With Roy Mash, Events Coordinator
for Marin Poetry Center.
The Professionalization of Poetry – Thurs., Feb. 21, 7:30 PM – Falkirk Cultural Center, San Rafael.
Panelists include Becky Foust (above), David Alpaugh (top right) and myself.
Given the topic, The Professionalization of Poetry, David Alpaugh begins by turning to Wikipedia for a definition of Professionalization:
“Professionalization is the social process by which any trade or occupation transforms itself into a true ‘profession of the highest integrity and competence.’ This process tends to involve establishing acceptable qualifications, a professional body or association to oversee the conduct of members of the profession and some degree of demarcation of the qualified from unqualified amateurs. This creates ‘a hierarchical divide between the knowledge-authorities in the professions and a deferential citizenry.’ This demarcation is often termed ‘occupational closure’, as it means that the profession then becomes closed to entry from outsiders, amateurs and the unqualified: a stratified occupation ‘defined by professional demarcation and grade.’ The origin of this process is said to have been with guilds during the Middle Ages, when they fought for exclusive rights to practice their trades as journeymen, and to engage unpaid apprentices.
“Professions also possess power, prestige, high income, high status and privileges; their members soon come to comprise an elite class of people, cut off to some extent from the common people, and occupying an elevated station in society: ‘a narrow elite…a hierarchical social system: a system of ranked orders and classes.’
The professionalization process tends to establish the group norms of conduct and qualification of members of a profession and tends also to insist that members of the profession achieve ‘conformity to the norm’ and abide more or less strictly with the established procedures and any agreed code of conduct, which is policed by professional bodies, for ‘accreditation assures conformity to general expectations of the profession.’
– Someone at the Poetry Center later commented on our panel, “Rebecca Foust was thorough in her objections and rebuttals (like the lawyer that she is); Robert Sward gave a sweet, scruffy flavor to the event as someone who’s been around the poetry scene for 50 years…” okay, but still trying to figure out what “scruffy” means… physical appearance? Presentation?
– The crux of the matter is this, that writing workshops end up teaching poets to write poems that will pass muster in the workshop, the little “hot house…” writing poems to please the other students. More than anything else… it’s insecurity, that’s a constant in every workshop I’ve sat in on, taught, been a student in… too often that’s the emotion than overrides all others… so, out of fear, so it seems to me, people too often are too willing to write to please. Love me, love my poem. Love me, love my poem.
– For me, the best thing about the three years I spent in Iowa City – I was later invited back to teach –
was the importance of poetry… that there wasn’t a day when I wasn’t writing or somehow interacting with others who were doing the same. And I had plenty of insecurity. I just didn’t sign on to the prevailing aesthetic, Brooks & Warren, John Crowe Ransom, the New Criticism… this was half a century ago. Shit!
– I’m old enough (older than John McCain!) to have heard Robert Frost at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference (c. 1960) say calling oneself a poet was a form of arrogance. Frost said a seat companion on a train once asked him what he did for a living. Frost answered saying he was a farmer.
– Never call yourself a poet, he said. That’s for other people to do. One has to earn the designation. You’re a poet for other reasons than the fact you’ve earned an MFA.
– But what do I know? I’ve been writing and publishing since 1957… I have doubts… I know at some level I haven’t changed since I began scribbling aboard LST 914 during the Korean War. I’m a wannabe. Wannabe. Wannabe. Wannabe. Fine. I don’t give a fuck. As long as I can go on writing.
[more to come…]
David Alpaugh’s essay “The Professionalization of Poetry” was serialized in the Jan/Feb and March/April 2003 issues of Poets & Writers Magazine and drew hundreds of emails and wide discussion on the Internet. Alpaugh’s fiction, drama, and criticism have appeared in more than a hundred literary journals and anthologies. His first collection, Counterpoint, won the Nicholas Roerich Poetry Prize from Story Line Press, and his chapbooks have been published by Coracle Books and Pudding House. One of the Bay Area’s most popular featured readers, he has taught at the University of California Berkeley Extension and hosts a monthly reading series at Valona Delicatessen in Crockett. His second collection Heavy Lifting appeared earlier this year from Alehouse Press. “The Professionalization of Poetry” is available on-line at Huston Poetry Review.
Rebecca Foust, a former activist and grassroots political organizer for students with learning disorders, is currently pursuing her MFA in poetry in Warren Wilson’s low residency program. Her book about raising a son with Asperger’s Syndrome, Dark Card, won the 2007 Robert Phillips Poetry Chapbook Award (Texas Review Press), and her full length manuscript was a finalist in three national book competitions, including Poetry’s 2007 Emily Dickinson First Book Award. Also in 2007, Foust’s poetry won two Pushcart nominations and several other awards and distinctions, appearing in Atlanta Review, JAMA, Margie, 2007 Marin Poetry Center Anthology, North American Review, Nimrod International Journal and many other reviews.
Robert Sward has taught at Cornell University, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and UC Santa Cruz. A Fulbright scholar and Guggenheim Fellow, he was chosen by Lucille Clifton to receive a Villa Montalvo Literary Arts Award. His many books include “Four Incarnations” (Coffee House Press); “Heavenly Sex,” “The Collected Poems,” and “God is in the Cracks” (Black Moss Press). “The Collected” and “God is in the Cracks” are now in their second printing.