On "Harsh Advice"


Is there anything twitter loves more than a hot take? This one happens to be particularly hot garbage and has since been deleted but not before sparking all kinds of reactions, jokes, counterpoints, and eviscerations.

My personal favorite was Tiana Clark's "Loving Writing Advice"--we need more of that. 

Last summer while literally everything was happening in the world, everything was happening in the literary community too. The conversation around literary equity, opportunity, and leadership structures is not new and many poets have talked about it long before that letter, and the conversation will continue--has to continue. Still, this summer felt like a definite shift, especially after the (at least to me) unexpected response from the Poetry Foundation

What bothers me about this tweet is that endorses a false paradigm designed to both save and earn publishers money. Writers are not in competition with each other. The Ruth Lilly Award only goes to writers between 25-31 because that's how the Poetry foundation wants it, not because they're short on cash; they're literally sitting on millions. 

And it's not just PoFo, Universities sit on huge endowments--what is stopping higher ed from investing a portion of their stockpiled cash into poetry? (The social pressure to do so, apparently.) According to US News and World Report

Among the 354 ranked universities that provided this data to U.S. News in an annual survey, the average endowment size at the end of fiscal year 2019 was nearly $1.4 billion

Check out a trade publication. Look at the deals YA writers get. Look at the deals fiction writers get. Then look at what publishers offer poets. They literally have us fighting each other over a few thousand dollars when clearly the industry has more than enough to dispense with the artificial scarcity model. Granted (pun) we aren't talking JD Robb or Grisham money, but the money exists, and it isn't exactly paltry.


Scarcity is a mindset publishers exploit because it's easy to do. American society is already hierarchical, so making poetry competitive naturally thins the herd a bit. And we poets are part of the problem, too. Buying into scarcity mindsets makes writers guarded, suspicious, less likely to collaborate: I'm going to stay over here in my little poetry Shiloh and I'm not going to share my ideas because you might steal them!

By Alejandro Bayer Tamayo from Armenia, Colombia - Ensifera ensifera (Pico de sable), CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44458411
Some of you know my day job isn't poetic at all but let me tell you, I see the exact same imagined competition in that space, and the ramifications are just as disastrous.

On the left are two hummingbirds. The sword-bill hummingbird's uniquely long bill and tongue make it super weird, but also mean it can drink from flowers other hummingbirds can't. The short-billed (more common bill) hummingbird cannot drink from the trumpet flowers that feed the sword-bill hummingbird, and vice versa.

And while they're doing all that drinking, they're cross-pollinating (see the orangy yellow on its throat? That is pollen!) flora that might otherwise die. This weird little bird does its part to make its ecosystem diverse and strong and its short-billed buddy doesn't waste energy trying to get in the way of Zoro, instead, shortie is tending to its own flower field. 

We cannot allow foundations and corporations (and clout seeking trolls online) (and our own insecurities) to convince us that other writers are our competition. 

They are not. Full stop. 

I cannot write a Todd Dillard portrait of intimacy and he cannot write a Lysz Flo rally cry for freedom in three languages. And we need BOTH those poems in the world. Each of us brings a unique set of talents, values, sensibilities, and frames of reference to the page, and there is room enough for all of us if you're willing to acknowledge that the poetry landscape is broader than your "top tier" mags and rockstar poets. 

Truly a lot of this goes back to the way we're taught poetry in school. Perhaps if poetry curriculums highlighted #livingpoets of varied career stages, the competitive mindset would feel less natural. I have hope in this regard, as so many of my tender poet-teacher friends are putting this concept into practice, shifting pedagogy to provide a more nuanced view of what "success" is in poetry. Every summer my heart glows as the TL fills with calls to "Drop your Links" as teacher-friends incorporate their homies into the curriculum--and why not? 

Committing to supporting each other and building each other up makes our ecosystem stronger and more diverse. When The Estuary Collective holds readings and workshops (all free, you should definitely sign up) we give our knowledge away. Why? Because it makes our ecosystem stronger and more diverse. We learn, and you learn. You share, we share; you grow, we grow, and that's how the environment thrives, it's how we thrive in the face of our actual competition: distraction, discouragement, disillusionment. 

So here's the call to action. When Ashley Evans, Lysz Flo, Zora Satchell, and I met this summer, we bonded over our disillusionment with the state of publishing and the literary landscape and we channeled that energy into building The Estuary. What are you personally going to do to help make the ecosystem stronger and more diverse?

  • Consider donating to your local arts organization (money OR TIME), or volunteering to run a workshop or participating in a work exchange with other writers. 
  • If you're feeling a little spicy, look up your alma mater or local university here to find out how much of an endowment they have, then start working the phones to push for more poetry funding from the school. 
  • Are you a teacher? Teach living poets
  • Are you a student? Advocate for/do your research/papers on living poets (resources: 1, 2, 3). 
  • Are you an editor? Consider sliding scale fees for emerging writers. 
  • Are you a poetry fan? Volunteer to read for little magazines and presses. 
  • Do you run a press? Consider anthology issues that center underrepresented voices, like current and formerly incarcerated persons.
  • Are you in an MFA program? Commit to sharing your resources (lecture notes, PDF's, craft videos, inside-scoop-opportunities) to non-credentialed and traditionally marginalized emerging writers. 
  • Are you a poetry lover? Donate books of poetry to your local jails and prisons

This isn't an exhaustive list, just the exhausted ramblings of a girl with insomnia. Just give back. The bottom-line reason why that tweet was so out of whack was that it underestimated the value of poetry in the first place, it commodified the practice and ran roughshod over the best part: our community.


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