August 23rd, 2010 10:23 EST
One Poet`s Campaign Against a Big Lie
One of the biggest lies in American culture is that all the books that deserve to be published are published and all the good books are reviewed.
Not even the admirable FactCheck.Org can root out lies like this that settle into our marrow, but the prize-winning poet and novelist Djelloul Marbrook is waging a quiet little campaign of his own to draw attention to some of the worthy writing he runs across in the course of his continuous study of poetry.
He has launched a new web site-djelloulmarbrook-books.com-in which he regularly writes appreciations of poets who come to his attention. He calls them "admired contemporaries."
"I can`t write about all the poets I admire," he says, "but I try to write when I think I can shed some light, when I think I have something useful to say. There`s nothing definitive about this, and I only write about what I`m enthusiastic about. I`m not a critic, I`m a colleague."
Marbrook has written about such disparate poets as the Frenchwoman Valerie Rouzeau and the Californian Tony Barnstone. He has written about poets he knows, such as Michael Roy Meyerhofer and Eliot Kahlil Wilson and poets he doesn`t know such as Brian Turner and Brenda O`Shaughnessy.
"I buy poetry books all the time," he says, "those that are commended to me and those I run across one way or another. I enjoy almost all of them, even the ones I consider mediocre. Some of them have been praised by experts and I have little to add. But every once in a while I have something to say that I think my contribute to an appreciation of the work."
Most small presses are unable to spend the kind of advertising and promotional money that attracts critical attention. They strive in various ways, by networking and calling in favors, to win attention for their books, but at the end of the day money talks.
"The critical establishment would have us believe that no good book is deprived of critical light, but it`s a self-serving lie. Every week a book we should know about, a book that deserves some discourse, is published and then neglected simply because its publisher is obscure or it`s under-financed or both. We should face up to this sad truth, just as we should face up to the fact that we`re ignorant of a great deal of important literature because our publishers won`t pay to have it translated, and this is my little way of trying to redress this ultimately very damaging situation."
Marbrook says his new web site is self-serving because it calls attention to his own work as well as others`, but, he says, "our literary world is shaped by self-dealing and self-serving, and if I can say to people who like my work that they might like the work of other poets I admire, then I want to say it."
"When I was a newspaper editor we reviewed books all the time," Marbrook says, "and I used to offend the business office by suggesting that the bestseller lists belonged on our business pages because they were a more accurate reflection of marketing acumen than literary merit. But we went on insisting, as indeed newspapers still do, that the list has something to do with merit."
If he had his way as a newspaperman, he says, negative reviews would be a thing of the past. "The 22-inch pan is like cable news, negative, destructive and divisive. Why waste 22 inches on what you don`t like? If you don`t say anything, that`s a critique all by itself. What worries me is that we`re not saying anything about good and sometimes great work, just like cable news."
Gatekeeping, he says, is about money. Herman Melville`s Moby-Dick ran afoul of this truth, just as writers still do. But what has changed is that the idealism of certain publishers, like Horace Liveright, for example, has been bled out of the industry. Editors, he says, have capitulated to marketers. The alternative, after all, might be unemployment. Idealism and cultural responsibility are not voguish ideas among the major publishers. They never held sway, and now they`re not even discussed.
Marbrook maintains a lively and current web site-djelloulmarbrook.com-where he comments about "damned near anything that comes to mind." He launched it in 2005 to call attention to his short novel, Saraceno, which was never distributed. The web site took on a life of its own, he recalls, "and now I`m riding the tiger."