July 9, 1995 in City

Poetry Scheme Proves Barnum Was Pessimistic

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Three area residents and maybe more are in the running for Poet of the Year.

Wow. Should this trend continue Spokane may become known as the Dublin of the Pacific Northwest.

Then again, maybe not.

I read some of the tripe being praised and published by a Maryland poetry mill and came away with a darker view of what’s going on.

Hawking books and pricey conventions to the gullible appears to be the main goal of an outfit called the National Library of Poetry and its membership arm, the International Society of Poets.

It would be cruel to embarrass any of the aforementioned nominees by revealing their names or any samples of their cliche-ridden doggerel.

It’s clear this company cashes in on the fragile egos of people desperate for recognition. That’s a tacky way to make a buck, sure, but it’s all perfectly legal.

And apparently profitable.

Howard Friedman, a spokesman for the International Society of Poets, says 2,000 people have already registered for the “Poet of the Year” convention in Washington, D.C., next month. The company magazine, he adds, boasts a circulation of 40,000.

“It’s our belief that everybody can be a poet,” says Friedman.

Anyone who believes that needs to remember what P.T. Barnum said about the fast birth rate of suckers.

Poetry is arduous work at which only a few succeed. Yet the National Library of Poetry, etc., treats this established art form as if it were a cheesy sweepstakes.

The firm places ads in newspapers soliciting poems for contests that offer big cash prizes. Those poets the company deems talented - and there are an amazing number of them - are notified via form letter of their good fortune.

They are told their poem is so good it will be published free of charge in “a quality hardbound volume…to last for generations.”

There the generosity ends.

If the poet wants to see his great work in print he must pay about 70 bucks for the anthology. Want your biography printed with a poem? That costs $20 extra, pal.

The luckier poets - and there are an amazing number of them, too - are nominated by the company for Poet of the Year.

Registration for the awards convention is $495. Plus air fare, hotel rooms, food….

The come-on is that you get to read your poem if you attend. Plus you just might win the title and take home the $5,000 grand prize.

Get a load of this high-pressure excerpt from a form letter that tried to entice one of Spokane’s Poet of the Year nominees to Washington, D.C.

“You make your way to the stage amidst the sound of thunderous applause and a standing ovation from your newly found friends. We’re already familiar with your work and you know…it could happen just that way.”

“It’s a pretty slimy business,” says James J. McAuley, an established poet who once won the Governor’s Award of Washington. “But these people know what they’re up to. There are hundreds of thousands out there who want to be recognized as poets.”

Sometimes that lust for recognition addles the brain. An amateur poet I know became so starved for attention he wrote a letter to a newspaper under an assumed name, proclaiming his real identity to be one of “America’s greatest living poets.”

McAuley’s seen some of his Eastern Washington University students caught up in poetry contest nonsense. The form letter arrives and they think they’ve just realized the dream all writers dream - to be published.

They forget that if their work is really that good, somebody will pay for it. No charges for biographies. No buying books.

And if they really are a contender for Poet of the Year, you can bet whoever is in charge will spring for a hotel room and plane ticket.

Until that glorious day arrives, McAuley’s advice is to keep toiling away. As Chaucer once observed of writing poetry: “A life so short, a craft so long to learn.”

, DataTimes


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