by James Cactus
Nobody makes money in poetry. But where that is merely typical for the Instapoets and only part true for poetry in print, in the world of online litmags, it’s a fact. No money is paid, and anyone who is brimming with pedantic anticipation hoping they will complete this lede without me inserting a caveat that accounts for your counterexample should prepare for disappointment, because I have one: honorariums don’t count. A five dollar bill does not compensate for a poem any more than a gentleman missing all but five bones in his body is not dead.
And Lo! here come the jellyfish, the beach they cross by the school. The whole thing moves along convincingly as a child’s tea party. But because money does matter, the debts still get recorded, and they’re accruing like Babel. The compounding interest is only abated by the repossessed patience of the rest of the world in arrears, who are expected to indulge delusions of relevance and forgive their mounting indignance. They dream of murder. They want Rupi Kaur.
Why submit to this nightmare at all? In theory, a number of bylines in small publications might get you noticed at a slightly larger one. In theory, by repeating this process one could roll up a career like a katamari. In theory, humble and bumpkin beginnings do not preclude one from consideration in the most prestigious of journals. In reality, if someone needs to read your poems to tell if you’re good, you’ve already goofed up.
Everything seemed so amiss that in a moment of frustration, we started BYLINES.
BYLINES is a literary magazine as much as performance art that accepts the reality that nobody reads poetry. My incredibly patient girlfriend Alyssa Emiko (she did the blob monster art for the zine) was good enough to listen to my constant unhinged babbling about the confusion of the game, and it was from her infinite genius this idea came. See, I was the Okie in Vegas, so dazzled by the slot machines that I couldn’t understand how it didn’t really matter if nobody, not even poets, read poetry. Alyssa courageously accepted reality, and BYLINES became the first magazine as far as I know to not bother with content at all.
Why should I waste my time putting together a collection of art and literature that nobody wants? Seeking writers, selecting what to publish, and promoting that work… these are outdated practices from a past era of literature. And we could prove it! I registered a Tumblr, and she made a logo, and while soliciting our friends for bios which would accompany their name (and only their name), we filled out a form on Duotrope and waited for their response.
What is Duotrope? Well, have you heard the phrase, “in a gold rush, the money’s in the shovels”? In the prosody game, it’s cartography. Duotrope is a database of 7,106 active literary magazines, and similarly precise numbers of calls for submissions, reports from writers, and so on. Access costs fifty dollars a year, but “is one of the smartest investments you can make in your career as a writer or artist.” Testimonials describe the clarity it provides one’s understanding of their literary career. Duotrope makes a science of the dirty business, and writer reports are computed and analyzed to reveal percentage points and star ratings of the litmags by various metrics. I think they’re phony. I’ll explain why later.
We knew BYLINES was proving that somebody was at fault and making fun of them, but it wasn’t clear who. It couldn’t be the writers. Because, I’m a writer! It’s awful! You’re asked to write little personalized cover letters to editors, and if you betray for a second the fact that you’ve never read a single one of the poems published there, they just throw your email into the trash. It takes forever. I’m a lot more careful writing those than poems. And they’ll say — I swear to God I’ve seen this more than once — that if you want to read the type of poems they publish, you should “purchase a previous issue.” Are they joking? Buy a $15+$4.95 S&H magazine from a Shopify that they printed 500 of for $11 apiece and have sold 121 copies? No, it couldn’t be me. I couldn’t see that unless the literary journal editor class is willing to do some serious Christlike suffering for redemption.
But while working through this question, we experienced being the editors of BYLINES. It was not without its perks. We were praised for having the audacity for following through on Alyssa’s brilliant idea, and I enjoyed the hint of deference people afforded me when discussing how they could submit the short bios that stood in for content. That was strange, actually. But also, it was work. You had to collect them all somehow, and deal with Tumblr somehow, and also ask your friends with big accounts to play along because what if it went viral somehow. I hate work, often even so-called creative work. Even writing this essay is tedious and if not for the anticipation of joy from collaborating with the most alienated of creative partners (i.e. the general audience), I’d quit. I hope this gets read, it’d make all of it worthwhile.
The trouble began when the Duotrope listing went up, beginning a trickle of submissions which has continued unabated to this day. What can we do with them? “Dear Hopeful, Thank you for what you believed to be your submission, I regret to inform you you are in this very moment being subjected to a cruel prank of which the authors are unclear who they had intended to pilory.” The writers are sympathetic creatures. They’ve been reduced to playing this stupid game, and when it’s awful to them, they think that it’s normal.
The reason I scandalize the poetry game with my opinion that Duotrope is founded in phony baloney is the following: they sent me an email the other week asking me to confirm their listing of BYLINES is up-to-date. Excuse me. How are you people falling for this. You have a screenshot of the webpage. It’s called fucking BYLINES.
But they can’t do this, because in their endless effort to commodify poetry, and treat all journals as equal except by their acceptance rate, they miss the plain fact that poetry is political. It has to be. The Good Lord knows it can’t survive in the market on merit. Even Rupi Kaur, the Napoleonic octopus, produces work that is basically explicit in its political orientation. Anyone who has spent more than an hour trying familiarize themselves with her work knows it is indeed the reason she is famous.
What I’m saying is, submit your socialist poetry to Protean. If you don’t have any, write some. If you don’t know how, DM me on Twitter. If you aren’t a socialist, hit the books. We’re staring down the barrel of Costneresque oblivion, survived only by whoever gets stuffed in the bunkers being stocked with Bakker Buckets somewhere in… I don’t know… Otago? But I am not going in a bunker, so later when it comes to people’s war and rioting, we can do that. But for now, we need poetry.
James Cactus is the poetry editor of Protean Magazine.