Poetry & “cronyism”

The other day, I went for a cup of coffee with a friend who edits a reasonably well-known literary journal. I was asking about his plans for the latest issue, who he was hoping to receive submissions from, and generally how it was all going. He listed the names of a few poets whose work he was hoping to publish — all in all, it sounded like a fantastic mix. “But of course, I can’t have all of them,” he said. “It’d look like cronyism if I did.”

The issue of cronyism and nepotism in the poetry world is one which has long fascinated me. I watched with interest, for example, as the Foetry.com vs Jorie Graham incident unfolded, and more recently became more than a little embroiled in a, er, lively comment thread on “chum marketing”, here at the Magma Poetry blog. In the early days of Read This Magazine I was always very worried about being accused on cronyism, as I sometimes published the work of people I knew in person, and when I judged the Sentinel Literary Quarterly poetry contest earlier this year I was not without trepidation as I waited to find out who the winners might be. Accusations of cronyism are bandied about freely wherever there are editors, contest judges and rejected writers — the Guardian even goes as far as this:

That’s how “schools” of poetry get started - cronyism. The poetry contestants want a level playing field? Try football.

So cronyism exists. It’s all over the poetry world like a rash, in fact. I’ll still rage away happily about editors who only publish or review work by their own current/former creative writing students, for example; I’m still suspicious of literary journals who invite the same poets back for publication time after time after time. I stand by my previous rants about poets swinging contests and other opportunities in their favour by engaging in large-scale covert Facebook PR campaigns and such. But after meeting my fellow editor friend I got to really wondering about the issue. Here is an editor who just wants to put together the best publication he can, but who feels restricted by how it might come across. I started to wonder if maybe I’d been too ready to jump to conclusions about journal acceptances, anthology selections and contest winners in the past. I’m now thinking that there might well be a lot of totally innocent stuff going on in the poetry world — totally innocent and worthwhile stuff — that suffers from being undeservingly tarred by the cronyism brush.

After speaking to my friend, I started thinking about the speculative list he’d put together for the new issue of his magazine. He’s relatively new to the publication and still getting to know how things work, so he doesn’t want to take too many risks with the stuff he puts out there for now — therefore, a lot of the poets he wanted to approach for submissions are guaranteed, tried-and-tested kind of people. And yes, many of them he knows personally — but if you’re looking for a guarantee that their stuff is going to be good, and for some degree of control or opportunity for discussion, that’s not altogether unreasonable, is it? He was also worried that too many of the poets he had his eye on were from the same part of the world as him, and/or writing in a similar style to his own work. On the surface, this could definitely be seen as favouritism or even self promotion, but it does make some sense. As an editor, you’re always swayed to an extent by personal taste — particularly when you’re soliciting submissions from individual poets rather than receiving work by open submission. And it makes perfect sense if you’re drawn to work by other poets like yourself — chances are you were heavily influenced by other poets from your area (although, perhaps not?), and you’re obviously bound to be attracted to other work like your own. Chances are, if we all went away and drew up the contents page for the dream first issue of our own fantasy literary journal, we’d probably find a lot of friends, close influences and fellow countrymen included.

Finally, I began to wonder — what is so wrong with promoting the work of your friends and colleagues, if it’s deserving of merit? I constantly sing the praises of brilliant upcoming young American poet Heather Bell, for example. Not because she is a personal friend or because she and I have been sharing and critiquing each other’s writing for years, but because she is absolutely bloody brilliant, and her work deserves to be widely recognised. I’m passionate about raising the profile of Scotland’s apparently invisible younger generation of poets, so I’ll regularly drop names like Chris Lindores, Jenny Lindsay, Charlotte Runcie or Bram Gieben into conversations, blogposts and the like. Yes, these people are friends and acquaintances of mine, too — but we’re all writing from the same city, all roughly the same age and all at similar stages in our writing careers, so surely that’s just to be expected? Does any praise of a poet mean nothing if it comes from someone who knows them well? If so, we’re in trouble, because (particularly here in the UK) the poetry world is a bit like St Mary Mead — everyone knows everyone.

Thoughts? Get thee to the comments box!

(Photo by m.jesenska)

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2 Responses to “Poetry & “cronyism””

  1. Mairi Sharratt Says:

    I think there is no easy answer. Of course, you have to build relationships when you are writing with other writers, you can’t write in a vacume. But then if you find people who’s work you like, and by circumstance you also personally like them are you meant to somehow avoid working with them just in case there are accusations of a cabal?

    I must say I have never seen a PR campaigns waged by poets to swing opportunities or contests in their favour, although the internet is obviously a great tool in promoting one’s work at what point does someone cross the line?

    I must say that most of the people that I see continually in literary journals and asked to perform are obviously very accomplished, even if their work does not necessarily chime with what I would write or expect of a poem. If I haven’t got as far as they have, it’s often because, they started earlier, are much more experience or just better than me.

    As human beings we crave peer esteem and trying to fit in is part of that, perhaps some accusations of cronyisim come from the natural hurt feelings that emerge when people feel unable to achieve this in their chosen group - for whatever reason that is. I remember some people behaving quite rudely to me at the first book launch I went too - I wasn’t someone they “knew” so they could ignore me and barge in front of me.

    Perhaps also it is a common compliant becuase poetry is a hard area to achieve anything in, and there are not necessarily lots of openings for young/emerging poets. Also as there are a large number of poets on the scene, and when they all appear to know each other already it can be intimidating - a bit first day at school. However I always believe that someone who is willing to work hard, and has the tenacity to ride out rejection will get there in the end.

    When they do finally arrive, will they remember to be inclusive and friendly to all those new, young hopeful poets-to-be who turn up at their readings, signings, events and workshops. I hope so.

  2. Christian Says:

    Good post, Claire. Poetry is such a small world that it’s almost inevitable all the major names know (perhaps even friends?) each other. I don’t it’s bad practice for poets to recommend other poets providing they disclose that fact and are honest to the reader about it. I get annoyed seeing glowing review quotes written by poet x who is friends with author y or is their former lecturer etc and not disclosing the nature of their relationship.