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Djelloul Marbrook: About the contest industry and bat-shit craziness

A presumption of dandelions

Another damned winner to celebrate
while we poison dandelions
and hardly know how to honor daffodils.
Never mind the Lenten rose breaking through the snow,
we have contests to enter, conferences to go.
Never mind how much we overlook
to get over on, how avid to sell less
than we’re given free. Never mind
the shriveling of sensibility like papier maché
on a twisted wire, we have a cup to receive,
a gavel to pass, certificates of excellence
to crow about, a blurb to publish, a critique
to fart in the face of roses. How dare clover
spot our excellent lawns, plaintain divert golf balls,
how dare dark matter presume on all that we make light?


I’ve been hoping to have something highfalutin to say about the poetry contest industry, something Malcom Gladwell might say, succinct, compelling. No, make that Harold Bloom. But I failed so badly I couldn’t even shed much light on my now precipitous malaise.

Until last night, that is. I was making a hopeless heap of my notebooks on the floor in advance of hauling them up to the attic for the ghosts of the house to rummage through when I dropped a little blue pocket notebook. It fell open to reveal this passage:

Call me mad, call me an anarchist, but I never wanted to write for money, not as a journalist or a novelist or a poet. It has always struck me as a criminal activity.

Pay me to mow your lawn, paint your boat, varnish your brightwork, drive you somewhere (besides mad), I’m down with it. But taking money for a gift bestowed on me for some unaccountable reason never sat right with me.

Did I cultivate the gift? did I respect it, yes, but I’ve nevr thought that I bought thereby the right to charge money for it. It’s on my conscience, the pittances I’ve collected for writing, even for running newsrooms, blood money.

Are you kidding? I asked myself as I stumbled up the stairs to the attic. Blood money? How lah-de-dah of you. How… disingenuous. But with a hard rain pelting the attic, in the light of ghosts’ rustling dresses and trousers, I recognized the truth: I wasn’t kidding. I felt that way and it tripped up my career.

And yet… you knew there had to be a caveat, right? It was my truth, and now I saw that it was a dervish truth, the truth of a boy who had set out on a mystical journey and lost his way. And then, late in life, he saw that his poems and stories were lanterns lit to find that way again, to pick up that trail. I saw that he had found his gift as a way to throw light on the ghouls that had betrayed and molested him as a child.

Give me a $50,000 prize and I’ll take it. Sure I will. Well, maybe I will. Depends on where I’m at. I had plenty of opportunities I blew in journalism, blew one way or another. Where was I at? Some crazy place, taking some bogus idealistic stance. Or was I? My mother, who never much liked me, told me once, This I know about you, you’ll always shoot yourself in the foot at the 11th hour. Hell, I said, why wait for the 11th hour?

Yes, it hurt, that truth. And words like always, never and forever are usually used by poseurs. But the truth is I didn’t want to go for the money, for the prize. I wanted something else. And very late in my life I found it in the lens of my camera. I wanted to observe every little thing, I wanted at the end of the day to say I noticed, I cared, I tried to understand. I wanted to know what dandelions think, to party with elves under mushroom umbrellas.

And trying to understand gets me back to the contest industry. I thought how clever it would be to say that it’s an aspect of our tawdrily commodified society. I did say it, didn’t I? I wanted to say that even though its impeccable rationale is to enable the publishing of more poetry it has polished Andy Warhol’s jaded and perhaps apocryphal remark, In the future everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes. But the remark smacks and shines in the sun like bad mackerel.

Then, warming to my own smart-assery, I might have said the contest industry worships at Ayn Rand’s feet, helping to legitimize a world of winners and losers, a world of the ten best this, and the five worst that, and the six least likely, and fifteen most dangerous, ta dah ta dah ta dah. I might have gone all philosophic and said the contest industry is the world of insiders and outsiders that Albert Camus so memorably warned us against, a world in which it’s important if not crucial to talk about who showed up and said what at the last AWP conference. And, above all, I might have resisted resurrecting that passage about how I myself felt in order to avoid painting myself as the loony I am.

I don’t want any poem of mine to prevail, to outshine, to win, because I don’t see any losers in the world. Not a one. I on’t want any poem of mine to be about insiderdom or outsiderdom. I’d rather it be an illumined stepping stone, a little overgrown path leading to a quiet glade or perhaps to a glimpse of chaos. I don’t want it to be about heraldry, with its inevitable side sinister. I don’t want it to be about approbation, the approval of men and women, or affirmation. But I do want it to be shared flash, a witnessed flash, something you and I both saw when the lightning lit up the woods.

The pre-Islamic Bedouins used to hold great poetry fetes in which they would inscribe poems in their beautiful script on banners and carry the banners around. Christo and Jeanne-Claude would have loved it. Can you imagine huge banners carried aloft across Strawberry Fields with poems painted on them, and singing, and laughing, right under the nose of Donald Trump? But the Bedouins didn’t create a loserdom, because the competition wasn’t commercially flagrant; it wasn’t about money, it was about celebration. Poetry was their grand oasis, their hospitable tents.

If you write a poem that sheds light why shouldn’t you be paid for it? In a more honest, more introspective society you would be paid handsomely. Why shouldn’t you win prizes, receive honors, and be rewarded more generously than a rapine footballer is rewarded? Go for it. But understand some of us don’t want to, some of us just want to do what was given us to do, like shoeing a horse or replacing an injector, and pardon us all to hell if we feel uneasy about the vogue, whatever it happens to be at the moment.

Here’s where it gets dicey. Every creative artist must confront the possibility that he or she has encountered or is encountering the one thing, no matter how beautiful or advisable that thing may be, that will turn them from their gift, and hereafter their work may not be what it could have been even if it were to win the Nobel. Only they can know, and their decision about this predicament is bound, one way or another, to be bat-shit crazy.

copyright 2015 Djelloul Marbrook

3 comments on “Djelloul Marbrook: About the contest industry and bat-shit craziness

  1. Dean K Miller
    July 16, 2015

    The duality is always present: write to write, write to profit. But is $$$ the only profitability we see? I think not, but it may be the only one that “valued” in society.


  2. Carmel Mawle
    July 15, 2015

    Thanks for sharing your flash and lighting up this little corner of the woods. Sharing with Writing for Peace. Thank you, Djelloul.


  3. Jessie Martinovic
    June 3, 2015

    I very much connected with this, thank you.


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