Monday, May 16, 2022

gatekeepers and community

I was scrolling FB recently and chimed in on a post about ridiculously rigid guidelines for poem submissions and the editors who make them.  While I understand their needs to be some basic framework and procedure to save yourself editorial headaches and facilitate easy reading (esp if you have more than one editor considering.), some guidelines are laughably complex and send me, as a submitter, just looking for somewhere else. Obviously, you want to have read what they publish and stay within the length and genre guidelines, not use attachments if they prohibit them, etc.  you also want to put it in a  readable font, submit only during submission periods, include a bio if necessary or remain anonymous if they read submissions blind.  These are reasonable and easy, but some get nitpicky about fonts and page numbers and all sorts of minute details that will, they usually say, promptly get your work thrown in the virtual trash.  I always get the impression the editors who love these sorts of guidelines and inflexible rules really get off on their role as a gatekeeper and their ability to dismiss accordingly.

The same day, I was writing about Charles Eastlake and his snooty pronouncements that Victorian decor was overly wrought and ornate and all needed to be thrown in a fire. It was followed by critics saying Eastlake pieces needed to be thrown into the fire.  It got me thinking about gatekeeping and tastemaking on a larger scale and how it works.  I've never felt like editing was gatekeeping, but more just a curating of things I want to show people.  But of course, it's all gatekeeping in some way.  What you choose to highlight. What you do not. I am lucky that I get enough submission, but not too many that make things unwieldy. And can publish enough to accept about 10% of what I get every summer.  These are numbers I am happy with, though some might raise their noses and think accessible publication is not quite rare and erudite enough. That by having a more open gate, the prize is not worth it.  I always file this under stupid things writers say, esp. when talking about journals and their acceptance rates and whether things are "Top Tier." I always think you want to be in a journal that has wide reach because people think the work is great, not just because they are hard to get into. The New Yorker for example has great reach and prestige, but I can count on one hand the recent poems in there I actually liked. 

The whole zine community ethos, of which I have always felt more in line with, is "Fuck the Gatekeepers!" and in many ways I agree. Gatekeepers are suspect, and I say that fully knowing I suppose I am one.  What I choose to publish or not publish is very much based on what I like or don't like. I may pass on something completely publishable that doesn't excite me. Something other editors have passed on might tickle my very peculiar fancy. Editing is subjectivism at its core, and beyond some basic principles of quality (ie, you're poems don't deal in cliches or sound like dirty limericks) I will at least read it with interest. I also have weird days where I love everything and days where I hate everything, probably for no real reason that has anything to do with literature or poetry at all. 

But gatekeeping aside, the flipside of those same principles is community.  I feel like I am totally for fucking the gatekeepers when it comes to doing things like self-publishing and getting your work out there, but you are also being granted, in many ways, access to a community by making it past a gatekeeper. But then again people see communities in different ways...and rarity is sometimes desirable. Kind of like that club with a line out the door and formidable bouncers vs the completely open-doored bar across the street. People want the line, not the open door. 

But then again, so much of our lives as writers depends on some kind of community. So if you eschew gatekeeping, you also can be sacrificing community. Or maybe not. I always hold up zine culture, in which many people are all doing many interesting things and there is not a gatekeeper to be seen . Except of course, there is--since only certain numbers of vendors can take part in festivals or programming. At some pint, there has to be a decision made because the sea of creators is just too vast. And maybe this is also poetry, just that the bottleneck comes lower in the bottle.