Foetry is an odd beast. Formed awhile ago to look into the integrity of open poetry book contests that charged reader’s fees, it was only a short matter of time before Foetry descended into witch-hunting.
Basically, Foetry was formed to address this common paradigm: Publisher would like to publish a book of poetry but has no money to pay for the thousands of dollars in printing costs. Publisher decides to have a contest to raise the necessary money. Publisher asks well-known poet to judge a contest. Publisher advertises the contest, promising a small prize (ranging from a few books up to $1000) to the winner. It costs aprox $20-$40 (a “reading fee”) to submit to the contest. That money goes to pay for the winner’s book and prize – any additional funds help to push the press forward, any shortage of funds is taken from the Publisher’s pocket. When the contest deadlines close, a group of readers screens the manuscripts and sends a batch of “final manuscripts” to the judge. The judge picks from among those. Sometimes the judge will read all the manuscripts, sometimes not.
Many of these contests have a “connection” between the judge and the winner – former students is the most common. The question then becomes: if the contest was “pre-determined” or fundamentally skewed, is it fraudulent for the press in question to have solicited those reading fees from people who had, essentially, no chance to win, on the false pretenses that their manuscript would be given equal consideration?
One obvious solution was to call for a ban on judges selecting work they were familiar with, coupled with a frank discussion of just which contests and judges selected the work of close friends and contacts. And as far as that went, that makes some amount of sense; you point out the connections and let the market (such as it is) react. (No sense in submitting to a contest you have no chance of winning).
I once helped along a tempest in a tea-cup that involved a poet using a university-funded journal to publish a shocking number of personal contacts and engage in what appeared to be a clear pattern of reciprocal publication (a different situation that the one above). So I’ve a certain amount of sympathy for those who are upset when they see poetic resources being mishandled.
But that certain amount of sympathy would be predicated on the idea that those who do this calling-out do so in a way that allows for an open dialogue and does not rush to conclusions. Beyond this, while there *is* cronyism in the poetry world, there’s also a few simple human dynamics that the people at Foetry ought to have kept in mind:
First, poets tend to write in schools – meaning that there are some “types” of poetry that certain judges are going to prefer, especially if that judge writes in a particular school. Language poets will tend to judge language poetry contests and pick other language poets. Ditto neo-formalists. Ditto Iowa School types. Hence it’s completely unsurprising if a poet picks someone whose aesthetics are close to their own – so close they may have previously been published in the same journal or may have attended (or taught) at the same colleges, summer seminars, etc. And knowing this, one has to ask, is it reasonable for the average submitter to expect that *any* judge for *any* press will not simply throw out their manuscript on the basis of differing aesthetics? Basically the point is that you’re going to see aesthetic clustering (in which I’d include the various poetries of identity (regional/class/gender voices) regardless of whether or not the judge has ever heard of the poet they picked. There is no single aesthetic standard which is applied to all entries in all contests by all judges; there is no possibility of a meritocratically run system which guarantees everyone an “equal” chance.
Second, young writers often benefit from having an established relationship with a press or a publisher that believes in their work. You can’t bind the hands of editors (who make little or no money off poetry) by restricting which young poets they allow into their contests, whether or not those young poets have some “connection” to that editor in the past or to the judge. To do so would create a situation where young poets would publish only in periodicals that couldn’t possibly subsequently aid them in publishing a first or second collection of verse.
Third, it may well be that the judge will honestly believe that the MS they finally select *is* the best one for that press from that batch of manuscripts, regardless of if they know the poet they choose. We could go further to say that mere knowledge of a contestant does not imply positive bias; sometimes, believe it or not, students and their former teachers do not get along, sometimes poets don’t like each other. Shocking, I know. Former students might win in spite of that negative bias.
Fourth, certain judges might well attract MSs which would otherwise not be sent out. There’s not an even or random spread out there – I can easily see a former student sitting on a brilliant manuscript which they send to a contest a former teacher is judging. Perhaps it’s the only contest they submit to, perhaps it’s the one they fell will have the most informed reader of their work.
While contest judges ought not to pick friends manuscripts on the basis of that friendship, personal knowledge does not categorically imply fraud.
All that aside, Foetry has recently unloaded a “shoot first” broadside against another of my friends, Steve Mueske. Steve is a guy that shines with integrity. He has nothing but the highest standards for his press, Three Candles, and has acted in a manner that’s completely above-board from day-one. I think anyone who has had professional dealings with Steve can attest to that.
While Steve Schroder gallantly tried to apply a bit of logic, Steve has an appropriate reply on his own blog.
And the really sad thing about it all is that the actual winner of the contest (a very competent poet, Tony Trigilio) had *no* prior connection to either Steve, Three Candles, or the judge. Alan Cordle apparently does not even have the grace to spell his name correctly, referring to him as “Tony Trilobite.”
Generally speaking, defamation (libel) is the issuance of a false statement about another person which causes that person to suffer harm. Can we make a case that Foetry, by recklessly and publicly labeling Three Candles as a crooked contest, caused a loss of reputation for both Steve and the Three Candles Press, personal distress (mental suffering) to Steve, and loss of potential income to the press (as readers of the Foetry article might not purchase Three Candles books: or possible submitters might pass on future contests for fear of being labeled as “Foets” by Foetry)? What of other poets and editors associated with the contest and the press? What of the contest Judge?
Since Foetry has insinuated that fraud was involved in the contest:
“To which I now say, you should have listened to Crimson, who holds a JD and knows a little something about fraud. Or perhaps you could have asked for legal advice from Seth Abramson, who appears in your anthology and is a practicing lawyer. Your entrants cannot have a prior connection to the judge NOR to you, Steve Mueske. Foetry is not trying to make the rules; Foetry is trying to make people aware of rules already established on the local, state, and federal levels.”
could we argue for "per se" defamation, as fraud is a crime of moral turpitude?
I think it would be easy to prove Foetry’s statements at least rose to the level of negligence insofar as Foetry did not even attempt to contact Steve or Three Candles to make sure their facts were correct before writing such things as:
“It is unethical for Steve Mueske to select finalists with whom he has a prior business relationship. He should have had a process in place to either remove those manuscripts from competition and refund their money or to forward those manuscripts to a different screener. This contest is biased.”
This, of course, in the context of a website that has the following as its primary, main-page statement:
Foetry: American Poetry Watchdog Exposing the fraudulent "contests." Tracking the sycophants. Naming names. Do they give Pulitzer Prizes for Cheating and Stealing? One of the most common ways American poets publish a book is through open competition at some of the best-known presses. Many publishers require an entry fee, usually $20 to $25 per manuscript. With hundreds or even thousands of entries, a lot of money is involved. And then it's a fair competition, right? Wrong. Over and over again, judges often select their students, friends, and even their lovers. Help us to stop this criminal activity. Please use the boxes in the upper corners of each page to navigate the site. MILLIONS OF DOLLARS STOLEN!
There’s not much opportunity for a defense based on truth (because Foetry is simply wrong), mere opinion (as the site presents itself as factual), or addressing a public figure.
(Usual caveats of my not actually being a lawyer, and the above not constituting legal advice apply; but if any tort-minded people out there would care to comment, I’d be interested.)