Geoffrey Long
Tip of the Quill: Archives
Poetry for poets, writing for writers.

I just reread my last post and had a small epiphany. Little one. Not very big. But important.

A little over a decade ago (in January of 1991), The Atlantic published an essay by Dana Gioia called "Can Poetry Matter?" The essay makes a number of good points, most notably that poetry these days is primarily written for poets. This is no revelation: The Writer's Market and magazines like Poets and Writers and Book will all tell you that the majority of most small magazines' copies are sold to people looking to publish their work in their pages. In a sense, the entirety of the literary small press market is one giant writing workshop. Part of this is due to the feeling that in order to sell a novel to a publisher (or an agent, which is often necessary to avoid the slush pile), you have to have a long list of published credits. As a result, you wind up with authors whose work has been published in all kinds of places that you've never heard of. Check out the very bottom of this weblog – I've added a short bio to this page. Where has my work appeared? Gothik, Hika, Polaris, The Daily Record... About the only place I'd imagine 99% of you folks have heard of (well, you non-Kenyon folks) is {fray}.

I, too, am falling victim to the need-to-publish urge. I've been looking into small magazines and other places like Inkblots online. There are a number of good ones out there, but so far most have them have fallen into one of two categories – the hipper-than-thou, tongue-in-cheek variety (like Ben Brown's Uber, McSweeney's, The Morning News or Haypenny) or the stories-about-single-parents, stories-about-drug-addiction, stories-about-handicapped-sex-addicts, stores-about-midlife-angst variety (like Oyster Boy Review, The Kenyon Review, and, well, almost any other magazine with 'Review' tacked onto the end).

What I find myself wondering is how many of these magazines are written for readers, not for other writers? I mean, sure – the first list suggests an Onion-esque intent to entertain (when they're not being downright snarky), but the second list tends to prove my longstanding theory that so many of these writers belong to this intellectually incestuous clique of creative writing professors who are constantly churning out work even more formulaic than the type of stuff normally filed under genre fiction. I mean, think about it. It's like mad libs. The narrator is typically unhappy, middle-aged, either a neurotic white man or woman or a member of some minority, saddled with a cliched, overblown background to make them feel "real" (usually involving some kind of alcoholism, divorce, abandonment issues, or immigration), and are struggling to deal with their own failures to deal with others (peers, children, parents, etc.) due to that upbringing. Characters from these stories are all alike, whether they're drug addicts, nymphomaniacs or just flat-out losers. These stories aren't entertaining. They're not even really written for others to read – these stories are written so either their authors can work through their own midlife crises or so said authors and their publishers can feel all "literary".

This is codswallop.

Take, for instance, this quote from a recent interview with bestselling author Nick Hornby:

I profoundly disagree with those who equate "literary" with "serious" - unless "serious" encompasses "po-faced", "dull", "indigestible". Anyone who does anything that seems easy or light or which actually entertains people always tends to get overlooked - apart from by the reading public, the only people who really matter.
Amen, brother.

The lesson meant to be learned here is one that many literary journals constantly miss. They're always bitching and moaning about money and about how they're being snubbed by the mass populace. News flash: nobody wants to read this self-indulgent horse shit. We all have our own problems – the only people who really want to go and wallow in these wankers' crises without some degree of entertainment (such as Mr. Hornby's solid and reliable injections of humor) must really and truly be sad excuses for human beings, or those who need to feel all artsy. C'mon, people. Tell a good story.

Further wisdom from the good Mr. Hornby, courtesy of

Q: You've mentioned the Booker Prize. Do you think that awards such as this misrepresent literature and the kinds of books that are out there?

A: I think that the Booker Prize sets a tone of a certain kind of literary writer. As a young writer you're looking at two polarities that you don't really like the look of. There was the Jackie Collins stuff on one side, and there was this very difficult, dark, inaccessible literature on the other.

I think there is a general desire to read good books. People read books on the way to work and before they go to bed. We've all had that terrible feeling that you're making no impression on a novel at all and you're 30 pages in and there's 472 pages left and you've been reading it for three weeks already. I think the Americans have always understood that once you have a price on the back of your book there is some kind of contract you're entering into.

I'd argue with you there, sir – judging by what I've been seeing lately, I think Americans are just as guilty of literary wankery as anyone. But it's damn good to hear the voice of wisdom from the other side saying that there's a third option: intelligent and widely-accessible. Would somebody please start publishing a literary journal consisting of work like that?


I agree with you in theory my friend... the only problem I see is that that description of the "self absorbed" style writer who shows up in those dark gloomy mags includes EVERYONE. Just because some people choose to ignore it and some choose to write about it really doesn't change anything. Now when those people start complaining that they are "misunderstood"... that's when I want to vomit.. they're perfectly understood. It's just that we all have our own problems which probably aren't all that different from theirs, we just don't complain about it... and you are right... some of us read that crap for entertainment value... ;)

What rankles me isn't their claiming to be misunderstood so much as their whining about not being popular. "The American public is stupid because they don't read our deep insights into the human psyche, waaaah!" What a circle jerk. If you want to be read, write something entertaining, insightful and relevant. Don't just follow a literary formula, throw on a black turtleneck and swoon around. (I know, I know ? easier said than done. I'm working on it.)

*grin* self knowledge is power, Geoff...

Scott Kenemore got published in the Kenyon Review before me. I'll never live that down. Oh, well- at least I've always got "Letters From The Soul"...

I write poetry because I must- it is the very essence of my own expression. It's always there, beneath my skin, buzzing around and trying to fly out of my mouth to confuse others around me. I fall asleep at night with words knitting themselves together in my head, and I wake up to the alarm and trudge off to work and they are gone. I have a muse of fire burning inside me and I must write, I must have it out, there is no other option. I do not write poetry for myself, or for other poets; I do not try to pick subjects that are moody, or lofty, or widely accessible. I write for poetry's sake, and because it is so perfect, there in my head, but mere words are never quite right, so I must always strive to do better, so that I may do the poem justice. Pretty crazy, huh? And I haven't been writing lately, and I think that this is why I feel so down...

*snort* and now for something completely different- erm, well, not really.

I'm starting to get desperate, Geoff- I need to work on my portfolio for grad school, but I have no digi-vid editing equipment. If worst comes to worst, you may find me on your doorstep in a few weeks saying "Hi, can I use your iMovie?"

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