How do I join Poets Union?
You can sign up here by filling out the form on our home page and initiating contact with us. In signing up, you express your support for our union and you will be added to our mailing list. Additionally, if you are a publisher and agree to the terms laid out in the manifesto, you can choose to be featured in our directory of affiliated publishers on the website. All individuals who sign up can count themselves members to the extent that they abide by our manifesto’s stated practices and principles. You may feel free to to publicly support the union and may claim membership where appropriate (e.g. contributor notes, bio, “About” pages on websites, social media, etc.).
Is Poets Union an actual labor union?
No. The name “Poets Union” originated as a slightly tongue-in-cheek, catch-all label among a cadre of poets on the left who wanted to organize against the poetry world’s liberalism, its institutions, and its economy of prestige. We stuck with the name as a kind of aspiration, but we do not operate as a union in a technical or legal sense, and we do not have dues. However, we absolutely stand in solidarity with the labor movement, and we are actively trying to form bonds with those unions formed by book workers and others involved in the labor that sustains literary production.
OK, so what exactly are you? What do you actually do?
We are an alliance of anti-capitalist writers, publishers, and book workers. Our aim in circulating the manifesto and creating our website is, first and foremost, to form solidarity among our members by making ourselves visible to one another and to the world at large. Additionally, we operate as a directory of presses, journals, and other resources for anti-capitalist writers and publishers who are working to form socialist, co-operative publishing practices outside the paradigm of conventional poetry and small-press publishing. Through our website and newsletter, we will raise awareness of various causes within the literary world, offer critique and advocacy, and generally serve as a hub for building class consciousness among producers of literature. As we grow, we intend to offer direct consultation and guidance for those who are trying to reform their current publishing practices or hoping to build cooperative or collective presses or journals. Beyond this, we intend to work with those involved in abolition and mutual aid, by offering services, raising funds, etc. In general, our union aims to dissolve hierarchies within “the poetry world” while also bringing poetry into meaningful connection with non-literary political action and to support those typically excluded from literary spaces.
Do I have to be a poet to join?
No. Among writers, all are welcome to the extent they agree to the principles and practices outlined in the manifesto. Further, all publishers and editors, as well as all book workers, regardless of whether they write poems, are encouraged to join as long as they support and abide by the commitments outlined in our manifesto.
Is there a fee to join?
For the writers who join, do you have specific expectations for the form or content of their work?
No. In fact, for Poets Union, there are no aesthetic or formal protocols at all. Further, there is no expectation that the subject matter of your published work be overtly anti-capitalist or serve as propaganda.
If I join as a writer, will I be more likely to get published by your affiliated presses and journals?
Not necessarily. While Poets Union is here in part to make it easier for anti-capitalist publishers and writers to find one another, that does not mean you are certain to be published just because you are a member. Editors of affiliated publishers will still operate autonomously, and the Union will not influence editorial decisions or advocate for specific writers. That is not the purpose of our organization.
As a member of the Union, am I expected to avoid publishing in certain places?
The answer to this question gets complex, but the short answer is: yes, some things should be avoided. Think of it as a picket line we don’t want to cross. First, you absolutely want to research the places you publish to determine how they are funded. We will be providing more resources about how to evaluate various publishers soon, but our manifesto already asserts that publishers who run fee-based contests and extract submission fees for regular submissions should be avoided. Further, those presses accepting Amazon Literary Partnership money should be avoided, and we want to avoid the “big” small presses as well as the professionalized system of non-profits and foundations they dominate. Of course, places with a record of racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, and all other forms of bigotry and hate should be scorned. But beyond all this — in the absence of an overtly defined politics and ethics for a publisher — it is often a judgment call on your part. After all, so many publishers of poetry make no money and have no power, and so you should feel free to publish with any such place as long as they’re not doing harm. Regardless, you are encouraged to bring any questions about different publishers and practices to our attention. As stated elsewhere, Poets Union is a site of education and discussion, and while we are engaged in polemic and critique, we absolutely want our members to feel like they can come to us with concerns rather than fearing they will be called out or scolded (lol). We are on your side as you navigate all this.
So are you just trying to reform the way publishing works?
This question gets us into the longer strategy of the Union. In short, we are pursuing a kind of “dual power” strategy: on the one hand, we are concerned with critiquing and organizing against the establishment by holding it accountable for its problems and pushing for change (e.g. the current struggle at Small Press Distribution); on the other hand, we are working to build a network of independent, co-operative, and politically engaged presses, journals, and educational resources that may come to actually replace the establishment and obviate its dominance in our lives. This is how we presently conceive our long term strategy. We will have much more to say in the future about co-operative publishing and how that works in our vision, but in the present, we also want to help writers navigate the reality of publishing and to increase class consciousness through that.
Your manifesto speaks of paying writers fairly. What if I run a journal or press that cannot afford to pay?
We absolutely understand that poetry often makes little or no money. If you cannot pay and you have made this clear to your writers and those working with you, that is perfectly fine. What we oppose are journals and presses that 1) charge fees but do not pay writers, 2) mislead or obfuscate the reality of payment (e.g. extracting labor through the false promise of pay), 3) channel funds toward a single person or hierarchical group (when multiple other people are involved in the production), or 4) disguise fund-raisers as contests. Accordingly, we want to see affiliated presses and journals offer explicit statements about how they are funded and budgeted and how payment works. We want to bring these economic considerations into the foreground, and we encourage writers to look for this kind of information when submitting.
Much of your critique focuses on U.S. publishing. Can those outside the U.S. join?
Absolutely. We are starting with the U.S. because that’s where we are and what we know best, but we are eager to form connections with those outside the U.S. and to deepen our understanding and analysis of anti-capitalist publishing today. If you are outside the U.S., please let us know when you join. We would be more than happy to discuss and learn from the unique aspects of the writing and publishing culture where you are.
Much of your critique centers on the problematic role the university plays in the poetry world. Do you accept teachers and students of creative writing into your organization?
Absolutely. Although some aspects of participation in the academy would compromise a person beyond being able to uphold the commitments outlined in our manifesto—esp. if they are centrally involved in running and promoting a contest- and fee-based journal, or hold significant institutional power that directly conflicts our aims—we nevertheless welcome those university workers and students who will commit to our principles and practices. Additionally, we see the university as a legitimate site of struggle. As more of the academy is proletarianized and used exploitatively for cheap labor, we see student and contingent faculty unions as highly important, and we stand in solidarity with their protests, strikes, and agitation regarding housing, required fees, TA and contingent faculty pay, etc. A key distinction here is whether or not the member adheres to the terms of the manifesto and understands that their stance within their school, and likely even their very program or department, may become one of opposition. Additionally, you would be encouraged to affiliate with any unions on your campus and to work for change where you are.
If I join, how can I actually participate in what you do (other than simply writing and publishing)?
Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Help start a discussion. Share resources. Raise questions and help us broaden our understanding. If you have an idea for an essay that fits in with our politics and the kind of writing featured on our website currently, please feel free to pitch it to us. If you can help put us in closer contact with mutual aid or abolitionist groups, or with those working to form unions within book work or other areas, please let us know!
What if I fuck up and find out I’ve crossed the picket line?
Under capitalism, we are subject to unavoidable contradictions that make it difficult to chart an oppositional course. While we are striving for autonomy as producers of literature, we understand that 1) such autonomy will always be threatened, and 2) prior to the attainment of such autonomy, we may find ourselves compromised in ways we don’t even understand. Ultimately, a central aim of Poets Union is to educate ourselves so that we are not trapped in a position of bad faith and compromise as a default mode of operation. Thus, if a journal or press that you publish(ed) with turns out to have compromised the terms of your commitment; or if you are unsure about the political implications of your funding or partnerships; or if any other circumstance arises that you feel may compromise your commitments, this is something to bring to the Union as a point of question, discussion, and education. We are here not only to hold one another to account, but to learn from one another.
OK, but what if I really fuck up? Can I get kicked out of Poets Union?
First, we can only attend to fuck ups that are brought to our attention. However, if we become aware that you have flagrantly violated the terms of our manifesto (e.g. you take money from Amazon Literary Partnerships, or you publish with Rattle, or you engage in any form of discrimination or abuse), you will be at the very least asked to account for your actions and you may be made to sever ties with the Union. Lastly, as this is a voluntary and democratic alliance, we cannot be expected to exercise centralized control of member behavior. Any attempt to address violations of our terms among members will be addressed on a case by case basis and guided by democratic input from members.
There is a robust tradition of writers and publishers who operate outside of conventional publishing, and they have been making versions of this same critique for years, even decades. Why not just flock to them and continue the work they are already doing? Why create a Poets Union at all?
Although we continually look to the past for education and inspiration, we have come to believe that 1) not enough attention has been paid to the economics of publishing, and 2) there simply is not enough organization among anti-capitalist producers of literature. Conventional publishing has CLMP, AWP, and a thorough network of universities, foundations, non-profits, and publications which reinforce the hegemony of neoliberal publishing. For those on the left seeking to bring socialism into their publishing practice on a material level, there is nothing that compares, and each individual is left to figure things out on their own — especially given that the conventional system is committed to concealing both the financially entangled reality of its present and the anti-communist nature of its history. For a leftist poet trying to orient themselves without any real map or connections, this can be lonely and frustrating, and it may lead one to being absorbed into the status quo for lack of other outlets (and this is especially so for those writers existing outside major cultural centers). Thus, for poets on the left to get themselves together and offer any meaningful resistance to the system of default liberalism and dependency on centralized wealth, they must be more focused on economics and more organized than they have been in the past. Poets Union is committed to building this organization.