Ignorance as an Asset

I’ve always had a mild disdain for the literary industry.  I’m not sure exactly where it comes from, but I can trace it as far back as my second semester of college, at which point I’d already realized that I preferred working with phonemes to working with phosphates, but was still resistant to declaring an English major.  Why major in English when you can just read and write on your own, while learning about biochemistry and abnormal psychology?  Isn’t it better to gain experience and knowledge about things that really exist?  When I dissect a pig fetus, its internal organs are real.  When I dissect a literary character, her motivations are not.

That must be my main problem with the way academia treats literature.  I don’t understand what the point is.  If I make an argument about what a book means, I can’t be wrong.  I can’t be right either.  Books mean different things to different people at different times; experience is subjective, cultural ideologies are transient.  If there is any truth value whatsoever to a literary argument, it has to fall back to authorial intent — and in that case, we’d be studying history, digging through crumbling letters and analyzing informative childhood experiences, focusing on surrounding events and social memes.

Sometimes literature does that…but if it did that as often as it should, it would be part of the history department.  More often than not, literature is an argument for the sake of argument, an exercise that hones the skill of argumentation, and nothing more.  It’s a great skill to have — rational analysis and persuasive communication.  If that’s your argument for the validity of an English major, I can’t complain.  But if your argument that “Reality as Retrospective Hypothesis: The Role of Time and Memory in the Work of Samuel Beckett” (that was my senior thesis) has any value at all, good luck.

To this day, I don’t know why I decided to switch my major to English.  As well as it’s worked out for me, it seems like nothing more than laziness — a low tolerance for the tediousness of lab work.

After I graduated, I worked as an overnight counselor at a group home, and it was my most productive writing period to date.  Most of the other creative writers in my undergraduate program headed off to MFAs, and I just rolled my eyes.  What a waste of resources.  I’d never stoop so low.

Then I fell ass-backward into this job at Rattle, which it turns out seems made for me.  Even more than the poetry — it’s true — I love the challenge of all these diverse tasks and responsibilities that fall into my lap.  Designing ads, balancing budgets, building websites, lugging boxes of books, interviewing poets, writing blogs, designing covers, selecting content, proofreading, mail-merging, corresponding…

The whole time I’ve still been worried about “stooping so low.”  I didn’t want to get an MFA.  I didn’t want to become an insider, who knows all the other editors and all the poets and all the judges.  I guess I was worrying about catching the plague of pointlessness — the virus that values the artist over art.  The writing is what matters — the way you feel after reading or writing a good poem.   The way a great book can change your life.  It’s not the analytical essay or the Pulitzer Prize or the minor celebrity.  It’s not publishing 187 poems and 8 books.  I’ve always been worried about becoming an industry insider, and losing perspective.

Moreover, the magazine I edit aims to be the exact opposite of all that.  Rattle is supposed to be bringing poetry back to the people who simply love reading and writing it.  We had a tagline in an ad series a while ago that we still use: “It doesn’t take a scholar to be moved by the written word.”  And that’s what Rattle has to always strive to embody.  But how do you manage that with an editor who is forced to spend 50+ hours each week working in the poetry industry, who spends all day every day thinking about little else?  It was a legitimate concern.  Reading so much poetry, would we start publishing the obscure and inaccessible — or even worse, the trendy?  Would you lose the wonderful feeling a normal person gets reading a great poem?

I felt like I had to shut myself away from the poetry world as much as possible.  I don’t go to many events that aren’t my own, I don’t mingle at conferences or sit on many panels.  I don’t try to correspond with other editors, or any of the famous poets we publish.  I tried — maybe not hard — but I tried, to stay ignorant.

What I never imagined was that ignorance doesn’t take any effort at all.

As Rattle has grown, my day has become so full of submissions to read, orders to fill, updates to log, artists to query, letters to answer, and on and on, that I really have no time to be an insider.  I don’t know how anyone does.  I read far more literature when I worked at the group home.  I only subscribed to a few lit mags, but I read them cover to cover, and read many more online.  I went to the library once a week and brought home a stack of books.  I constantly consumed literature, and people always read what I wrote — there was an online community that I participated in, so I always had feedback and a small audience.

Now when I write, if I do, it just stays in a file on my computer.  I just counted up the number of poetry collections I read last year — a clean dozen.  That’s probably more than the average reader of books, but less than the average reader of poetry.  And I haven’t read a single issue of a literary magazine.  We receive dozens of them on exchange, and all I do is flip through each of them, looking at layouts and who they’re publishing, and a bunch of editorial minutia that few probably notice — but I don’t read a thing.  And those are the same magazines we’ve always been getting.  I don’t know what the best magazines in print are these days, let alone what great things have come up online.  I’m utterly clueless.

We’re receiving 50 submissions a day at this point.  That’s over 200 poems a day.  Then there are essays, reviews, columns for the e-issues, interviews.  And emails emails emails.  There’s just so much to read for work, when am I ever going to read for pleasure?

So I came to the realization last night that there’s really no need to worry.  My ignorance will always be an asset.  Many of you poets will always be better-read and more knowledgeable about what’s going on in the poetry world than I am.   And that’s good for Rattle.  I don’t know Dick from Harry (isn’t that an expression?), so when I read your work, all it’s being judged against is the other work we’ve been getting.  The poems we publish will always be accessible to most.

That’s all I read, that’s all I know.  The end.

7 thoughts on “Ignorance as an Asset

  1. I agree. I don’t have an MFA either, and never wanted one. I considered it for a second, but I like to read what I want, when I want, too much to bother with the expense and commitment of another degree. And I have zero desire to teach. As far as reading, I realized just this week that I’d stopped reading some of the work from the 20th century that I enjoyed so much several years ago because I spend all my time reading submissions (although certainly not on your level). It’s reassuring to see someone else writing about this. Thanks.

  2. I enjoyed this post — I’m outside of the poetry world, too. Most days, this doesn’t bother me. I have to admit, there are some days where I wonder about the punchline to some of the inside jokes that many poets seem to have.

  3. Well for the record, I did go to through an MFA-like program eventually, because I got a really good offer, and the potential future utility outweighed my blue collar pride. But it wasn’t without trepidation, and it wasn’t a very useful program for poets anyway.

    Karen, I think there’s a punch line, but the joke’s on them.

  4. Tim,
    Thanks for the post. Yes, completely agree Tim.

    But please don’t lump all MFAs together. You’re right things need to change.

    Had 2 lit courses as a hard science major. Lost a brother and almost lost everything. Started writing poetry in counseling, won a blind contest, got a few poems taken and was recruited.

    A new baby on the way for me made the offer of health insurance and a full ride with stipend to an MFA program look too good to pass up. May be it was my “blue collar pride” in the end that sent me as well, never looked at it that way.

    May be pick up a journeyman trade with the goal of opening a poetry bookstore after this stop.

    Discussing poetry like an academic ain’t ever going to be for me.

    I finally know most of the terms but I’m still very instinctual, often rude and too honest while critiquing.

    Too honest in other ways as well. Luckily my faculty is nonjudgmental and values us with our many faults. Well they value the honest faults of the poet over cunning nastiness at least.

    I certainly wasn’t recruited based on scholastic achievements.

    Things are changing here Tim.

  5. Yeah, you’re right, Rob. I think small, highly selective MFA programs, that pay you to teach as you train to become the teacher you always wanted to be, are great things. And any time someone wants to pay you to go, you might as well go — they’re getting their money’s worth and paying you for a reason. My problem is just with the idea that you need an MFA to be a poet, or that an MFA even makes you a better poet. Or that only MFA-sanctioned professional poets have valid opinions about poetry. Or that an MFA is useful to any degree, other than becoming a teacher or killing time.

  6. Pingback: Poetry News For February 9, 2010 | Poetry Hut Blog

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