by Charles Bernstein
A poem of mine was selected for the “Poem-a-Day” series at the Academy of American Poets, which claims 300,000 readers. The producers of the show told me it was mandatory to submit an “About this Poem” statement along with an audio recording – “whether that statement is a full-blown exegesis or simply reportage on when and where the poem was written, or what compelled you to write the poem, etc., etc., is completely up to you.” (Audio of the poem itself was optional.) Because my possibly sardonic poem was about not substituting anything for the poem (a line could have been: “If you love the poem for what it’s about, then you don’t love the poem but what it’s about”), I wrote a sentence that echoed a series of related poems I’ve written (one of which even made it in the Norton Anthology of Poetry): “This commentary intentionally left blank.” I also attached an enhanced audio version of the line. The staff producers wrote back that what I sent did not meet their “standards.” Evidently, I misunderstood what “completely up to you” meant. Even so, I wrote a commentary explaining my point of view – why I preferred not to write an “about” statement –– and I attached an enhanced audio of this new commentary. I was informed by the producers that my audio would not be “accessible” to those who relied on the audio version of Poem-a-Day posts, even though my enhanced audio is entirely accessible, albeit slightly aesthetically challenging. The producers said they would make the needed audio themselves.
Just before publication, I received a proof with the opening — and key — sentences of my commentary redacted: without those sentences, the commentary lost its motivation and so its sense. The producers sent a recording of the poem followed by the mangled commentary. I couldn’t tell if the recording was done by a first-gen digital reader or a person imitating one. I had to act immediately as there was no time for back and forth. Within an hour I had made a new, “straight” recording of the poem, restoring only a version of the first redacted sentence of the original commentary, assuming, correctly, that this would meet Poets.Org standards, even if it still lobotomized my comment.
And that, well, was that.
In one of their emails, “The Academy” expressed its appreciation for my “being an important part of our work.” “We . . . would love” to sell you a membership. At a discount.
Making the purchase was left entirely up to me.
Here’s the rejected audio of the extended commentary, together with my initial audio and the redacted commentary (the four initial sentences deleted by the producers are crossed out):
This commentary intentionally left blank. That’s the “about” statement I initially submitted. However, the editors told me this response didn’t “meet our standards.” My poem is about not meeting standards. The kind of poetry I want doesn’t follow rules: it makes up its own rules. Perhaps my commentary needs a commentary? The poem is itself a series of commentaries. The idea of “blank” — letting the work stand for itself — is my commentary on the poem. In other words, if you love the poem for what it is about, you don’t love the poem but what it’s about. Or perhaps you could say the commentary is the poem and the poem the commentary. I get things all, well, Topsy-Turvy.