On Vermont’s Poet Laureate & Reputable Publishers

 

A new anthology of Vermont Poets will be published in 2017. The anthology will be curated by Chard DeNiord and Vermont’s previous Poet Laureate, Sydney Lea.  The anthology, by Green Writers Press, will be a wonderful opportunity for the poets included and I wish them all success and a wonderful reception. And that would be that—if not for the Poet Laureate’s utterly baffling qualification:

“After seven months gathering poems from round the state by poets who have published at least one book of poetry by a reputable publisher.”

Wut?

To be clear, Vermont’s current and previous Poet Laureates are within their rights to apply whatever criteria they want. They could have written: We will only publish poets with fuscia book covers. That’s their business. They could have written: The self-published need not apply; or bloggers; or they could have used the slightly more dismissive 90’s sobriquet, “Vanity Press”.

Okay, too bad for me and others like me. The mystery is why Vermont’s Poet Laureate felt compelled, in the Close-Up section of the Valley News, to use the term “reputable publishers”—implying that all the rest are disreputable. It’s an entirely gratuitous comment. Are their disreputable publishers in Vermont? Who cares? And since when have readers ever demanded poems that were reputably published? Don’t readers read for quality, or am I mistaken? And it’s dismissively insulting, besides. Based on DeNiord’s prior defense of Academia  (and Sydney Lea’s revelatory dismissal of me as a self-published poet) I think I know what he has in mind.

Sydney Lea’s pedigree (Vermont’s prior Poet Laureate) includes professorships at Dartmouth College, Yale University, Wesleyan University, Vermont College, Middlebury College, Franklin University Switzerland, and the National Hungarian University. He founded New England Review in 1977 and edited it till 1989. The current Vermont Poet Laureate’s pedigree includes Master’s Degrees from Yale and the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. He’s currently, according to Wikipedia, a professor at Providence College and has been a Poetry Fellow at Sewanee Writer’s Conference (The University of the South) and an Allan Collins Scholar in Poetry at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference (Middlebury College). Is it any wonder Vermont’s Poet Laureate glowingly praised the previous Poet Laureate’s “New England Review”?  We can assume the latter is a reputable publisher.

For all aspiring poets and bloggers in Vermont, your current and prior Poet Laureates’ attitudes are clear. You’re not welcome if you’re not reputably published. Forget it. Let’s not forget that Vermont’s current Poet Laureate compared the Internet to weeds. And if you expect to be a Poet Laureate, or just want a little back-scratching, it’s pretty clear in what circles you’d better start circling. Don’t think you can get anywhere by publishing your own works.

For instance, we can speculate that both Poet Laureates would have turned their noses up at William Shakespeare’s first book of poetry, Venus and Adonis, published in 1593. The wildly popular book was discouraged at Oxford University (students reportedly hid it under their beds) because Oxford academes considered it distracting and pornography. In a word? — disreputable. And both Vermont’s Poet Laureates might have felt quite at home with the aristocrats (and Puritans) who considered the whole playgoing  business disreputable. Certainly, neither poet laureate would have touched Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Though scholarly debate continues, the publisher of the sonnets, Thomas Thorpe, is thought to have disreputably acquired the poems. If true, thank God for disreputable publishers.

Neither of Vermont’s Poet Laureates would have given New England’s Emily Dickinson a second look. Not only did she not publish a first book, but when her poems were finally published, and posthumously, the whole affair was anything but reputable.  Ironic that Mr. DeNiord should opine, in a previous Valley News article, that there might be other Dickinson’s out there. I can’t fathom how either poet laureate would ever discover her.

And Robert Frost? DeNiord discusses Robert Frost’s Mowing, but doesn’t mention that the poem was written in 1900. The poem wouldn’t appear in print for another 15 years. In fact, a first book by Robert Frost wasn’t “professionally” published until 1915, when he was 41 years old (nearly half his life behind him); and only because he had left New England (which had ignored him) for England. If DeNiord and Lea had been around in 1910, they wouldn’t have given Frost or Mowing a second look.

Frost’s first book was a self-published collection of poems called —Twilight. The book contained the poems: My Butterfly, An  Unhistoric Spot, Summering, The Falls, and Twilight, and was a gift to Eleanor Frost. Thank goodness he only printed two copies, neither of Vermont’s Poet Laureates would have given him the time of day for that unsavory little book. And then there’s Walt Whitman— self-published and who disreputably reviewed Leaves of Grass under pseudonyms. And then there’s EE Cummings, another self-published poet and, incidentally, no great friend of academia. But I sound like a broken record.

What a shame that Vermont has somehow chosen two Poet Laureates so utterly tone deaf and hostile to an otherwise thriving community; and who intentionally or otherwise confirm every cliché of a literature curated by an elite, ivory tower cabal. (I’d be surprised if DeNiord ever advocated for a return to poetry in Newspapers.) Vermont’s poets deserve better.

DeNiord closes his Valley News article noting that Frost, in Mowing, combines “two opposites, dream and fact”, and then admiringly goes on to comment:

“While contradictory  on the surface this line [The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows] captures the ecstatic yet empirical nature of work, exemplifying what F. Scott Fitzgerald — perhaps American’s most poetic prose writers — called ‘the test of a first-rate intelligence.. the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

I’d have to say that Mr. DeNiord ought to try that test. Or if he has, he hasn’t been doing so well. He might, for a little while, consider the possibility that great poetry has, can, and will continue to happen in the most disreputable of places. He only has to look.

upinVermont | September 11th 2016

9 responses

  1. Great post. This is especially relevant given that, according to Seven Days, Mr. DeNiord stated that one of his goals as poet laureate is “to break down the walls of fear and intimidation many people feel toward poetry.”

    • And, you know, I get and appreciate the impulse, I just think it’s a really unfortunate way to frame it. I honestly haven’t spoken to or exchanged email with anyone who stated that they were “afraid of or intimated by poetry”. I just think it’s a very condescending way to start the conversation.

      If anything, I would ask Mr DeNiord, why are you so afraid of and intimidated by readers?

  2. As usual, you’re on the money, and with deliciously precise documentation. Does Vermont have any muckrakers? Digging into the story of how Vermont chooses its Laureates, those responsible for the decision, what the defined criteria are, how long the nomination and selection process takes place, how often it occurs supplemented by what a good cross-section of active poets [reputably published or not::0)] believe the implications for the advance of poetry in Vermont might make a hell of a read. It might even make a difference for the future. On the other hand, it’s probably worth realizing that people like Mr. DeNiord are lucky to be alive having to breathe through so much snot as they do.

    I actually printed out but then set aside the Valley News article and response intending to write my own $.02, but turned instead to writing a report on an effort of mine over the summer to try and stimulate long range comprehensive energy planning parallel to what Vermont has just completed. At least some good things seem to be happening in the Green Mountain state. It does help to start out with the right mindset, though, doesn’t it?.

    • Well, the requirements (to be Vermont’s PL) are as follows:

      • The Vermont Poet Laureate is a person who is a resident of Vermont; (Vermont being his/her primary residence)
      • whose poetry manifests a high degree of excellence;
      • who has produced a critically acclaimed body of work;
      • who has a long association with Vermont.

      From here.

      If competence is the same as “a high degree of excellence”, then DeNiord’s poetry qualifies. As for a critically acclaimed body of work, I don’t recall DeNiord being critically acclaimed by anyone for anything, (let alone well-known) in Vermont. I think it’s all but obvious he was well-known in academic circles. And you know what? I don’t have a problem with that. And anyway who cares whether I have a problem with it? The only thing that really bothers me is his seemingly condescending attitude toward any poet who isn’t in academia and/or hasn’t received a stamp of approval from a “reputable’ publisher — which I’m guessing is largely dominated by academic presses?

      And I don’t have a problem with academia either, as long as it’s inclusive.

      But yeah, that comment about “reputable publishers” really baffled me. Did he even think about what he was writing? Was it a dig? I don’t get it.

  3. I read diNiord’s article. Ironic he cast Frost as exemplary. The article seems more like diNiord’s version of “Mending Wall” in which he takes the neighbor’s point of view. Worse really, because after walling you out the neighbor requires you pay his salary. Frost as state employee I reckon.

    • DiNiord doesn’t get a state salary. I think Vermont’s Poet Laureates get 1000 dollars, prestige and lots of recognition (or what little Vermont affords). It’s a club like any other. In my moments of delusional grandeur, I ask myself whether I’d really want to be a Poet Laureate. Setting aside the appeal to ego and vanity, I don’t think I would take up the fantasy-offer. I’m too much of a happy hermit. :-)

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