A Note from Mel

Make the connection…

Finding the Publishable in the Published and Unpublished March 10, 2009

Finding the Publishable in the Published and Unpublished


By Melanie Henderson


Literary spaces, such as blogs like this one, bookstores, college campuses (with both literary academia and poetry showcases) beg the question, what constitutes the strength of America’s literary landscape today?


Who gets published? Why do they get published? Should they be published?


Too often, I read poems aligned on the page “like poetry” or I listen to poets who present their work “like poetry,” but who fail to elevate the literary landscape. Why is there so much ineffective, untouching, (sometimes) shock value poetry being published? Relatedly, I cannot help but be concerned with the abundance of “high academia” poetry which lacks the unpretentious impetus that motivates us as writers to write (you know, the reason we answered the call to be artists in the first place?) Is there a happy medium?


I would love to believe that many writers approach writing like Opal Palmer Adisa suggests:


There is good sex, then there is a great poem that leaps off the page. When you love someone, you take your time making love to them, you enjoy kissing their entire body, you want to spend every free time you have being in the company of that person. As a wordsmith, you must go to the page with the same ardor, the same willingness to go the distance so in the act of making love you are both satisfied, the poet and the poem, bathed in the juices of an afternoon of blissful love making. (Callaloo 27.3 (2004), An Excerpt from Quotes Community: Notes for Black Poets, edited by T.S. Ellis).


If even half of the published poems were approached with the investment of passion Adisa describes, I hardly believe there’d be reason for begging questions like how and why is this poem published to remain in the legacy of American poetry? Moreover, why are so many poems with which writers have made love not published? Why do the promiscuous poets get so much play?


How much does privilege and access have to do with getting poetry published in the so-called canon of American Literature? To that question, what is American? Are all we American writers, properly represented with work that is worthwhile and groundbreaking (or at minimum, satisfying)?


Let me be clear, this is not a judgment of good or bad poetry. I do not believe identifying a poem as good or bad moves the literary community forward but rather supports elitism. However, if we critique poems/poets in terms of efficacy, evocation, and perspective-altering poetry, then we may begin to write and publish poetry that propels us into a future of substance.


I wonder will the day come when I am so wrought with form and device that I forget what drives my heart for the passion in this craft. I also pray that I never get so caught up in the propaganda of my own poetry that I believe my way is the only way or the proper way…that only people who sound like, think like and look like me are worth reading and publishing.


Most of us know, especially in this day of severe economic depression, that unspoken reality that says, “To get the job, it’s probably a third of what you know (or can do) and two-thirds of who you know.” Perhaps, in the American literary landscape, it’s not much different. Accept let’s take it a step further: It’s also about who knows you. I think many writers (if they are honest) will acknowledge that this adage and sneaky beast is roaring. But is the beast hindering the publishing of effective, purposeful poetry? Do we believe in the works we promote? What artistic debt are we accruing? How do we writers make love again?