In a generally very favourable review of Anon One in The Herald, Rosemary Goring commented: ‘Clearly, those who benefit most from anonymous assessment are nascent writers. Established authors have almost everything to lose by the process.’ Note: this was printed in 2004 in Anon 2.
Described in Poetry Review as 'a poetic voice of international significance', Kathleen Jamie is a part-time lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of St Andrews. Her books, which include Mr and Mrs Scotland are Dead (Bloodaxe 2002) and Jizzen (Picador 1999), have won several prestigious literary awards.
LEVEL PLAYING FIELDS... What is the problem for which Anon is the solution? As iterated by Philip Gross and Caroline Oulton, it seems to be something like this. Contemporary poetry is bedevilled by a corrupt system (a ‘rat-race’) which ensures that ‘success’ is enjoyed only by a few ‘names’. These people meet at parties, and by publishing, reviewing and rewarding one another, operate a self-perpetuating club where names, not poems matter. Anonymous submissions would ensure that the presence of a ‘name’ at the bottom of the page did not sway the editor’s decision on whether to publish the poem, and so would increase opportunity for other, as yet unknown writers to shine.
Sounds grand. However, there is an immediate but understated corollary. Anon’s editor sees it coming, and ducks. Others don’t duck. Others think it perfectly true. It’s this: anonymous procedures would reveal established writers, the ‘names’, to be no more talented than anyone else. Anon, ‘a magazine that doesn’t care who you aren’t’ would reveal the ‘names’ to be little more than charlatans.
Anonymous procedures sound like a good thing, especially to those writers who feel themselves unfairly excluded, who sense there is a party happening somewhere to which they have not been invited. This conspiracy theory is plausible, but in fact, it’s rubbish, and it risks insulting in a very adolescent manner those writers, readers and editors who have served long apprenticeships in their respective crafts, and those funding bodies and institutions who have supported them. Worse, this kind of nonsense may well dissuade young and aspirant writers from embarking on such a demanding vocation. Worst of all, it fails to understand what literature is. For the great human conversation and examination conducted over centuries and continents, it would substitute a nasty individualistic Thatcherite competition: the ‘level-playing field’.
- Anyone who believes in a self-serving elite is not reading contemporary poetry. Anyone who believes it is London-centred, white and male, has not read any poetry for 25 years. No writer can subsist without reading. Any poet who believes he or she is not enjoying ‘success’ because of London-centred elites or something, is actually failing because he or she is not reading.
- Famous ‘names’ do not clutter up magazines. They don’t submit work to small magazines, unless the editors beseech them to. They do if at all, as a favour.
- What is the success to which aspirant poets aspire? There’s no money. All a poet can hope for in the way of reward, is the pleasure and privilege of a life spent following a vocation. All a poet can hope to win is a reputation for writing excellent poetry, and to be sought after. Presumably Anon’s contributors aspire to this. But Anon magazine comes close to telling us that such a reputation is without value. Strange, that.
I think there is a problem, but Anon has misidentified it, or rather, is content to allow others to misidentify it. It’s not ‘names’ and ‘rat-races’, at all. Mike Stocks actually says ‘there is no general gross corruption’. So what’s up? In his introduction to Anon One he says something revealing. He says editors receive not only poems but ‘extraneous information’. He says ‘it is standard practice for poets to send in their publication history with their submissions.’ Not content with that, they send in ‘testimonials from the great and good’. He says ‘not many poets are as distinctive as they think they are.’ Gerald England, another magazine editor writing in the same issue, says he gets ‘pleading letters’ and asks ‘why are they sending me this poor stuff?’
Suddenly all becomes plain. The problem is not the playing fields of the few. Rather, it is the mediocrity of the many.
It’s more comfortable to believe ‘they’ are conspiring, than to believe ‘we’ are mediocre and without distinction, but that’s the truth. Anonymous procedures don’t reveal the real ‘names’ as frauds, because the real names wouldn’t submit anyway, and besides, as Anon’s editor admits, they deserve their reputations because they’re actually very good. No editor fears receiving a sub-standard poem by Seamus Heaney, if such a thing exists. What he fears, understandably, is receiving shed-loads of dreadful half-baked so-called ‘poetry’ accompanied by pages of testimonials, CVs and special pleading. By insisting on anonymous procedures he frees himself from all that, and lets the poems speak. He’s an editor, he wants to publish excellent poems. He wants to discover new talent, (editors love that). But, instead of upping the game, Anon is actually lowering it. With its talk of ‘level playing fields’, Anon allows mediocre poets to carry on believing in conspiracies, and so liberates them from the challenge of reading well and writing better.
There is only one way to become a poet of reputation. It does not involve parties, conspiracies, rat-races, ‘low-downs’ or playing fields. All one has to do is write good poems. You have to write a good poem, and then another, and then another. You have to spend on writing good poems all the emotional and intellectual energy wasted on resentment. Instead of resenting better poets, we improve by embracing them, being exasperated by them, loving them, learning from them, even writing against them. Enter into the conversation; become a colleague, rather than a competitor. To write well, one must overcome not others but oneself, and one does that not by insisting on ‘level playing fields’, but by setting a stout hert to a stey brae.
A physicist and ecologist as well as a writer, Mario Petrucci has published three collections: Shrapnel and Sheets, Bosco and The Stamina of Sheep. He is currently a Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Oxford Brookes University. He won the 2002 Daily Telegraph / Arvon Poetry Competition with an excerpt from his next book, Heavy Water (April 2004, enitharmon.co.uk).
THE EMPERORS CLOTHES... One way of assessing an Emperor’s new clothes is to ask if the Emperor would be so kind as to join a balaclava’d line-up. Naturally, the Emperor would plump for having your impertinent head removed rather than stand in abject anonymity in any such line-up, let alone in the open street. And it’s not just a matter of the preservation of imperial authority or dignity; it is pragmatism. Because, as anyone who’s been caught naked in the street knows, the next thing you say or do had better be pretty good.
That last point is, perhaps, at the heart of an emerging controversy over the Edinburgh-based magazine Anon. I’m astonished that any griping or grumbling should ever occur around this inspired, isolated effort to run a fascinating experiment. It’s actually an experiment I have run before, but in a very different way. On occasions, I hand poems round a discussion group or workshop with all the names erased from the texts. I tend to mix less-known works by the ‘greats’ with promising works from the relatively unknown. It’s astounding how the balance of authority and power shifts between those writers once the authorial context is removed. The chorus of confident cooing usually reserved for Owen, Kipling, Eliot, Yeats or Bishop is transformed into a genuine and lively dialogue over the merits and possibilities of the writing. Sometimes, a poet from the rank and file comes out way on top, and you grieve that their work is not being promoted with equivalent vigour.
It’s therefore easy to understand why some may believe, as reported recently in The Herald, that ‘established authors have almost everything to lose’ in an anonymous process of assessment. These are, I suppose, the writers who rarely enter anything but the very biggest competitions. Well, they don’t have much to gain by doing that, and are wary (perhaps) of the damage it might do them to be seen rolling in seventh in some obscure competition behind a bevy of debutantes. It’s asking a lot of those who’ve boarded the hot air balloon of celebrity to return to the level playing field stretched out far below, or to subject themselves to the pedestrian vicissitudes of judges’ and editors’ preference. It’s not unreasonable for an established author to take stock of all this, and canny writers know that an aura of exclusivity can quickly condense into rocket fuel for a career.
Reputations are hard-won (at least, usually)—so why not make full use of your brand name? Writing is hugely competitive, and even the best have to slog it out for short attention-spans; why waste time making anonymous submissions when you’re being approached by editors and commission agencies and being fast-tracked into their publications? I’m all too aware, as a freelance writer, how you can devote more and more of your time to marketing and less and less of it to writing. Getting your work straight onto radio, TV or into prominent magazines gives you the kind of publicity no one can buy and it can save you months per annum. Moreover, some front-line writers who are ‘difficult’, who turn new ground with their work, may want their reputations firmly behind what they do in order to force due attention and encourage the reader’s staying power. After all, how many works of the past have needed extensive review to be appreciated fully? That the little-known experimental author may not command similar respect is hardly the famous author’s fault.
Having said all this, I have to counterpoint it with the observation that one of the worst aspects of celebrity in literature is the way it sometimes induces a certain laziness among readers and editors. People would rather say ‘Oh, it’s by X – I’ve heard of them, so let’s buy/use it…’ than actually scrutinise the work and make comparisons, assessments and decisions. They seem reluctant, or unable, to take responsibility for their choices (perhaps through insecurity) meaning it's easier and safer to seize upon the ready-made judgement. Of course, celebrity draws attention so there are clear advantages to using it, thus weighting decisions towards the already-known in broadcast and print. I was often tempted by reputation myself as an editor, and have been present at innumerable meetings where certain names are proposed because they are – to be blunt – among the few names known. This is not quite the same thing as an author having a track record. Everyone on the poetry circuit knows that certain people receive repeat bookings regardless of quality while others who are consistently good at what they do may find it incredibly difficult to get invited back. The problem here is that diversity – genuine, vibrant plurality – needs commitment and insight. It needs work.
But I sense little of this is relevant, really, to the kind of suspicion that seems to have been directed Anon’s way. There is something more visceral going on, I suspect, than reasoned argument against the magazine’s idea. It smacks of what is engendered by fear. And there is a deep-rooted fear at the hub of all this: the Emperor’s fear. Fear of the pointed finger, of the home truth, of scorn; fear of being vulnerable, of being naked. Writers are, by and large, insecure about who they are and what they do. They have witnessed too many cases of brutality, ill-treatment and misunderstanding at the hands of contemporaries and posterity alike. They know, as a rule, they can quickly disappear the moment they cease to be saleable, topical or in vogue. There are a hundred thousand critics poised, it may seem, for every humble writer who makes a false step or a failed attempt. Is this why the literati and their chosen authors (two massively overlapping groups) can sometimes develop such vicious co-dependencies, why literature dresses itself up in glittering shortlists so it can stride confidently into the Ball?
Such reactions miss the deeper truths of art: that when art succeeds, when you are made to come face to face with it in your inner places, it is about two (or more) human beings embracing in the intellectual and emotional space that the art creates. Both the viewer / listener and the creator intersect in mutual vulnerability. They become, in a sense, co-creators. If all of this sounds fey or vaguely religious / sexual, remember how T.S. Eliot called for the ‘continual self-sacrifice’ of the artist to be met with surrender from the reader-critic, a complete abandoning of self into the ‘other’ of the text. Naturally, context can be incredibly important. We may want to – need to – know exactly who the author is or how the text was written; but it is sometimes also true that if the author’s baggage of reputation is allowed too close, it can get in the way of the ‘embrace’ which is the art itself.
So I for one (recently and newly dubbed – Lord save me – an ‘established author’) welcome Anon’s quiet corner at the Ego Ball. Yes, ego has its place. God knows a struggling writer needs a big one. But it seems to me that we’ve become so completely clogged up with ego that projects like this have now become essential in every way. Our celebrity-driven culture is in desperate need of an enema. And isn’t it interesting that the moment something like Anon arises there’s a mob at the door. Why isn’t there an equivalent mobbing every time a promising (but perhaps flawed) writer gets mauled by a reviewer who clearly hasn’t surrendered half a minute to the work, who has in fact met with the work in full military uniform, epaulettes and all? Why don’t established authors write in by the hundred when judging panels are kept anonymous or when award shortlists rotate the same few names and publishers?
For crying out loud—it’s not as if Anon is marching into Poland! It is one magazine among hundreds, or is it thousands? Any established writer who disagrees with Anon’s stance has plenty of other places to go. But why should there be any unease at all about work being made to stand in its own boots? In any case, my understanding is that authors are fully acknowledged and recognised in Anon once their work is accepted, so the biographical context is there for the interested reader. I hope that established writers will be clamouring to congratulate such an enterprise. It offers them a place to test new work and get a detached assessment. It earns them even greater respect if and when their work wins through. Which is why I am beginning to wonder whether those who knock the idea have contracted a related condition to that of cynics, who can never be happy as long as someone somewhere is.
Gerry Cambridge’s latest collection is Madame Fi Fi’s Farewell and Other Poems (Luath Press, 2003). He contributed ten essays on American poets and poetry to the Oxford Encyclopaedia of American Literature (OUP, 2004). He edits the Scottish–American poetry magazine The Dark Horse, (www.star.ac.uk/darkhorse.html) which publishes both eminent and unknown poets.
The assumption behind Rosemary Goring’s statement seems to have less to do with writers than with editors. It is that editors, particularly of the typical ‘little’ magazine we’re discussing, are biased not just in favour of the work of the ‘established authors’ they’re considering, but by the fact that they’re ‘established’. It’s true that the top rank of established poets – the Heaneys and Harrisons, etc – find it easier to get published, for a mix of reasons.
One such reason is that their reputation, understandably, carries weight—though this may vary dramatically for poet to poet according to the vagaries and caprice of a particular editor. Another is to do with the relationship between the eminent names and the typical little magazine. Top-rank poets can do without little magazines, many of which are, let’s face it, not very good. But if a little magazine has ambitions beyond provincial mediocrity, it has to establish its authority. One way can be by the high quality of its reviewing and essays: the seriousness of its approach to the art of poetry. Another way is by choosing some new angle on contemporary poetry, as Anon has with its anonymous assessment procedures, or as The Dark Horse did in its early days with its focus on poetry in traditional forms. But the commonest way is by seeming to attract – though actually soliciting – big-name poets. That a top flight name is willing to support a little magazine with a submission confers a degree of credibility on the magazine. It can help boost the magazine’s profile and make it more likely to be read. It is also true that a top-rank poet is more likely to be writing excellently than most unknown writers. As importantly, he or she is likely to have established a body of work to which a new addition, even if not among their best, can cast light on the rest of their work. A poetry reader of any curiosity, after all, reads not just poems but poets. Later work by a writer who has written once at the level of, say, Patrick Kavanagh in ‘The Great Hunger’ or of Hugh MacDiarmid in his early lyrics and ‘A Drunk Man looks at the Thistle’, has an intrinsic interest because of context. Unless it’s demonstrably mediocre, that work also has an intrinsic value. That’s a literary justification for why such a writer may find it easier to get published, though it’s not a justification for printing dross by that writer. An unknown poet, however, has no such context.
But if established names – and I mean the top rank – are likely to find it easier to place work, it doesn’t follow that the unknowns or relatively unpublished are likely to find it harder. This would only be so only if space was at a premium, a point I shall return to. I disagree with Rosemary Goring’s assumption that ‘nascent writers’ will benefit most from anonymous assessment, if by that she means they are more likely to be published. They stand neither to gain or lose. Unpublished poets are deluded if they believe they can’t get published because they’re not known names. After all, those known names were once unknowns, too.
Unpublished poets are wrong in this belief because any editor of an individual cast of mind would like nothing more than to print the work of an unknown or little-known poet whose writing, in the editor’s opinion, is excellent – or even promising and individual in a way that marks it out from the majority. Every such poetry editor lives in hope of being the first publisher of work by, say, the equivalent of a new Emily Dickinson or John Crowe Ransom. Every such editor also realises how rare such distinctive work is. The same editor also hopes to have the discernment to recognise that work if it appears.
I hold no brief for anonymous assessment. Apart from established names, however, much of what a typical little magazine editor considers is considered, to all practical purposes, anonymously. Most of the submissions will be by people he or she has never heard of. Besides, no strong editor is going to be favourably influenced one whit because a submitting poet has had a few collections out from, say, Bloodaxe or Carcanet, or has been published in other, even prestigious, magazines. Indeed, such details can go against a poet if the latest editor doesn’t rate the submission: it can seem as if the poet has submitted their best work elsewhere. Similarly, a mediocre submission with a cover letter which informs the editor that its writer was educated at, for example, Princeton or Oxford can prompt the illogical reflection on how little, for the better, it has affected that poet’s verse—illogical, of course, because academic and poetic ability are not necessarily linked. If they were, every professor of English would be a potential Milton. But the serious point is that background information calculated to impress can do the opposite, whereas one of the subtexts of the justification for anonymous assessment – certainly a justification perceived by the unpublished poet – is that conventional editorial procedures invariably favour the distinguished and accomplished.
The difficulty of editing has less to do with assessment procedures than with this simple fact: there are hundreds of poetry magazines; there is not enough really excellent work to fill, or even quarter-fill, them. Quite soon, an editor of any standards is likely to find him or herself grubbing around for poems that can be printed without embarrassment. This is hardly surprising: consistently to write poetry of high quality takes talent, long periods of experiment, persistence, and some luck. Engaging poetry extremists such as Robert Graves or Hugh MacDiarmid used to say that any country that had half a dozen real poets working in it at any one time was fortunate. (Naturally, they included themselves implicitly in this category.) Indisputably big talents are rare; even good minor poets are relatively uncommon. Then there is the whole army of the rest: enthusiasts who occasionally succeed in writing good poems. One quite severe definition of a ‘good poem’ would be this: a work of wide import, expertly made, which can be read on numerous levels and is not just relevant to the period in which it was written.
I regard the principle of anonymous assessment as mildly interesting but relatively unimportant. I do, however, admire Anon—knowing what energy and financial input it takes to set up a new little magazine from scratch. For an ambitious journal, however, Anon has compounded its difficulties by diminishing the likelihood of submissions from big names. For why, other than for a sort of quirky challenge, or in a spirit of generosity or agreement with the magazine’s principles, should such poets at this stage submit their better work to Anon, to an editor and assessment team they may never have heard of, and therefore have no idea whether they respect the judgement of, when those poets could submit work to, say, the TLS, the LRB, Poetry Review, Poetry (Chicago), The New Yorker, or The New York Review of Books? And why should unknown poets of real quality – which the anonymous assessment procedures of Anon are ostensibly designed to discover – do this either? Such poets are liable to have egos and ambition to match. Every new poetry magazine has to establish its track record and be respected in the poetry world before it can expect writers to take it seriously with submissions of their best work. This will take Anon, at the least, half a dozen issues of respectable quality.
Obviously, many don’t share these opinions – thank goodness. There are poets out there who do find Anon’s procedures worth accepting. All success to them. I am all for catholicity in the little magazines. If my instinct is opposed to the principle of anonymity, it’s for a determinedly subjective reason: most of us, soon enough, will be so irrevocably anonymous that I can’t consider as a virtue what I believe unnecessary.
Gregory Woods is Professor of Gay and Lesbian Studies at the Nottingham Trent University. His collections are We Have the Melon (1992), May I Say Nothing (1998) and The District Commisioner’s Dreams (2002), all published by Carcanet Press. His critical books include A History of Gay Literature: The Male Tradition (1998), published by Yale University Press.
I sometimes think I should write every poem of mine as if it were an anonymous letter, deceitful and wounding, swift to the point, stark in message but in voice undependable: ventriloquistic, plagiaristic and synthetic. It should arrive in the hands of the reader as if slipped under her door late at night by a malicious hand. Anonymous never takes the blame. The rest of us have to account for our failings.
Anonymous was a woman veiling her gender, a homosexual expressing his sexuality through the gag of social convention, a radical dissembling her dissidence, an aristocrat holding himself aloof from the sway, a libeller ducking responsibility for the forthrightness of his views, or just a shrinking violet, modest to the point of invisibility. Virginia Woolf wrote in 1929, ‘I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman’. Marilyn Hacker wrote in 1978:
Women and other radicals who choose
venerable vessels for subversive use
affirm what Sophomore Survey often fails
to note: God and Anonymous are not white males.
As for me, I like to think it was the same Anonymous who wrote ‘Sumer is icumen in’ and ‘There was a young lady from Exeter’. Prolific and haphazard, Anonymous’s genius is too mercurial to pin down. Like Ariel, Anonymous can change his gender and finesse her way through the confining walls of definitions and categories. How can we ever attack him, when she is invisible? Yet how can we grant him more than the marginal status of her virtual absence? It will never be possible to love his work as a whole, since we can never be sure she wrote it, or that his later work is by the same hand as her juvenilia. Besides, isn’t there always something deceitful about Anonymous? Does she really imagine we can trust him?
When I.A. Richards handed out poems to his students at Cambridge in the 1920s, but withheld the names of the poets, he was famously horrified by what he regarded as the ignorance of their responses. They slated poems by John Donne, D.H. Lawrence and Gerard Manley Hopkins, preferring the work of poetasters little known then, let alone now. Richards wrote up his findings in Practical Criticism (1929), thereby initiating a whole new trend in university teaching and examining. For decades it became common practice to withhold information about poets and their societies while discussing their poems. The central plank of the New Criticism of the 1950s was that the poem must and does work in isolation. Biography and social context were irrelevant, impertinent; as was the writer’s other work. To read a poem without knowing the poet’s name was to see it in its purest condition. And to be able to infer the poet’s name from nothing but the poem was the skill literature students were expected to acquire.
Today, the poems submitted to this magazine, Anon, are to be assessed under similar conditions, isolated from context. In terms of the judging of merit, this means isolated from prejudice—which can only be a good thing. The poem must speak for itself.
The benefits of this innovation are obvious to those of us who work in universities and routinely mark essays and exams with the names of the students concealed. It is obvious that this helps us avoid prejudging the work, for whatever reason. Yet in the refined world of poetry magazines, the principle of anonymous selection is considered revolutionary. Perhaps it intimidates the famous, or others who imagine themselves famous enough – and therefore good enough as poets – never to be rejected. If so, let them be intimidated; they need to be. The rest of us will take our chances alongside everyone else. If the process scares us, perhaps it will force us to write better poems. If that proves impossible, rejection is what we deserve. Nothing is to be gained from a system that rewards poets for their names rather than the self-evident quality of their work.