On The Poetry Mafia, Guilds, Interlocking Directorates, MFAs and The Emperor’s New Clothes

Over thirty years ago I read an article in a prominent writer’s magazine referring to the “poetry mafia”. Although the article was well done, and well on point, it has occurred to me over the intervening years that “mafia” is a bit too strong. I would refer to the concept more as a poetry or literary guild or, in the idiom of business, literary interlocking directorates.

The basic precept thirty years ago, as now, is that a small group of editors of literary journals, magazines and other publications, control content and unless you are “made”, to continue with the mafia image, your work will not see light of day in those publications, particularly in those reviews and journals considered to be at the top of the heap. It is not necessarily sinister collusion- I think it is more self preservation (or some would say self perpetuation) that motivates these editors.

What you will find by perusing the mastheads of the most notable literary journals is editorial decisions are mostly made by academics or graduates of a small handful of creative writing or MFA programs. Consequently, most poets or story writers published in the top reviews and journals also are graduates of these programs. There is rampant “credentialism” at work. Writers without the accepted “credentials” often read these journals, submit work, are rejected and then marvel at what is published-very often work that is no better than their own and many times of lesser quality. It can be frustrating and maddening.

I posit this system functions more as a guild or a union or interlocking directorates than organized crime. It is, in the basest sense, more a manifestation of the credentialed editors’ and authors’ instincts for self-preservation than something nefarious. Simply put, who would continue to attend these prestigious MFA programs, workshops and schools if just any old writer can get published in the top tier reviews? The graduates go forth from these programs and they themselves become editors (similar to interlocking directorates in business) and continue the program of protecting and advancing their own, a form of literary job security for those fortunate enough to belong to the guild.

The system has broken down in recent years, thanks to the proliferation of self-publishing and on-line reviews run operated by editors interested only in good content. Some of the best writing out there can be found on web-based journals and reviews run by editors unfettered by obligatory credentialism. Many of these webpage operators have had the gall to say “the Emperor has no clothes on”.

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