against the prestige economy //
for the writer as producer
The Poets Union is a group of writers, publishers, and workers committed to the anti-capitalist production of literary texts. In forming our union, we offer a critique of the anti-communist history as well as the financially entangled present of the literary-academic system and its profound influence on the production of literature. In this system, corporations, foundations, and non-profit organizations obtain tax-exempt status and positive press by awarding large sums to literary organizations and individuals, effectively creating a class-system of elite, award-winning poets and publishing brands whose material interests become bound to these larger institutions. These poets and prestigious organizations then serve to attract other young aspiring writers to invest in the system through application fees, tuition payments, submission fees, and debt—despite facing historically low professional prospects in a drastically oversaturated field. Moreover, those who are unable to pay into this system find themselves excluded, further intensifying the class divide.
We recognize all of this and are deeply critical not only of how this system operates, but also of the liberal humanism that is invoked to justify and excuse it, wherein poetry is primarily viewed as a generator of “empathy” and a “humanizing” social good essential to liberal democracy. However, we understand the enduring ideology of New Criticism through which creative writing first justified itself and obtained funding—much of which was from the CIA as a part of the Cold War effort at cultural control and anti-communism—and we see it for what it is: reactionary. We see the university’s dominance over the field of literary production, and poetic production especially, too often serves to sever it from any meaningful relationship to anti-capitalist organizing and activity. Moreover, we believe that genuine democracy must include control over the material conditions of one’s productions, and that these conditions must be maintained through co-operative and anti-capitalist oversight. Ultimately, we believe that literature and its circulation can play a role in forming the solidarity required for a cultural front, and we believe this demands the creation of new modes of association, production, and circulation as well as a rigorous and sustained criticism of the status quo.
In just the last year, we have seen a series of controversies in the world of poetry exposing problems in how it is funded, published, and distributed. We have seen some of poetry’s dominant institutions — including the Poetry Foundation, Poets House, and Small Press Distribution — come under severe criticism for exploitation, abuse, and lack of accountability. And above all, we have seen that the production of poetry involves an entire apparatus of hypocritical financial and cultural entities who perpetuate the toxic effect of capital within our communities, even while sometimes assuming a pose of radicalism. All this tells us that now is the time to act. And so we join here as anti-capitalist writers, publishers, and workers committed to the following:
- Seeking more ethical funding for our work outside of the dominant paradigm of universities, non-profits, corporations, and foundations. This may involve self-funding, reader funding, co-operative or collective publishing, or some blend of these approaches as we discover the best methods. Above all we are against the system in which major prize-granting foundations and corporations further the centralization of wealth and resources among producers of literature, and we are committed to the critique of this system, the clarification of our position against it, and the building of democratic, anti-capitalist alternatives.
- Democratizing the handling of funds to the greatest extent possible and offering a transparent accounting of these funds to the public. In doing so, we hope to build more sustainable presses and journals capable of joining in an economy outside of the dominant capitalist paradigm for literary publishing, while also eliminating both guesswork and the likelihood of exploitation.
- Paying staff and writers fairly; ensuring safe and supportive communities and working conditions, free of harassment and abuse; and being accountable to our staff and community first, not to donors or to the protection of our “brand.”
- Not relying on contests and reading fees to fund our publications. We believe the contest model of publishing is unnecessary and exploitative, and it is a central feature of the prestige economy we reject. (If a fee is necessary for labor involved in reading a full manuscript, it must be a reasonable sum, its purpose should be accounted for and explained to submitters, and it must include some other benefit.)
- Refusing to publish, support, or otherwise work with abusers, racists, sexists, xenophobes, anti-Semites, fascists, homophobes, transphobes, and any of their sympathizers and apologists. We see such attitudes not only as hateful, violent, and mistaken, but as inherently anti-democratic and therefore anti-communist.
- Refusing to publish with journals and presses, or to partner with distributors, booksellers, or other entities, whom we deem exploitative, abusive, and/or compromised by their participation in the economy of prestige.
In forming this union, we further understand that, under capitalism, all of our efforts toward autonomy in anti-capitalist publishing are under threat and subject to contradictions. Thus, instead of trying to simulate an impossible anti-capitalist purity, we form the Poets Union as a site of education, discussion, investigation, resource sharing, and ongoing critique for those seeking the best methods and tactics for subverting the current paradigm of publishing and socializing the production of literature. Further, the aim of our union is not only to form new modes of literary production but also to bring these producers into alliance with workers and non-literary political activity. Forging these links and reshaping literary work in a context of struggle is essential to our vision.
Ultimately, we believe 1) that a revolution of literary production can contribute to the formation of an anti-capitalist cultural front, 2) that the present configuration of dominant literary production precludes this, and 3) that we have to begin by divesting from the current system and changing how we do things on a material level. And all this must happen in a more organized way than previously seen.
So we start here.
For even more information about the union, please see our FAQ. And to *join the Poets Union*, just fill out the form below:
Below is an introductory list of articles that we at Poets Union have found useful in understanding the economic and political situation of poetry in the US today. The list is chronological based on area of focus, from most recent to oldest. We intend to post a much more detailed list soon, but we wantContinue reading “Introductory Reading List”
While reflecting on the launch of our union and the many thoughtful replies and critiques offered from those who have joined, a few things have become clearer about our organization, its possibilities, and its strategy moving forward. The original materials on our website – manifesto, FAQ, and two essays – articulated a dynamic project withContinue reading “On Organization and Strategy”
Amazon warehouse workers in Bessemer, Alabama, are on the brink of becoming the first unionized employees at Amazon. As they vote to join RWDSU, Poets Union stands in solidarity with these workers — 85% of whom are Black, and a majority of whom are women — as they assert themselves against one of the mostContinue reading “Statement in solidarity with unionizing Amazon workers in Bessemer, AL”