of themes, some poets being drawn to more abstract themes such as truth or justice or virute– and some poets being drawn to write about vivid personal experiences? Is the defining feature of formal poetry its content or its form? Reply Joseph S. Salemi June 8, 2020 Mr. Rizley, you misunderstand my views. I certainly don’t think that a metrical, formal, rhyming poem can’t be about personal experience. On the contrary, like you, I believe that traditional poetry can deal “with a wide range of themes,” and always has dealt with them. What I have argued is this: in the ABSENCE of training in craft, metrics, and prosody, the myriad wannabe poets of today have fallen back upon personal experience as their only possible subject. There’s a big difference between having a free choice of possible subject matter (as we traditionalist poets have), and being compelled to write about one’s personal experiences because one hasn’t the technical competence to do anything else. Related to this is a somewhat more complex issue, and that is my view that it is much more aesthetically profitable to change and reshape and revise one’s personal experiences when writing a poem, rather than just telling those experiences “as is,” without embellishment. A genuine poet always makes use of artifice, ornament, and imagination. A mediocre poet just tells you what he’s feeling or thinking. Thank you for your comments. Reply Julian D. Woodruff June 8, 2020 Mr. Salemi, I’m surprised no one seems to have commented yet on your plaint. In my experience, it’s right on the button. (I want to forward this to my daughter in Toronto just for your crack about Trudeau.) Your comparison to the ’60s is apt: I’m reminded of what it was like seeking lodging in & around Berkeley ca. 1970–interview committees raising eyebrows when they learned that you hadn’t shopped the Co-op for 3 weeks or more and liked to eat dinner at 7:30 rather than 5:30. Much of what you say I think applies as well to venues for short fiction, with the addition that so many publishers are wanting something dark, if not downright horrible. With children’s poetry, what I sense is a doctrinaire insistence on what might be called “rhymesterism”: inflexibility in meter (no momentary shift of accent), rigid adherence to rhyme (no half rhymes, no slants coupling words spelled similarly etc.), and no metaphor–too sophisticated, evidently. In conclusion, I might add that there are those publications that profess to merely to seek good poetry, without any political or esthetic bias; yet everything I read in them is of a piece. Reply Joseph S. Salemi June 8, 2020 Mr. Woodruff, your comments touch upon the massive joke of contemporary left-liberalism, in all of its manifestations. And that is the following bizarre article of faith that our enemies proclaim: “We are all free and open and uncensored and unfettered and liberated — EXCEPT FOR THOSE WHO DISAGREE WITH US ABOUT ANYTHING!” Reply Margaret Coats June 8, 2020 The Five Bad Attitudes discourage not only the writing of good poetry, but also the reading of poetry of any kind. Why should any reader waste his time on what he can do just as well himself? And when some aspiring poet does take up study of the craft, he may consider technical aspects the most important part of the study, neglecting his required reading. By “required reading” I mean broad reading of poetry by others in order to discern the good from the bad, and learn from that experience. But when the poems one encounters are similarly poor in quality, reading becomes as useless for the poet as for the general reader. I still suggest plenty of good reading as a weapon against the Five Bad Attitudes–but choose the reading carefully. Reply Joseph S. Salemi June 8, 2020 You’re right, Dr. Coats. But the problem is that in the K-12 sequence today, teachers are simply not showing students any worthwhile traditional poetry, and therefore students have no experience of it. Or else all they are shown is free-verse drivel, and the students quite naturally assume that such stuff is what poetry is. I was lucky in having a mother who read good English poetry to her children from our earliest childhood, and a grandfather who wrote and recited to us his poetry in Sicilian and Italian. Most young Americans are deprived of any similar blessing. Reply Joe Tessitore June 8, 2020 “The Dirty Goat” and “Creosote” is a couplet waiting to happen. The publisher of the “Society of Classical Poets“ should put it out there as a challenge. Reply A.B. Brown June 8, 2020 I thought it funny and apt the mention of ‘arrested development’ in self-expression between the kindergarten and adult stage. When reading the titles of these journals I thought of the zany poetry of Shel Silverstein. One of the many jobs I’ve had over the years was as a long-term substitute teacher at elementary schools, and there were a couple of times where we learned about poetry. Children’s poetry is the one genre where rhyme and meter are still considered acceptable, even expected; poems move along better and are more memorable when put in terms of traditional verse, and the comic possibilities are also greater. The kids loved it, and when it came time to write and share our own poems, they always wrote rhyming poetry themselves. All this goes to say that, it seems that it is not even so much arrested development as backward regress that is occurring on the po-biz scene. Young kids find traditional verse forms intuitively enjoyable, and it is effective for teaching moral lessons. It is only later when they get to high school that they have this notion bludgeoned out of them. While we never learned about free verse in second grade, I never witnessed a seven-year old spontaneously do it either—which seems to say something powerful about its nature; there is a sense, I think, in which free verse is more ‘artificial’ to the mind of a child than is formalist poetic structure. Reply Rod Walford June 8, 2020 Dr Salemi your essay had me both chuckling and nodding simultaneously. A brilliant piece Sir ! It will, of course, have its detractors but they will almost exclusively be free-verse Latte sipping tree huggers with self-perceived delusions of literary grandeur finding ideal vehicles for their new-age tripe in many of the publications you mention. Reply Susan Jarvis Bryant June 8, 2020 Dr. Salemi, what an amazing essay. From the enticing title to the goofy names and the five attitudes, it had me hooked. Mr. Rizley’s Wordsworth´s “Daffodils”/personal experience question is a question I myself was burning to ask. Thank you very much for your answer. I fully understand the current politicized education system has a lot to answer for concerning its biased take on literature, but I feel a little uncomfortable with people being stereotyped and pigeon-holed due to tastes in poetry. I have known many poets who appreciate and write classical poetry regardless of their political leanings, and likewise, many who appreciate modern poetry without giving a thought to politics. It’s very sad that poets of broad tastes are now disillusioned by the art. Also, why is Whitman solely to blame? I would appreciate your guidance before I sip a latte, go hug a tree, and submit my next poem to “The Imploding Tie-Dyed Toupee” even though “Medusa’s Hairdo” looks preferable. Reply Joseph S. Salemi June 8, 2020 Whitman is not solely to blame, of course. There’s also the intolerable windbag Carl Sandburg; the New Jersey pediatrician William Carlos Williams; the crazed Alan Ginsburg; the editor Harriet Monroe; Ezra Pound in some of his dottier moments; the critic Ford Madox Ford; the perverts, drug addicts, and murderers known collectively as The Beats; and the hordes of silly people who followed and worshipped these types. An entire battalion of persons can be blamed. I just used Whitman’s name because he is so early and so prominent. I don’t try to pigeonhole free-verse poets as necessarily my political enemies. Many high modernist poets and writers were farther to the political right than I am, if you can believe it. I’m simply saying that the current poetry establishment in the Anglophone world is right now a closed corporation run by left-liberals. That’s why, as Mr. Woodruff points out in his comment above, everything in their journals “is of a piece,” despite their fake claims of openness and neutrality and fairness. Reply Susan Jarvis Bryant June 8, 2020 Dr. Salemi, I appreciate your response. Thank you. Mr. Woodruff’s comment is spot-on, and I seem to have learned the hard way. Sadly, their claims of fairness really are fake. That’s why I appreciate this site. It’s honest. As for the list of poets responsible for the present situation, I thought you might appreciate my take on William Carlos Williams’s “sensation”. In Britain, this was held up as a plum example – excuse the pun. Why plums, I ask? This is my answer: This Is Just To Say I have seen the plums in the icebox right next to the chocolate truffle torte which you were probably saving for dessert Forgive me it was scrumptious so lush and so rich Do help yourself to a plum C.B. Anderson June 8, 2020 I love me a good Salemi essay now and then, because such essays always remind me that there is still some sanity in the world (the author’s, not that of the subjects treated). I must confess that I did once publish a poem in CREOSOTE. The problem was that I had written dipteran (referring to the insect order Diptera, which includes flies & mosquitoes. In the print copy the word was rendered “dipterian,” for whatever reason, which also spoiled the meter. Occasionally one or another of these these little no-account journals will provide a suitable resting place for a decent formal poem, and sometimes one will be surprised by the company he keeps there. Reply Julian D. Woodruff June 8, 2020 I don’t see much need to worry if the the “extra” syllable belongs in the word, Mr. Anderson (I always bristled slightly when my mom’s cousin would drag out my name, “Ju-li-an”), but if it shouldn’t be there … I hope you complained–loudly, if not rudely. Reply Leave a Reply Cancel ReplyYour email address will not be published.CommentName* Email* Website Notify me of follow-up comments by email. Notify me of new posts by email. This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.