Tuesday, July 22, 2008

To Bio or Not to Bio

Spoon River Poetry Review is one of my favorite journals and one I almost always list among my credits. I’m proud to have had work published there and hope I will again. But one thing’s been bugging me and that’s the absence of contributors’ notes.

When I read a journal and find a poem I like, I always check out the notes to see what I can learn about the poet. If there’s a book by that poet, I may very likely order it. Also, if the poet writes the kind of poem I like, I’m interested to see where else that poet has published. Maybe somewhere I’d like to try myself.

When Spoon River’s editor, Lucia Getsi, recently stepped aside and Bruce Guernsey took over, I hoped that one change he’d bring about would be the addition of contributors’ notes. But no. In fact, the editorial in the new issue addresses and defends their absence. It seems that I’m not the only subscriber / reader / poet who would like to see notes. Others, like me, have e-mailed Guernsey to say so.

But Guernsey argues that the notes are a distraction, that they draw attention away from the poems. I think just the opposite is true. I like to check out the note and then return to the poem for a closer read. And if I buy the poet’s book, the poet's work is getting even more of my attention. To omit the notes is, in my opinion, not giving fair attention to the creator of the work and is depriving the poet of a wider audience.

Guernsey then moves onto another reason. Pages. He prefers to use the 4-5 pages that notes would occupy for more poems. Well, I might buy that except that the regular Illinois poet feature in this issue gets a full 51 pages. 51! That includes a one-page bio with photo, a seven-page interview, and 43 pages of poems. So here’s where the 4-5 pages for bio notes could come from. Perhaps the interview could be abbreviated and perhaps just a few poems could be omitted. This would free up the pages for bio notes. And we’d still get a very generous sampling of the featured poet’s fine work.

Guernsey also points out that the bio notes are a nuisance for the journal’s staff as poets keep updating them. And then the editors have to re-do the work they’ve already done. Easy solution: Don’t allow updates.

And then the problem of equity. What if one poet sends in a note that’s longer than the other notes? That’s easy, too. Set a maximum limit and stick to it. Maybe 50 words. Maybe 3-4 sentences.

Like any sensible person making an argument, Guernsey deals with the opposition, which is essentially what I said above about readers wanting to know more about the poet. He offers a solution. Readers can research the poet online. No, I’m sorry that just isn’t the same thing and it’s not really feasible. Sure, I can. But will I? I like the immediate gratification of having the information right there at the back of the journal. This journal’s practice of listing the poet’s state next to his or her name in the table of contents simply does not satisfy, and placing the state in parenthesis as this issue now does, does not, as Guernsey hopes, make the information any more useful than it was without the parenthesis.

To prove my point about the internet not being entirely satisfactory, I googled two of the poets whose work I especially liked. First I checked out Elizabeth Klise von Zerneck. According to the table of contents, she’s from Illinois, but I don’t really cares where she lives, so I went to the internet. I found numerous links to journals where she’s listed as a contributor. And she’s mentioned on a blog for a poem in Poet Lore. Not really too informative.

Then I googled Victoria Brockmeier from New York, and I learned that this poet has been on Verse Daily. At that site, I found a bio which says she teaches at the University of Buffalo. But then I found another link that says she lives in Louisiana. Two Victoria Brockmeiers? But as I read on, I discovered that the Buffalo Victoria earned an MFA at Louisiana State University. One poet who moved? Hard to say. A current bio note in Spoon River would have obliterated this confusion. Also, I had to go five links down to discover that Victoria B. won the 2008 T. S. Eliot Prize. What a shame to omit that excellent news from Spoon River. (Just to add a touch of irony here, if you visit Spoon River's website, you'll see that websites are not always kept up to date.)

So please, please, give us contributors’ notes.

But kudos for the new ongoing feature, “Poets on Teaching.” This issue’s feature article is by Sheryl St. Germain, a poet whose work I just recently came across. She’s terrific. And the article is useful. It presents two good activities for poets who teach to use in their workshops.

I was also happy to see a double-review by Lucia Getsi, and then to read in the editorial that the plan is to include more reviews, something I’ve also hoped to see more of in Spoon River.

And then there’s the poetry. I knew fewer names in this issue than I usually know, but that’s fine. It’s always great to come across new poets and poems. Now if only I could get some more information about them from contributors’ notes.

But still one of my favorite journals.

Check out Robert Brewer’s Poetic Asides for a discussion on what ought to go into bio notes. A number of poets contributed their thoughts on the subject.

Poet's sloppy desk

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  1. Diane, I agree with so much of this and was fascinated to see that we came to completely different conclusions. When I google a poet to find out more about them and to read more of their work, I feel it is the poet's fault when they don't have a website, not the magazine's for failing to print a contributor's statement. It's so easy to put stuff on the web now, why wouldn't you want a potential audience to find out about you?

    Thanks for the post!


  2. Hi Mary--
    I don't think we have come to different conclusions at all. I don't see this as an either/or thing. I want contributors' note AND I think it's a good idea for a poet to have a website. It's one of the ways we can work for our work. But not all poets are tech savvy enough to do a website and some can't afford to pay someone else to do it. By the way, I've noticed a number of journals now routinely include poets' website addresses with the notes. Good idea.

  3. I agree. I used to love Spoon River. I haven't been reading it lately, but I like to see the notes in the back. They could limit it to a two-liner. Anything. In fairness to the poets and the readers.

  4. Being a fan of computers, I have long said that a poet in particular is only as good as their google. Spoon River's insistence on not publishing bios (as others do too), reinforces the idea that the modern poet needs a modern presence. Kudos to you for being a champion of both print info and computer.

  5. Thanks for reminding me that I need to create a decent bio for myself, in case anyone takes a liking to one of my pieces.

    I know some people like to pretend that the poem is all that matters, but I never desire to separate the creation from the creator. I am always wondering what kind of person is behind the page.

    As for google- I geek out online as much as anyone, but one of the things I love about print journals is that they can be enjoyed AWAY from the computer. I might not have a search engine nearby, so the bios at the back of the book are appreciated.

  6. Good points. I like the extra angle that contributor notes give.


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