Thursday, September 23, 2010

UW Common Book: Poetry?

The University of Washington, like many universities across the country, has a "Common Book" program that chooses one book a year for all incoming freshman to receive upon arrival and, hopefully, read. This year, for the first time, UW has chosen a book of poetry. Well, "chosen" isn't really the right word. What they've done is develop and publish their own anthology of poems designed to "grab an 18-year-old."

I'm all for encouraging young people to read poetry, but why not an actual, single-author poetry book as they exist in the wild? The article linked above states, "The committee first considered a book by a single poet, but quickly rejected that idea," but does not explain why the idea was quickly rejected. Perhaps the committee could not agree upon a book that, in its entirety, would hold the attention of or feel relatable to a UW freshman. Which begs the question: Does such a book exist? The answer to which, I'm sure the committee believes, is "One does now, and it's called You Are Never Where You Are. And we made it special just for the occasion."

For context, past selections for the UW Common Book include:

Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World by Tracy Kidder (2006)

Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change by Elizabeth Kolbert (2007)

The Devil’s Highway: A True Story by Luis Alberto Urrea (2008)

Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance by Barack Obama (2009)

It is intriguing that all are nonfiction books. Perhaps this is a coincidence. Or maybe one surefire way of relating to 18-year-olds is through stories that actually happened. God forbid anyone should have to suspend disbelief in the quest to enjoy reading.

In any case, I'm not sure I agree with the cherry-picking of poems, or books, to appease a particular audience's perceived preferences. Isn't exposure to unfamiliar and worldview-challenging media one of the great experiences of college life? Do we no longer expect our students to accept and meet the challenge of understanding what is initially foreign as part of that experience? Wouldn't it be great if we could give these students the benefit of the doubt and let them tackle a book of poetry without spoonfeeding it to them?

I recognize the tension between reality (not everyone likes to read; almost no one likes to read poetry) and the ideal (give them a chance to approach a book on its own terms and deal with their reading demons). University administrators want students to read. They also recognize the correlation between enjoyment and continued reading practice. Intellectual rigor falls through the cracks in favor of being encouraging. It's the same old story: dealing with the students you have vs. dealing with the students you want.

But does it work? Do any of these Common Books serve as gateways to a lifelong love of reading? Will the contrived collection of You Are Never Where You Are unlock the world of poetry for anyone? Will it do a better job than, say, Ariel or Lunch Poems? I'll have a better idea when I find out what poems were selected for the collection, I guess.

As a postscript, I wonder how much prevailing poetry reading habits played into the committee's decision to develop its own collection, i.e., the preference for reading and engaging individual poems on their own rather than reading them in the context of an entire single-author collection. This is not a fully formed thought. Just something that occurred to me in time for me to leave off this post and go pick my dad up at the airport.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Thoughts on Professional Courtesy

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about courtesy. Specifically, professional courtesy. Microscopically, the relative lack of professional courtesy running rampant in independent literary organizations of late. I don’t know whether this is actually a recent development or I’m just noticing it now because I (and a number of writers near and dear to my heart) have been on the receiving end of some bozo behavior.

Maybe you can tell me if any of the following scenarios sound familiar.

Writer A queries the editors of Literary Journal X about the status of her submission, sent over a year before via an online submission manager where said submission has languished as “received.” Writer A receives no response. Over the ensuing months, writer A receives multiple marketing e-mails and calls for submissions from Literary Journal X, but still no response from the editors.

1. a.
Writer B queries the editors of Literary Journal X about the status of his submission, sent a long, long time back, via an online submission manager where said submission has languished as “received.” Writer B receives in response a form rejection e-mail sent through said online submission manager rather than an actual response from an editor.

1. b.
Writers C-ZZ wait patiently for responses regarding their submissions to Literary Journal Z. Postings to Literary Journal Z’s blog apologize for the longer-than-normal delay and assure submitters that responses will be forthcoming. Additional postings on the front page of Literary Journal Z’s submissions manager apologize for glitches. The responses finally arrive: Writer D receives 40 form rejection emails. Writer M receives 9.

2. Two of Writer Q’s poems are accepted by Literary Journal V and she is informed that they will appear in the following year’s issue, she will be paid $XX, and she will receive two contributor’s copies. The year comes and goes with no correspondence from Journal V. Writer Q finds out through the interweb that the issue of Journal V is out and politely queries the editors via e-mail regarding her copies and payment. **Crickets** A month later she receives her contributor’s copies in the mail with no check and no acknowledgement of her previous query. A month or so later, she e-mails the editors again. **More Crickets** A month or so after that, she visits Journal V’s website in an attempt to find some other means of contacting the editors and finds that the website has been revised and contact e-mail address is different. Again, she queries. **Lots of Freaking Crickets** Writer Q does some web sleuthing and finds contact information for the faculty advisor for the journal and contacts said advisor to no avail. It is only after Writer Q has e-mailed the head of the English Department at the University that hosts Journal V that she receives any word from the editors.

3. Writer P sends a submission (via e-mail, per Journal J’s guidelines) at 3:08 p.m. At 3:17 p.m., Writer P receives the following e-mail from Journal J’s editor:

Sorry Writer P--

Not this batch.


Editor J
The next day, Editor J attempts to friend Writer P on FaceBook.

As isolated, rare occurrences, these experiences might make amusing anecdotes at literary gatherings. Unfortunately, the reality is that any similar anecdote is likely to be met with, “Oh, that’s nothing. Let me tell you what the punks from Journal/Press/Website L did to me…” Around about the 10th or 20th anecdote, a pattern emerges that is anything but amusing. Of course, we can come up with any number of explanations/justifications for this kind of behavior—“Yeah, well, writers are flaky.” “Aw, they’re probably just overworked grad students. Cut them a break.” “At least they put out a quality magazine.” But where does that leave us?

I’ve worked for literary magazines. I’ve written in this space about how not be an asshole when submitting to literary magazines. As an editor, I’ve dealt with all sorts of crazy writer bullshit. I understand all too well that working on a journal is a thankless job. I also understand that it’s a choice one makes. No one can be forced into litmag slavery. So yes, I am a little perplexed when the literary magazines I support, read, purchase, submit to, etc. don’t have the decency to communicate with me. I am disappointed when the editors of a journal assume that online submission technology absolves them of the responsibility to answer queries.

And yet, writers are asked to be grateful for any attention, any chance at publication. For the most part, I am. And in the grand scheme of my life, whether I hear back from a literary journal or not has very little bearing on my overall happiness. So why complain? I don’t really have an answer to that question. Just an observation: Courtesy is easily given. I think about the times when I was responsible for corresponding with contributors and, whether it was snail mail, e-mail, phone, or face-to-face interaction, the interaction didn’t really cost me that much.

So, I don’t know, maybe we could, as a community, come up with a set of guidelines for being a good editor. Any writer who has received the gold star treatment from a journal that has its shit together certainly must have some ideas on the matter. Thoughts?