Earl Gray

Earl Gray
"You can argue with me but, in the end, you'll have to face that fact that you're arguing with a squirrel." - Earl Gray

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Salamander Entropy

   "If everyone is thinking alike no one is thinking at all." - Bill Walsh

    In "Exploding the Groupthink Myth" the point was made that serious criticism expands rather than contracts boundaries.  Speaking more generally, the critic--be it a critiquer before publication or a reviewer afterwards--is the only unambiguous force for originality, diversity and quality.  Since originality is a subset of the other two, let's concentrate on diversity and quality. When it comes to material, design and execution, better is different enough.

     If there is a spate of bad verse the critic won't be shy about saying so, collectively ("Is this the best we can do?") or individually ("Is this the best you can do?").  The critic's standards are not affected by time, personalities or some bizarre pressure to be upbeat while standing in an outhouse basement.

     Unless they have the option of not publishing anything during dry spells, editors will, perforce, lower their standards and give us the best of a bad lot.  No, they're not happy about it;  they'd love to have a steady stream of scintillating, innovative works.  Weak editions are inevitable and there is no reason for an editor to apologize for them.  The best angler can't catch trout in a drought.  Shit happens.

     It follows that, in practice, quality tends to move in lockstep with diversity.  As an extreme example, imagine producing a monthly e-zine featuring sonnets about salamanders.  How many great poems, let alone sonnets, are written on that subject each month?  If the best poem written that month is about newts aren't you oh-so-close but out-of-luck?  Naturally, the more narrow our focus the lower the quantity and quality of submissions and, in turn, the lower the standard for the publication.  Not surprisingly, literary magazines rarely place any limitations on subject matter or styles. 

Rattle's Tim Green
     Or do they?  Not explicitly, but they usually do insist that submitters read not only their guidelines but the underlying periodical itself.  The editor may think the point they're making is "Don't send us junk" but a different message reaches the poet:  "Send us more of same."  Thus, the track record--the mere existence--of a journal will mitigate against diversity which will, by reducing the number of contributions, compromise quality over the long run. 

  Editors are keenly aware of this entropy.  The circumspect ones, among them Timothy Green of "Rattle" on the print side, Mike Burch of "TheHyperTexts", Christine Klocek-Lim of "Autumn Sky Poetry" (currently on hiatus) and O.P.W. Fredricks of "Touch: The Journal of Healing" from the pixel side, take a proactive approach, shaking the bushes for recommendations from critics.  Others watch their options dovetail.

     Speaking as an editor, let me interject that, while no individual outlet does, publishers in toto show at least as much variety as we see in a high end workshop.

Molly Peacock

     Nowhere will we see less range than among winning contest entries.  As an indicator let's use form, if only because it is the most evident and verifiable criterion.  Workshops show the greatest diversity, with metrical poems comprising between 20% and 50%.  That is about twice what we see in literary publications.  Meter is extremely rare in poetry contest short lists.  Citing one example, to my knowledge and despite having been judged by Molly Peacock, not a single line of verse has finished in the winners' circles of the annual CBC Literary Awards.  Free verse doesn't fare much better.  Almost without exception, slice-of-life prose narratives rule the day.  Before investing their time and money participants will read successful entries from previous years and produce "more of same", in some cases without regard to who is judging. 

    Let's flip the perspective.  What if you were to write a unique brilliancy?  The critiquers would, of course, rave about it.  Then what, though?  It's the Watermelon Problem but from an author's perspective:  to which outlet do you send something that is inconsistent with everything that that  particular venue has ever published?  Why even bother?  (Were shyness and humility the only reasons that four of the five most remarkable poems of this century were never submitted over-the-transom by their authors?)

    We can predict what follows.  Sending the masterpiece to a contest would be a complete waste of time;  judges know their decisions will always be seen as controversial but careers and contests can be ruined by choices that are viewed as outlandish.

     Maybe you send your gem to a literary magazine, as T.S. Eliot did.  To no one's surprise, it is summarily rejected, as "Prufrock" was.  End of story...

Ezra Pound
...until and unless the editor is swayed by an Ezra Pound, as Harriet Moore was.  (In this albeit rare and unlikely scenario, the role of Mr. Pound is played by the aforementioned effervescent critics.)

    The rest, as they say, is history.

     Indeed, I have it on good authority that this plot line is about to play out in the upcoming edition of "Rattle" magazine.  You'll know it when you see it.  (Hint:  FM-AtH)

    How's that for a teaser?

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