[Po-Biz] Poetry Bourgeoisie
Roberto Carlos Garcia
I’ve been reading the poems of Salvadorian poet Roque Dalton (1935-1975). He was a freedom fighter during the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s, and a steadfast communist. Much of the South and Central American poetry of that era was hyper-political, and much of it names politicians, corporations, and priests directly. Many Central and South American writers of that era were engaged in armed combat with oppressive regimes. Dalton’s primary targets of criticism are government, corporations, and religion, and the ways they work together to exploit and dominate the people.
The excerpt below, from an introductory poem to his collection Poemas Clandestinos, really got me thinking about our literary world. “Declaration of Principles” rails against the existing power structure, emphasizes communism, and calls the poet to be an enemy of the state.
Whatever his quality, his stature, his finesse, his creative capacity, his success, the poet can only be to the bourgeoisie:
The clown is an “independent” servant who manages nothing better than the limits of his own “liberty” and who one day will confront the people with the argument that the bourgeoisie “really has sensitivity.” He who is really a servant can wear the uniform of lackey or minister or cultural representative abroad…
The enemy poet is above all else the enemy poet. He who claims his wages not in flattery or dollars but in persecutions, prisons, bullets. And not only does he lack a uniform or tails or a suit, but every day he ends up with fewer things until the only thing he has is a pair of patched shirts but clean as unparalleled poetry.
Paraphrasing Althusser, let’s say of him that “Instructed by crushing reality and dominant ideological mechanisms, in constant struggle against them, able to use in his poetic discipline—against all ‘official truths’—the fertile paths opened by Marx (forbidden and obstructed by all the reigning prejudices), the enemy poet cannot even think of accomplishing his task, of such a complex nature and requiring such rigor, without a lucid and invincible confidence in the working class and without direct participation in its struggle.”
Within this poem’s call for the poet to be an “enemy” of the system, and its criticism of the bourgeoisie, I see a shadow of American poetry today. In a sense, po-biz (poetry business) has become a class of bourgeoisie: keeping up appearances, culling favor, air kisses and who-you-know versus what-you-write. In effect, it becomes a kind of act. A drama plays out in a “life at court” way.
I question what honors, positions, awards and accolades sustain the “servant, clown, enemy” construct in American poetry circa 2017. For Dalton, poetry was a matter of active resistance that threatened his freedom, his life, and that of other writers engaged in the struggle. They published their own books, gave most of them away for free, or they relied on a network of shaky small presses.
Today poetry is being used in television commercials to sell pick up trucks. That there are Poet Laureate positions could be telling of how ‘not dangerous’ poetry has become. What is the danger of state sanctioned poetry / poets? How does it put risk in poetry, at risk? Still, in the Sunday salons, in the open-mics, in the reading series, and writers groups, a deep and abiding work is happening. Truths are being told in those poems, raw, haunting, and necessary truths. They make up a poetry world completely outside of po-biz.
I question how well we poets understand the struggle between poetry’s natural communality, its political and revolutionary legacy, and the bourgeoisie that’s entrenched itself while trying to enact the work of poetry within capitalist systems. And do we care as much as we should, to understand these struggles and systems, and subvert them? How is po-biz a capitalist skewing of poetry? How have government policies and corporate sponsorships contrived to control what qualifies as art? How do these parties control publication?
I know that for too many poets, myself included, the game must be played on some level. Poets want their words to be read, to share them with people. We are part narcissist whether we like it or not, but more we require validation. Poets are driven to create art, yes, but we also want to share, to say “dear reader, you are not alone,” and we want the “mm” and “ah” of an audience, the “yes, we are with you.” And yet there is a fine line between the unpublished poet and the po-biz sycophant; the poet ready to be used as propaganda to inspire the poet working class, to feed the machine, and for the cannibalistic machinations of publishing’s gatekeepers.
I won’t romanticize the starving poet, the doglegged vagabond who is repulsed by a nine to five or the prospect of commercial respectability (although that carries a certain charm). But as most MFA and PhD graduates can attest the struggle is real, and it involves, for the most part, having people. People who take care of each other as they struggle to write the next great poem, to find an inexpensive meal, cheap rent, and a cheap glass of wine. A community that listens to their poems and offers critiques and maybe recommends a good journal to submit and publish poems. That same community recommends you for readings, teaching gigs, they promote you. At poetry readings you see these communities sitting together, eager to compare notes on the featured poet. And afterwards at coffee shops, bars and restaurants, they sit for hours discussing the work. The same was true in Dalton’s era as the scholar Arturo Arias writes:
“to wish to be a writer in these countries [Americas] is an act of daring and perpetual frustration. Neither material nor cultural means exist, neither readers nor stimuli exist, but only friends, those equals who demonstrate the same aspirations, confront the same fantasies, the same nightmares, the same comprehension, and most of the time, the same police.”
It is these poet communities that give life to today’s poetry scene, that fill the pages around the “star” poets in literary journals, and wait in line for their chance at book publication and their spot in the poetry bourgeoisie. Too often the po-biz bourgeoisie uses this community’s energy for its own purposes, usually to appear saintly benevolent, or worse, full of real opportunity. Purposely or not, the system pushes a carrot chase more about “flattery or dollars… uniform or tails or a suit,” and publication than about becoming an “enemy poet.” An enemy poet is a kind of anarchist, she sees through the veil, and calls out systems of control and oppression with no fear of the private or public reproach. Few poets want that kind of attention. We must be honest about this generation of writer’s acceptance of capitalism, especially the white millennial, male or female—many of whom are the editorial gatekeepers at presses and journals.
Poets have to eat, but what happens to poetry when economics become such a driving factor? How does poetry (and poets for that matter) become compromised by capitalism? Is competition good in a workshop, an art studio, in poetry? What kind of innovation or toxicity can this environment create? Does careerism have any place in the arts? Roque Dalton didn’t think so. From Dalton’s poems I glean that for him poetry was life but also a weapon, the weapon of the people.
We must acknowledge that American capitalism has infiltrated poetry and the arts. During an email exchange, my friend, the poet Dylan Cecchini wrote that poetry “is invariably an extension, albeit a more palatable and beautiful one, of the consumerist, .1% oligarchy we find ourselves inhabiting.” How did this happen? How did poets, the wine drinking, party crashing, couch surfing milquetoasts become capitalists? I am exaggerating of course. However, in this iteration of poetry bourgeoisie, as in other socio-economic circles, poets of color are particularly vulnerable. The po-biz bourgeoisie establishment can only let so many of us in. Many times some award or distinction will be the entrez-vous, and said poet will be paired with a widely known white poet, so that the venue can appear more inclusive. These are calculated moves executed by a calculating system. But how we got to this system is critical to note.
* * *
In 1994 Republicans gained control of Congress and went about cutting funding for arts endowments and art programs in schools across the country (surprise, surprise). Most of the pressure came from organized religious opposition groups like the Christian Right. They pressured Republican senators, many of whom are their members, to cut funding for the NEA and NEH on moral grounds (among a laundry list of reasons). The arguments for and against these cuts can be summed up in the following excerpts from Cynthia Koch’s 1998 study “The Contest for American Culture: A Leadership Case Study on The NEA and NEH Funding Crisis” (emphasis mine).
Opponents: Should the United States, which has no history of royal patronage or an established church, be engaged in directly sponsoring arts and learning? At risk, opponents of arts funding argue, is the independence of expression. Should America have an official art? Should it commission scholarship? A body of work that has been approved and funded by government agency smacks of communism or fascism.
Proponents: Exactly the opposite is true. The U.S. government, like all countries, has an interest in fostering the nation's culture. It is in the interest of American taxpayers to protect accessibility and freedom of expression by supporting culture with their tax dollars. Otherwise the arts and learning becomes the province of the few. The wealthy elite and corporations will inevitably silence points of view in opposition to their interests if they are paying the bills. Moreover, without government support the arts cannot survive in the American free enterprise system where media conglomerates aggressively market entertainment as "art" to an insatiable popular audience.
Opponents: Elitist! Large cultural institutions, artists, and intellectuals — most of them located on the East Coast — have no right to use the tax dollars of working people across the nation to subsidize arts and scholarship that benefit only themselves. It is far more democratic to let the market decide which art should prosper. Besides, great artists will produce their masterpieces in spite of — perhaps because of — poverty. Look at Vincent Van Gogh, Mozart. Artists with NEA grants get lazy, too comfortable.
Proponents: For each American taxpayer, the price of two postage stamps was the value of the federal contribution to the arts in 1994; today it is almost half that.
Opponents: Federal support for arts and education is unconstitutional. It is another misguided product of the 1960s Great Society that we can no longer afford.
Proponents: The federal government has been in the business of advancing arts and education since the founding of the Library of Congress in 1800 and the Smithsonian Institution in 1846. Since the establishment of the two national endowments in 1965, America's cultural life and educational leadership have grown to an unprecedented degree. Without federal dollars and the imprimatur of a federal grant that attracts private support, the arts will wither away.
Opponents: Americans will always be world leaders with or without federal subsidy. That "imprimatur" issue is exactly the point. There should be no "government seal of approval" on any art. And it certainly should not be on obscene and pornographic art, and as for the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian — and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting — they're on our list, too.
The arguments sampled herein go back decades, and if you’d like a thorough yet brief overview please click here and read this brilliant essay. My point is to demonstrate the capricious sieve through which our exhibitions, publications and productions have to squeeze, and by extension, our fellowship applications and artist residency applications. The spiral works like this; lobbyists present reports paid for by right wing think tanks, foundations, and religious groups and these organizations pressure government. Despite apparent NEA and NEH victories during the 90’s, overall, funding for the arts is down significantly. According to the report "Public Funding for the Arts: 2013 Update," the numbers are window dressing:
Although the nominal increase over the past twenty-one years is positive, the landscape for public funding for the arts in this time period is much bleaker when accounting for inflation. In fact, after adjusting for inflation, public funding for the arts has decreased by more than 30 percent in this same period.
What are artists in 2017, the poets particularly, to do with the scraps that are left? We do what we can within what the current system is built to handle. We try to access the publishing system’s limited resources. A dubiously meritocratic, and competitive system: grant applications, writer’s retreats, artists in residence, and my personal favorite, book contests. Most of these require the applicant to pay a fee along with any corresponding paperwork. Perhaps no system does less to help artists than a system that asks broke artists to pay to help other broke artists. The poetry book contest system does just that. It asks hundreds of poets looking for that first book award to subsidize the first book award of one poet.
In reality, the contest system is more akin to the lottery—$25 and a dream! Poets polish up their manuscripts and submit them to book contests hoping their manuscript will win and be published. Maybe they’ll win a prize named after someone famous. Again, what are poets to do? Particularly, how do poets on the margins of society: LGBTQ, African American, Asian and Latino poets break through an already flawed system that like everything else in America, inherently contains institutional racism / discrimination, and elitism?
Thankfully, organizations like Cave Canem, Kundiman, Lambda Literary, VIDA, and Canto Mundo create safe spaces for marginalized voices in poetry. They are also producing incredible books! Cave Canem fellows have been winners or finalists for multiple National Book Awards. And if the recent displays of ignorance by white editors like Tim Green (editor of Rattle Magazine—see screenshot below), Kate Gale (Red Hen Press), and Vanessa Place (Les Figues Press) indicate what lurks behind the gilded fences of white gatekeepers, then we need even more support for minorities. Tim Green’s comments are particularly egregious because they confirm bias on the part of white editors and publishers to the concerns and struggles of minority writers.
*Screenshot courtesy of lisamecham.tumblr.com
However, if we look at poetry organizations and publishing critically, even our own model minority institutions begin to mirror the overall mainstream literary institution: awards, prizes, and contests. These outdated models also means that non-profit organizations sometimes accept donations from corporations like Target, Bank of America, Coca Cola, and McDonalds, no pillars of the community by any standard except capitalistic destruction.
Again, poets are left playing the game. We need to take all the influence we’re creating and create a whole new institution, one tailored to marginalized folk both in conceptualization and in fiscal determination. It’s a conversation worth having with rigor and intensity. We’ve got to exit their game. I wish I could write a spiffy one-paragraph solution for this worry. The “solution” will look different for different artists and our multi-faceted communities. What works for me in suburban New Jersey doesn’t automatically work for the poet in New York, or the artist in Colorado, or the novelist in Texas. We have to work within our communities to find the solutions that fit and share those results, so we can start to build.
* * *
As I read Roque Dalton’s poetry, criticism of his work, and details of his life I am struck by the intensity of the time in which he lived. The open violence, the national understanding that everything was on the line, that every breath was life and death. Looking around the United States I see the same things. I am from a community intimately familiar with the struggle against capitalism, economic exploitation, state sanctioned police authoritarianism and violence, and on and on. I am as obsessed with “the concept of poetry as a destructive activity” as Dalton was. But I steadfastly believe that no political system born of western political systems will effectively replace western political systems. Communism, Marxism, Leninism—none of it can effectively replace capitalism and democracy because they are a reaction to capitalism and democracy’s short comings. They are desperate fingers plugging holes in the damn. The literary and arts community sometimes reacts the same way.
* * *
If poetry survives it is because the people need it. The beauty of poetry is that it begins outside the book, off the page, and away from the podium. We bump into it and it inspires us. So long as that survives it doesn’t matter if po-biz consumes itself. From the ashes there will be more poetry. As Roque Dalton writes, “we apprehend the philosophy and poetry of the people / while traveling / through the cities and mountains of our land.”
Dalton, Roque. Poemas Clandestinos = Clandestine Poems. Trans. Jack Hirschman. San Francisco, CA: Solidarity Publications, 1984. Print.
Koch, Cynthia. "The NEA and NEH Funding Crisis." The NEA and NEH Funding Crisis. University of Pennsylvania, 1 Jan. 1998. Web. 12 June 2016. http://www.upenn.edu/pnc/ptkoch.html
Stubbs, Ryan. "Public Funding for the Arts: 2013 Update." Grantmakers in the Arts. 1 Oct. 2013. Web. 01 June 2016. http://www.giarts.org/article/public-funding-arts-2013-update
Alpaugh, David. "Essay: “What’s Really Wrong with Poetry Book Contests” by David Alpaugh." Rattle: Poetry. Rattle Literary Journal, 12 Nov. 2008. Web. 26 Nov. 2016. http://www.rattle.com/essay-whats-really-wrong-with-poetry-book-contests-by-david-alpaugh/
Roberto Carlos Garcia: "My book, Melancolía, is available from Červená Barva Press. My poems and prose have appeared or are forthcoming in Academy of American Poets Poem-A-Day, The New Engagement, Public Pool, Stillwater Review, Gawker, Barrelhouse, Tuesday; An Art Project, The Acentos Review, Lunch Ticket, and many others. I am the founder of Get Fresh Books, LLC, a cooperative press.
"A native New Yorker, I hold an MFA in Poetry and Poetry in Translation, and have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
"My website is http://www.robertocarlosgarcia.com/."