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"The Auction of the Mind"

I've been thinking the past few days about publication, how it is at once a necessary stage of the creative process, and a potentially ruinous one. I've been thinking in particular about self-publication (the kind of self-publication I am doing here in putting poems and stories up on "Gleanings"), and about these three poets and their relationship to what Dickinson called "the auction of the mind": Dickinson (of course), Frank Stanford and Bill Knott.

I would like to think upon how these poets overthrew traditional ideas of who can judge a work worthy of being put into the world. But first I wish to distinguish between publication in the more traditional sense (the acceptance of a poem by a journal, or of a book of poems by a press; the printing of this poem amidst other poems, or of this collection amidst other collections) and what I will call fruition (for the sake of simplicity, I will be talking here about poems, but could just as well be talking about stories or songs or even novels). The difference between publication and fruition is this: with publication, the poem or the book of poems has been vetted by persons who, having not written the poetry themselves, are deemed solely capable of determining whether the poetry belongs in the world or not. In this way, the publisher possesses great power over the creator: the publisher is in a position of judgment. The language of publication is, inherently, the language of judgment and of power: submission, acceptance, rejection.

One submits a poem or a book of poems to an editor.

A poem or a book of poems is either accepted or rejected.

Either way, the value of the work is determined by one who, no matter how much they might appreciate or loathe the work, is inherently disconnected from its creation. Most creators just accept that this is the way of things: they admit that, being subjective judges of their own work, they ought to submit it to someone who has no particular feeling towards it, who can judge it on its own merits, objectively (though we know this is a sham) and let them do with the poem or the book of poems what they will. Poets accept this. They assume that they have no ability to bring their work into the world without first passing through this process, as if fire-walking. Over the glowering bed of coals, published poets beckon the unpublished poet towards them. They've made it across, their feet only slightly singed.

But what happens when a poet, because of personality (Dickinson), or rejection (Stanford), or some combination of both (Knott) decide to put their poems into the world themselves, without any intermediary? Self-publication is oftentimes derided as some last-ditch, self-centered effort to put one's work into the world after all other possibilities have been exhausted. It is assumed that self-published work is of lower quality than work that has been carried from one end of the bed of coals to the other. The self-published poet, who merely walks around the fire and joins the published poet on the other end, is considered a fraud, a coward, a failure. But I consider self-publication to be an inherently brave act, an act, often, of necessity, even of desperation. And I think that Dickinson, Stanford and Knott deserve praise for the fact that, confident in the quality of their work, and either stymied by or distrustful of the gatekeepers their poems had to pass through, walked up to the bed of coals they were being asked to walk, and simply walked around it.

But, first, to return to this idea of fruition. No work of art feels finished unless it crosses the threshold that separates the artist from others. This is not to say that art need be placed in the hands of others, but it is to say that, in some sense, the artist must divest themselves of their art, in the way that, though oaks tend to hold their leaves until late into winter, they have to eventually bump their old leaves off to make room for the new ones. In the fascicles that Emily Dickinson sewed in her room in Amherst, in the manuscripts Frank Stanford put together and never published (amongst which one finds titles such as: PLAIN SONGS; SMOKING GRAPEVINE; WOUNDS; AUTOMATIC CO-PILOT; MAD DOGS; THE LAST PANTHER IN THE OZARKS; FLOUR THE DEAD MAN BRINGS TO THE WEDDING; DURING THE NIGHT OF THE HIGH WATER; SOME POEMS WHO DREAMED THEY WERE MANDOLINS AND A DARK BREAD; POEMS FLOATING UP EYELESS ON SUNDAY MORNING; POEMS WHO LEFT WITHOUT A WORD OF FAREWELL; POEMS DRUNK FROM A PAPER SACK LONG BEFORE I CAME OF AGE; SOME POEMS WHO SUFFOCATED LIKE LIGHTNING BUGS IN THE BOOTLEGGER'S JAR; POEMS BURIED IN THE MOON LAKE LEVEE; ONE-FINGER ZEN), in the poems Bill Knott put up on his blog, for free, for years, some of which appear in his posthumously-published collected poems, we can see the need on behalf of the creator to bring their work across the threshold and to place it in the world in some way. This is what I mean by fruition.

So when it's said that a self-published poet has given up on publishing their work and decided to take it upon themselves to "get their work out there," I think we ought to see that as a courageous act, rather than a capitulation (and certainly we ought not to see it as selfish). I think poets would be generally happier, and readers too, if more poets, trusting their work, feeling that it is finished and ought to be placed in the world, took it upon themselves to do so, rather than submitting their work for acceptance or rejection. As Frank Stanford said: "You know there is no other poet on earth like me. I know there is no other poet on earth like you. We need to be read."

In the next three days, I will write more specifically about fruition in the work of Dickinson, Stanford and Knott.
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