Friday, April 28, 2006

The Spanish Prisoner

The sun is bearing down on the springtime flora, but a chill hangs in the air today. I’ve spent the morning surfing for the web for hints, tips, clues, inklings, intimations, and leads to help with the paying portion of my writing career. Unfortunately, sometimes I’m convinced that if a map to my life exists, I’m probably holding it upside down. I posted my resume on one more job site yesterday, and true to form, I’ve been showered by responses—from Nigeria. Since we moved, I think I’ve received six offers to help free the cash that’s trapped by the prison of Nigerian bureaucracy. Just picture it: in an Internet cafe in Lagos, some young man or woman is pouring over resumes, selecting potential victims, and what better mark than a professional who wants a job?

It may sound perverse, but I do admire their creativity and tenacity. Although, by in large, the emails look like form letters, I have, through those Internet cafes, discovered that a long-lost relative died in an African plane crash, that Chinese distribution of goods into the United States is best facilitated through Western Union, that a small English textile firm needs to find its bookkeepers in the greater Cincinnati area, and that I could make up to $4000 if I had "quite a handful of trust and honesty." The backstories for some of these cons could fit nicely into an Alexander Dumas novel.

Of course, you’d think that if there were one field of enterprise where you could expect not to be duped, it would be poetry. But be wary of where you send your poems. A number of so-called publishers offer huge cash prizes for a single poem, and some of these legitimately dole out that $10,000 prize. But before you enter such a contest, understand that these publishers will often accept a multitude of honorable mentions and finalists for publication in an annual anthology. Sounds great, right? Unfortunately, to ever see your name in print, you have to buy the anthology, and it ain’t cheap. Businesses like this, while not legally fraudulent, are, in my opinion, simply cons. Although they do not prey on one’s greed, as the Spanish prisoner game would, they do encourage false expectations. Indeed, such enterprises prey on a writer’s vanity. For me, that vanity vacillates turbulently between extremes of self-aggrandizement and self-doubt, and seems, consequently, to be a perfect target for such schemes.

More, endless publishers might fawn over your poems, producing perfect-bound volumes that you can slide onto your shelves right next to Shelley and Keats—assuming you’ve written a large enough check. If you can avoid the path at all, try not to use such a vanity press. Such publishers rarely place books in brick-and-mortar stores. Plus, the entirety of any marketing budget will have to pour from your pockets.

Sure such a miasma is disconcerting, but it’s also apropos, because, to me, poetry itself functions a bit like a confidence game. Most of the time, a poem, like a pigeon drop, begins as a chance encounter between two strangers. For the poem to work, a certain level of trust must be established. Through visual cues on the page (line breaks, stanzas, white space), a poet can instantly signal that a particular work is a poem. The title, I suppose, then demarcates the nature of the relationship, or at least aims us both in the general direction. With the opening lines, a poet must be genuine within the artifice of the poem, just as a con man must be believable in the game. This is why voice is crucial to poetry. If your voice is affected or overly imitative, why should the reader trust you enough to go further into a poem? However, if your voice is genuine, the reader, like a mark, will be more likely to accept the stipulations of the scam...uh…poem. But, after the poem has been read, this comparison breaks down. A scam functions to fleece you, whereas a good poem offers itself to you. It asks, nothing more than that you contemplate it, that you remember it.

Now then, where is that Spanish prisoner?


Blogger Les said...

A note about "vanity" publication. Until recently, vanity publications have been viewed as an anathema. With newer technologies, such as PageMaker, blogs, and pay-on-demand publishing, self-publishing has become much easier, and in some ways, more respected.

Since this blog is a bit of a vanity exercise, I won't encourage anyone not to self-publish or use a vanity press--just be careful. And remember, that e.e. cummings published No Thanks himself.

3:34 AM  
Blogger Les said...

An interesting article by Hillary Rhodes about another intersection of poetics and scam artists:

In this case, noticed any poetry in your spam....?

12:05 AM  

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