I can’t possibly follow all the threads of the discussion that followed this well-intended post, but I’m still not sure what is being argued about. Yes, I think a poetry-focused conference would be a nice thing, even better if it were cheaper and less academic-focused than AWP or maybe just more balanced (though I do have to keep in mind “writing programs” is in the title.) The poetry focus would get rid of one of my gripes—the dozen or so people who perusing the dgp table looked briefly over the books and said disappointedly, “You ONLY publish poetry?” as if we only published porn.
I’m not sure where the dividing line here is, the “elite” that are being talked about. It seems to be a question of those who wait for someone else to give them legitimacy and those who take legitimacy into their own hands, ie by founding presses, magazines, DIY. It’s a fine line even between those two, since as the second camp gains in influence, they sort of become part of the first. And since they are operating on such a small scale of support and distribution, there is the danger of cliquishness in the worst cases, though I don’t think anybody really strives for that. (or I hope not). This is irregardless of which side of the mainstream or experimental divide you fall on.
So say you have poet A who is a complete outsider (though I even question if this is really possible anymore in the general population of poets, since one can easily remedy that status by taking a more active role in whatever literary community they desire to be a part of—reviewing, blogging, founding a journal, whatever, getting yourself out there, taking part in the dialogue.) The old fashioned way is perhaps to sit there and send copius amounts of submissions to journals that may or may not really read your work , may or may not be a closed house, may publish you or not. Or enter contests, fellowship competitions, all the while patiently waiting for recognition, readership, someone to tap you on the head and say “You have arrived.” I think I understand, if not agree wholeheartedly, with what Seth is saying about how culture “defines the poetic identity” and how poets may define it. At least maybe 15 years ago. The internet has blown all of it wide open. No longer to most poets have to stare longingly at the career/lifestyle/culture offered in P&W and think that’s the ONLY way to be poet. Read any blog, look at any micropress homepage, go to a slam or open-mic, etc and the whole world opens up..ways to define and be defined as “poet” are multifold.
Perhaps Poet B, on the other hand, decides not to wait for that tap on the head. Starts a press, a journal, finds other poets like him/her, becomes friends with them, promotes their work, becomes “famous”, or at least infamous, among a small group of people. Is then accused of being cliquish, of only publishing ones friends. Oddly, this only seems to be called into question as the entity grows. Now, there is contradiction abounding. I have no problem with small presses publishing people they know (I occasionally do it myself) but find it skeezy when someone in a position of power does it, ie David Lehman or the New Yorker. Which I suppose is ridiculous, now that I think about it. It seems more of an abuse of power, but then we are the ones who give them that power by idolizing institutions we probably shouldn’t. Even the poet in the second group is not all that far away from being in the first, having had many of its rules and regulations ingrained from the days when P&W was the only window into the literary world. Despite our revolutionary and anti-establishment stance.
Now, I know I speak from both places. Because I was so ingrained with Poet A rules from early on, I was afraid of being judged as illegitimate because I self-publish, because I publish largely on the web, because yadda, yadda, yadda. And while I certainly wouldn’t consider myself an “insider” now, I was once more outside of things. About six years ago, I could count the number of poets I knew on one hand. But that changed—starting wicked alice, reading blogs, doing more readings locally. Soon, that small community widened. But still, I was concerned about legitimacy, ie, if I self-publish, what makes me better than that woman on Lulu who publishes poems about her cats? So I entered that first book in contests, lots, finally was accepted by a press almost the old-fashioned way, over the transom. Did it make me more legitimate.? Maybe it felt like it initially. But I think in the end the only thing that makes you legit is the work. No matter who publishes you. And it’s still something I struggle with. I’m not so scared now, though, so uncertain. The books will find their homes, whether it's another press, or me doing it myself if no one bites. I’m still after as wide a readership as possible, and maybe contests are one way to get there, so I hardly malign those who enter them. Recently sent a mss. to one myself. I’m convinced a lot of good books get published this way that might not otherwise despite certain instances of corruption.
You can’t divorce one side from the other, since they are both interdependent, and the rules of one inform the rules of the other, even only if in direct opposition.. As long as YOU as a poet are doing things for the right reasons, you have nothing to worry about…