In my latest Barefoot Muse editorial, which is not quite ready to be unleashed upon an unsuspecting poetry world, I talk about MFAs and what advantage may be gained, fairly or otherwise, by obtaining one. As a corollary to that, here I want to talk about nepotism and anti-nepotism in Po-biz, phenomena that are certainly not confined to the circles of academia.
By nepotism I mean, of course, the selection of poems and/or poets (for publication or other awards) in which a prior relationship between the selector and the selectee is more important than the relative merit of the work. By anti-nepotism I mean the deliberate rejection of such work because of the existence of a prior negative relationship.
We don’t have to pore over the archives of Foetry to be aware that such things go on. In truth, nepotism is a part of life in every arena, so the idea that poets, typically among the more depraved and narcissistic components of society, might be above it is risible. The question becomes how to behave with honor and integrity in such a system, without consigning oneself to some form of untouchability.
I’ll begin with the example of the Barefoot Muse. On the eve of its sixth issue, my modest little journal has become a sought after online venue for would be formal poets, which makes me very happy. I received 875 poems to consider for this issue, which has me feeling slightly more ambivalent–remember, I have a staff of one. Furthermore, because I am the staff of one, there is no possibility of reading submissions blind, a procedure I would heartily endorse where possible. (See 14×14 for an excellent example of this put into practice.)
I therefore receive submissions regularly from poets with whom I have already had some form of interaction. The formal poetry world just isn’t that big, especially online. I mostly lurk at Eratosphere, but I certainly know of most of the poets who post there. I met the Modern Metrics crowd after reviewing their small press, and they subsequently invited me to read at their New York venue (Yes, I hear you. Mail me $5 and I’ll send you a copy of the CD–I’ll refund you if you truly think I did not deserve the honor.)
Now, those 875 submitted poems came from 220 individuals, most of whom I didn’t know from Adam. 19 of them came from people with whom I had had some form of prior relationship ranging from them being a former contributor of mine, to me being a former contributor of theirs, to us being personal local acquaintances. I rejected 11 of these people, accepted 6 on merit, and had 2 poems withdrawn. In the course of this I rejected 3 editors of journals (2 online and 1 small press) and 1 local poet who is far better known than I am.
The question is: am I a fool, or an idealist? Both, of course. Most of my acquaintances responded well to my decisions. I do typically write personal rejections to anyone who comes under the ‘prior relationship’ umbrella, which is more than many other journals of which I have experience from the other end. But, I suspect at least one reacted poorly, which wouldn’t be the first time that an objective editorial decision has led to negative outcomes for me personally as a poet.
Which leads me to anti-nepotism, a much nastier beast in my opinion. This is the “I scratch your back; you scratch mine” school of poetry publication–the one which leads people to become editors of journals simply so they can trade favors and get poems published which do not deserve it. I know that I have been blacklisted by at least two editors simply because I have–on merit–rejected their poems (and typically with a personally written response explaining why the fit was not there on this occasion.)
I am simply not prepared to compromise the quality of the Barefoot Muse in order to curry favor with anyone. I have to believe that the standard of the poems is paramount, and also, that if I write a good poem myself, it will eventually earn publication on its own merits. The upside is, that if I accept a poem of yours for the Barefoot Muse, you can be sure I did so on merit regardless of whether I know you or not.
Here’s to fools and idealists.