(For those of you bored by politics, just skip this paragraph and go to the next one—this is just background info.) To be fair, Macon seems to have not actually actively sought this position, and seemed just as surprised about it as those who objected to her selection. In many ways, it seems as though she was handpicked by McCrory not because of her background in poetry, but because of her shared political ideals, and there could be some parallels drawn between her and George W. Bush’s failed nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court in 2005—yet another conservative Republican nominee who lacked the credentials associated with the position (Miers had no knowledge or background in constitutional law, had never served as a judge in any capacity, and her background in law was predominately managerial and administrative as a member of the Bar Association). Miers nomination ended in a withdrawal before the completion of her confirmation hearings. While a Poet Laureate is simply appointed with no formality in the confirmation process beyond the tradition of working in tandem with a state level arts council or other representative body, Macon resigned from the position before moving into service.
But let’s skip the politics and talk about the important part—the part that applies to us as poets. Both sides of the conversation that have surrounded this controversy have been detrimental to us as an arts community, and this is why. On the McCrory side, his assertion has been that collaborating with established writers perpetuates an elitist system set up by MFA programs that rewards only its own people. It’s not all that far removed from George W. Bush’s commenting that he wouldn’t listen to “eggheads” in policy making and decisions—the “elite” are simply full of themselves and serve little purpose other than justifying their own existence, even though they really have nothing to contribute. On the other side of the conversation, you have established writers and academics saying that self-publishing is the mark of a hack and deriding Macon’s work solely on that basis—painting with a very broad brush the idea of the self-published author as a delusional wannabe who will never make it. Both of these conversations are popular myths within certain audiences, and we need to jettison them right now, because they are doing us no good.
Let’s start with the McCrory idea about the “elite.” “The elite” is something that gets thrown around quite a bit as a term, and it’s meant to designate a learned class as a bunch of pompous fools who are full of themselves, out of touch with reality, and staunchly set in preserving the nature of their discipline, unchanging, forever and ever, amen. 90% of the time, from the right wing, you hear it used to refer to any academic with left-leaning politics. Learned people who are liberal are elitists. Learned people who are conservative are martyrs. This, of course, leaves out the fact that both sides tend to be elitists who want to exclude opposing views from the conversation, but let’s skip that for now.
MFA programs are getting the biggest drubbing in this one. As is becoming quite common in our culture right now, arts education is being painted as “silly.” Why would you waste your time with that? Going to school to write? What, undergrad didn’t teach you how to make the pen work? You need another 2-5 years to figure it out? Of course, the same could be said of an MBA program—8 year olds get the concept of a lemonade stand, but you need an advanced degree? How slow are you?
As with the MBA and many other advanced degrees, the point of continuing on with the education is not so much the ongoing learning of the skill, but the continued honing of the craft—the nuances, practice, experience, and depth of experience which brings a richness to the individual’s knowledge of their field. It’s also about establishing contacts—kissing hands and shaking babies (or however that works, I’m always bad in social situations). Almost everyone would agree you will make it much further in business with contacts and connections, and the art world is no difference. Connections with other writers, writing groups, support networks, editors, and publishing houses that come from guest lecturers, speakers, and graduate conferences all enrich the life and potential of the dedicated writer. The MFA also turns out people capable not only of practicing their craft, but conveying it as well. They become the workshop leaders, professors, teachers, and cultural leaders who continue to inspire other writers to follow along behind and develop their own voices. They are the torch keepers of the cultural condition, and they protect and nurture the cultural conversation just as much through the rigidity and errors of their ways as they do through liberal acceptance and fostering of experience. One of the most important literary movements of the 20th Century—the Beat Generation—would not have come about if it were not for a certain group of students who decided their writing professors at Columbia University were more than a little full of shit and set out to create a literature of their own which served as the roots for confessionalism, slam poetry, rap, and more. So let’s not discount the importance of MFA programs as well as the growing number of doctoral programs in the arts simply because we think what those students choose to study is “silly.” I assure you, most of us think people who aspire to go sit in cubicles for the rest of their lives so they can die with the most toys seem pretty ridiculous to us as well, which is why you won’t find too many of us at the MBA fraternity mixers.
But we’re not going to let the other side off easy on this one either, because there is a terrible injustice being perpetrated by a community of artists when they decide they can offhandedly dismiss an entire group of other artists simply because of the method of delivery. The publishing world has changed a great deal. Self-publishing used to mean you went out, found a vanity press, paid them a great deal of money, and pedaled your books by any means necessary, often winding up with a small room or large closet somewhere in your house filled with boxes of copies of your book that you could not get rid of. This was also a time when publishers were much more open to new writers, there were more small presses, and a larger retail market that wasn’t focused directly into a few major big box retailers and even fewer massive online markets. In that climate, if you were a good writer, you were more likely to be found (eventually). If you were a lousy writer, a vanity press was your one shot, and you paid through the nose to do it, so vanity press books were often the result of people with middling ambition, minimal talent, and decent checking accounts who could afford to throw a couple thousand dollars at pretty, nicely bound volumes of rhyming grocery lists.
But the world is changing for writers in the digital age in the same way it has for musicians, filmmakers, and other artists. Presses are becoming more selective—putting their money behind guaranteed sellers and taking fewer risks as the market streamlines. Independent retailers are disappearing (as are some of the big box stores). But on the plus side, self-publishing, much like recording and distributing your own music or making your own movie, has become much less expensive, and the self-publisher has access to a much wider range of distribution methods. You’re no longer sitting on five cases of hardbound books in your kitchen pantry. If you want to sell on Amazon, you can do that without going to Random House, and you will make a larger percentage from the sales of your book than you will with a traditional publisher, because you’re cutting out the middle-person in the equation. You can write, edit, and format your book at home. For a small fee, there are people you can hire to professionally edit your work for you. You can then publish it on demand using digital sites for small up-front fees that are quickly recouped.*
This does not mean that self-published books are suddenly better in quality. It does, mean that some self-published books are better in quality. And let’s not pretend that traditional publishing guarantees promises of only great art making it into the market place. Traditional publishing gave us Jewel’s book (yes, I know, I should probably have a blog tag for Jewel bashing), the Twilight saga, and 50 Shades of Grey (which, in the interest of full disclosure, was originally self-published before it was picked up by a major press). These books sold millions, but they are not art (in my, albeit subjective, opinion, so put your sword down). Self-publishing has also brought us Eragon, and the Trylle saga, and people seem to forget that Whitman, Blake, Joyce, and Woolf began their careers by self-publishing (yes, that’s right, Leaves of Grass was originally a little vanity project, so suck it).
The writers who quickly condemned Macon’s writing for being self-published do a disservice to the reality of the writing world right now, especially for poets. The market for poetry is small, and many poets, as they begin to establish themselves, at the very least self-publish chapbooks so there is something on the market that they can use to get their work out to the public. My chapbook is self-published the old fashioned way—I went to a local printer with my PDF (OK, maybe not totally old-fashioned) in hand (well, I file transferred it to their website) and paid about 250 bucks up front to get a box with 100 copies in it, about 87 of which are sitting in a closet right now because I think I published it too soon and I should have waited until I had honed my craft further. At the same time, I was faced with having been booked for my first ever reading and a poetry mentor that said, “Honey, put a chapbook together so you have something to sell at it.” It represents, for the most part, the best of my poetry at the time with a few duds that were crowd pleasers when I read them out loud, but I kind of cringe at the thought of them being in print (hence the box in the closet, though I would be happy to sell you one if you would like it /end shameless self-promotional plug).
There is not a ton of Macon’s work online, and what I was able to find I will confess to not liking. I don’t think it’s particularly good. Then again, there are some celebrated poets who I don’t think are particularly good (cough—Emily Dickinson—cough), and “good” is subjective. I don’t think that Macon should have been disqualified as a Poet Laureate simply because of her small body of self-published work. I think her lack of experience as an organizer and champion of the arts and writing community, on the other, is a major problem, and I am glad that she had the bravery to step down from a position that, once again, she didn’t ask for in the first place.
Sadly, this is a moment in which politics attempted to make art political (notice they never go looking for political art to do it with, because that would be difficult, especially if the politics didn’t agree). I hope Macon continues to hone her craft, and to do the good advocacy work for the homeless that does seem to have been an important part of her work in the community. I think McCrory took the low road in making this minor appointment a political issue, but I think both sides have done a terrible job with this conversation, because they have turned those of us who are coming up through the system in an attempt to establish ourselves as writers into punching bags. You can have a valid voice without crossing through an MFA program (or even a Bachelor’s program…heck, high school drop outs can write brilliant things), and strong artistic voices must begin somewhere, and in the current climate, self-publishing is just as valid a beginning as the painter who exhibits at the local bank or the musician who plays at the local coffee shop. For some reason, as writers, we’re expected to somehow be satisfied with creating art that sits on our hard drives and in our desk drawers until someone validates it for us. No one slams the street musician who scrapes together the money to press a CD or upload some studio tracks to iTunes. We don’t bag on the filmmaker who takes a camcorder into the woods and makes a $5000 movie that makes $100 million at the box office (Blair Witch Project). But for some reason, when you write, you’re supposed to just be happy to have a sheaf of paper somewhere that you know came from you, even if no one else ever, ever reads it.
Don’t be afraid to put your work out there. Be brave, be bold, take your chances, and take the risk that someday you’ll pull that book off the shelf, flip it open, and say, “Oh, why did I put that one in here?” Emily Dickinson is one of the most celebrated poets America turned out, and she died with all her poems locked in a trunk, never having published a single one. Think of how different her life, and maybe even her craft, would have been, if she could have pulled out that first or second book and thought, “’Because I did not stop for death—he kindly stopped for me’? What the hell was I thinking? And maybe I should stop using so many dashes.”
*Worth noting, however, is that publishing through a traditional press, whether a major publishing house or a small independent press, still affords you a greater deal of legitimacy as a writer and also guarantees you a certain ease of distribution as well as better promotion. The great dream for most writers is to make it to “the big time” by getting a real, honest, book deal, and it’s a worthwhile dream to have, because publishers still need great material, can give you great support, and help to perpetuate the arts community. Independent publishers, especially, are more likely to care about your work and want it to see the light of day, not only because they believe in the quality of your work, but because often their reputation rides on the quality of the work they publish. Random House and Simon & Schuster can afford to throw some clunkers out onto the market and take the write off. A small press that put out six titles a year really wants your book to be both good and successful.