Thursday, June 01, 2006

Foetry Blues

A while back, my husband told me about this new website that was researching poetry contests, finding out who was "cheating" (i.e., taking people's entry money but then giving the award to one of their friends or students) and then trying to make the cheaters accountable for their actions. When he first told me about it, I thought it sounded like a great idea. I am a fiction writer who occasionally dabbles in poetry, and have never entered a poetry contest, but my husband puts hundreds of dollars a year into entering these contests. The idea that we could be spending all that money without having a real chance of winning sounded to me like a crime which should be prosecuted. I was glad that there was someone out there willing to "police" these institutions.

That said, it wasn't until a few days ago that I actuallly visited the site. I was a bit shocked and disappointed by what I found there. The list of "dodgy" competitions was there, with links throughout to discussion boards where there were angry, virulent arguments and accusations taking place. It seemed to me like a place for frustrated, non-published poets to vent their rage at the entire system. Which is fine, on its own, but what I really wanted from this site was a professional attempt to examine the current poetry contests.

Maybe my expectations were too high. Calling people cheaters and criminals is, of course, bound to stir up a lot of emotion on both sides. It is probably doomed to turn into a name-calling session. Even so, I thought the site lacked even a decent attempt at civility.

What bothered me deeply about this site was the language used, the immediate, vehement attack launched on anyone who dared to question the conclusions posted there. Some writer would be foolish enough to give his name, defend some aspect of the system, (like, for instance, the use of graduate students as screeners) and then two minutes later his credentials, his work, and his intentions would be questioned and criticized on the site using whatever the other person could find on Google. Which is, in my opinion, pretty poor taste. And which makes me, as a writer, intimidated to post on such a site for fear of damage to my own (or my husband's)career, even to point out what I believe are some hasty generalizations about writing contests.

I have worked on the staff for two writing contests, and I enjoyed it both times. (At the time, I was a graduate student, once an M.F.A. and the other a Ph.D., so you can see how my own emotions got so easily involved in this. . .) I thought, perhaps naively, that I was doing something good for the writing world. I wanted to find good writing. And both times, I believed that the winner deserved to win. I was not pushed by my editors to find any manuscript to be superior to the others. I did not see anybody rubbing their hands together gleefully about all the money we were getting. Every cent seemed to go straight back into the press or the journal. And I greatly fear that the influence of Foetry could injure what is most often at the heart of these contests: a desire to see good writing recognized.

I guess my lament is really this: I wish there was a site that civily and professionally investigates the truth, and that calls the creative writing world to a level of integrity that it has previously lacked.

Such a thing does not exist.

2 Comments:

Blogger the shadow waters said...

I agree about your last conclusion: if only there was a more professional site out there doing this same work. With that said, I just can't ignore the fact that Foetry has changed the policies of most writing contests for the better. It has been loud and brash, but good change has come from it. As I saw time and again in my graduate student years and my years working with a state government, the squeaky wheel is loud and annoying but it makes things move. Other thoughts?

9:17 AM  
Anonymous D. Bray said...

It sounds like there are two ways poetry can be faked, either the rules or pay-offs of the contests are not legit or people copy other people's poems. For the latter, there are several legit websites that use search technology (akin to Google) to identify prose that has been copied from original sources.

For the former, where the rules or pay-offs of the contests are not legit, sounds like you need a movement within the poetry community to have an independent, third-party certify the "correctness" of poetry contests. This is what ADA does for Dentists or what other professional societies do for their members. Why can't poets have an organization that represents them and their interests, as well as certifies the fairness of different competitions?

-d. bray

11:04 PM  

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