Identity Poetics, Reginald Shepherd, & Why I Don’t Buy Into Niche Presses/Journals

On his blog recently John Gallaher relates one of Reginald Shepherd’s many strong convictions regarding poetry:

‘And he was outspoken against what he called, “[t]he impulse to explain poetry as a symptom of its author” that he saw manifested in what he and others termed “identity poetics,” a poetics he described as “giving back the already known in an endless and endlessly self-righteous confirmation of things as they are.” He was adamant on this, as he saw it “constraining, limiting the imaginative options of the very people it seeks to liberate or speak for.”’

This hit me quite hard as I can’t think of a more accurate and honest way to explain my own skepticism of this topic, and my recent thoughts and conversations regarding ‘niche presses’, or presses/journals that cater specifically to any subset of poets–female / male / gay / Asian / -only, whatever. My feeling being that if your criteria for selection is anything other than the editor(s) aesthetic taste, something is wrong. A shamelessly self-serving agenda is at work and hurting poetry at large, no matter how well-intentioned the people who run these presses are. All journals have an aesthetic bias to some extent, but shouldn’t we hope this is the only bias? The more anyone buys into and supports the ‘need’ for these niche avenues, the more that ‘need’ is sustained.

The poetry world is already far too small and underpopulated to begin shrinking our personal spheres even more through segregation that isn’t only accepted by often applauded.

I also feel too many hedge their publishing-cred bets by sending to niche journals that cater to their demographic. If your work is genuinely strong, if you’re persistent it’ll get accepted wherever you send it, strong aesthetic differences aside. I feel like this hedging is a symptom of authors without appropriate confidence in their work.

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