Kona’s column 7: Ratbaiting

April 6, 2010

Recently, an American article made a louder-than-usual splash in the UK poetry chatterverse, via blogs, forums and social media.   The US Poetry Foundation’s prominent website published Jim Behrle’s satirical piece, “24/7 Careerism“, in which he plays devil’s advocate – at some length – about relentless self-promotion in the US poetry scene.  Unsurprisingly, poetry blogs and social networks were immediately set aflutter;  the theme is a sure-fire attention-grabber, since it’s guaranteed to provoke anxiety in any new or established poet who’s ever dared to do anything other than hide their poems under the bed.

While many appreciated the article, it had an edge to it that left a bad taste in my mouth.  (To be fair, it was a transcribed speech, which may have been rather funnier when heard rather than read).  Where a shorter piece might have been wryly sardonic, this extended theme-and-minor-variations eventually came across as bilious:  more defensive projection than witty self-deprecation.  An online commenter referred readers to Joan Houlihan’s satirical article “A modest proposal for poetry“, in which she refers to poetic infighting as rats in a crowded rat-box, and indeed Behrle’s piece did seem to represent another instance of one poet having a good bite at the others’ tails.

How did things get so bitter?  Taken in conjunction, the Behle and Houlihan articles allude to a surreal state of affairs:  the fact that it is now possible to establish an entire parallel economy based around poetry, but completely independent of any actual real-world readership of it.  Consider the following scenario:

1. A few high-quality Creative Writing MFA programs are started;  uptake is good, output quality is high because of selective intake, and the programs prove economically viable.

2. Other institutions scent a financial opportunity and start their own MFAs.  Teaching on these programs becomes the most viable way to make a living in poetry, so aspiring poets feel compelled to have an MFA on their CV to help their job prospects, further swelling the MFA market.

3. Standards on MFAs are not uniformly high;  as more programs spring up, both excellent teachers and excellent applicants are spread more thinly.  Places on programmes must be filled to keep those programmes viable.  Some institutions admit less-able writers, in a spirit of either blinkered optimism or willful cynicism.

4. Exiting their MFAs, fledgling poets begin their hungry quest for book publication, the perceived badge of admission to the profession (and to those MFA teaching jobs).  Their quest is made all the more urgent  by the need to justify having spent all that time (and possibly money) on the MFA.

5. In a publishing culture where first collection submissions are accepted mainly via fee-charging “competitions”, this swelling army of freshly qualified poets creates a whole new niche market:  small poetry presses can spring up and keep themselves solvent through competition entry fees from poets, rather than book sales to readers.  The less-able writers make the best “customers”, since every rejection they receive means a fresh fee-opportunity for another press.

In this elegant manner, a whole, self-contained micro-economy is created, requiring nothing more than a new influx of proto-poets each year.  It’s the poets themselves that are the ones bringing the money into the system,  either indirectly via government-subsidised course fees, or directly, via the impecunious poet’s traditional revenue sources:  day-jobs, bartending, loans.  Has anyone calculated the value of this micro-economy (still growing), and compared it with the revenue from actual poetry sales (still falling)?  Is it ten times bigger?  A hundred?  A thousand?  At what point does the whole thing tip over into the systemic equivalent of vanity publishing, a large sucker collective paying to produce a handful of artefacts that nobody wants?

I hyperbolise, of course, but to do so articulates my problem with the Behle rant:  it’s that it’s attacking the very people who are, to some extent, already victims of a potentially exploitative niche economy.  Although they are careful not to promise anything, postgraduate Creative Writing courses are partly selling a dream – the dream of being a published, recognised, prize-laden writer. [1] At their best, such courses will rise above this and truly educate, enhancing the lives of their students regardless of future “market outcomes”. At their worst they’re just another overpriced lottery, selling the desperate a low-odds ticket to fantasise about life transformed.

Although the Creative Writing economy is better established in the US, it’s by no means a solely US phenomenon.  Our American cousins are usually further up the entrepreneurial curve than we etiquette-laden Brits, but our economy picks up on profitable American trends before too long.  The number of Creative Writing MAs in the UK is continually growing. At a time of economic turbulence and cuts in government grants, it’s understandably tempting for universities to set up new fee-charging MAs; Creative Writing MAs must be a particularly juicy prospect, with their low overheads (no fancy lab equipment needed!) and their potential appeal to “Mature Students” (that euphemism for anybody over about 21) who might still have the savings to pay for them.  When unprofitable undergraduate degrees, and in some cases whole university departments, are being culled in the UK, it would be wishful thinking to believe that applicant quality will always be the prevailing force on MA admissions;  realistically, how many institutions can afford to turn away weaker applicants if this would leave a potentially revenue-generating course half-full and running at a loss?

I’m not fundamentally opposed to Poetry MFAs and MAs, but I think they move onto shaky ground if they elide the difference between “liberal education” (something that enhances the intellectual and creative life of the individual, without concrete market outcomes) and vocational education (something undertaken in order to obtain an employable or otherwise marketable skill.)  As far as poetry goes, offering the former is something that universities and colleges ought to be good at; appearing to offer the latter is disingenuous, since there is no clear vocational career path for poets (teaching Creative Writing aside) [2].

It’s not surprising that new poets who interpret their MFA/MA courses as preparation-for-a-vocation, and aren’t adequately disabused of this [3], come out riddled with anxious ambition, squabbling for crumbs and trying to find any possible route to the “vocational” goals of publication, prizes and peer esteem.  If you’ve taken an expensive vocational qualification, and those things are the markers of vocational success, then it’s perfectly logical to strive for them as the expected (or even deserved) fruits of your education.  The fact that, en masse,  this results in so much back-biting, infighting, suspicion, schadenfreude and exploitative “networking” is depressing, but also unsurprising.

To be a rat fighting in a crowded rat-box, as Houlihan portrays it, is an unhappy state;  being caught on the hook of perpetually-withheld external validation is genuinely painful, and can do real psychological harm. I hope that Jim Behrle has a proposal for healing the “24/7 Careerism” disease he satirises, and that he’ll promulgate it with as much energy as he put into this somewhat cheap shot of mocking the rats.


[1] UK MAs are no exception;  for example, a prominent Creative Writing MA has previously taken out full-page magazine adverts listing the publication credits and prizes of programme alumni.  It’s a fantastically good marketing strategy, but it’s also a little disingenuous – like advertising some magic pill called “Bust-a-vite Women’s Nutrition Supplement” with torso-shots of big-breasted, bikini-clad lovelies, and then rejecting false-advertising complaints on the grounds that “we never actually said it would make your boobs bigger”.

[2] If there is one, can somebody please tell me what it is?

[3] Yes, I do acknowledge that some students simply won’t be told what they don’t want to hear, and courses can’t really be held responsible for that.

Kona Macphee is a UK-born, Australian-bred poet now living and working in Scotland.This column is the start of a monthly feature. She is facilitating the Poetry Society Poetry Surgeries. There will be a third batch of sessions here in the library on Wednesday 21 April. You can now hear Kona on the SPL podcast ‘Witching Hour’and  follow her on Twitter.

One Response to “Kona’s column 7: Ratbaiting”

  1. Kona Macphee Says:

    To see Jim’s speech as delivered – conveying the tone more accurately than the written version, I think –
    you can watch it on video here:

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