Issue #26, 2005

What's the Story #26

The Poets and Writers Issue

Lee Gutkind

What's the Story #26

We recently published a story in our monthly e-mail newsletter prompted by a note we received from Brenda Miller, a writer whose nonfiction work has received three Pushcart Prizes and has been published in prestigious literary journals (including this one) and several anthologies. Miller had been told by Poets & Writers, Inc., the nation's largest nonprofit literary organization and the publisher of Poets & Writers Magazine, that she did not qualify for a listing in its online directory because Poets & Writers lists only poets and fiction writers. This from the organization that bills itself as "the primary source or information, support, and guidance for creative writers."

Why can't Brenda Miller or any creative nonfiction writer take advantage of this great resource? Jessie Koester, P&W's director of information services, explains in an e-mail to Miller: "It would be too hard for us, when screening nonfiction credits, to determine what is creative and what isn't. It's very subjective, and all nonfiction writers would want their credits listed." Consequently, the organization has decided as a matter of policy not to list writers who write creative nonfiction exclusively. (If you are also a poet or a fiction writer, then it's possible to apply for a listing.)

Being excluded because I write nonfiction or cross-examined to see whether I pass a "creative-writing legitimacy test" is really not big news to me. I have gone through this "What is creative and what isn't?" inquisition before with Poets & Writers. Two years ago, in one of its articles, "Term Limits: The Creative Nonfiction Debate," Carolyn Hughes reported that I refused to define the term creative nonfiction when she asked for a definition. This is true. What I said was that I didn't think it was a fair question. I said that, since interviewers rarely ask poets to define poetry or novelists to define fiction, I didn't see why I should have to define my genre. Art, whether literature or sculpture or music, defines itself.

Frankly, I am sick and tired of having to pass legitimacy tests. This is a battle creative nonfiction writers fought and won a long time ago. And if you read Poets & Writers, you will see that we have won—big. These days, virtually every issue includes articles about prominent writers or techniques of creative nonfiction. Poets & Writers accepts advertisements from this journal and from other journals that publish creative nonfiction, whether exclusively or together with poetry and fiction. It accepts advertisements from publishers of creative nonfiction books and from writing programs that offer MFAs in creative nonfiction—more of them every year—and from writers' conference featuring creative nonfiction.

We are sponsors and co-sponsors of three of those conferences: the Mid-Atlantic Creative Nonfiction Summer Writers' Conference, at Goucher College, which this year will feature John McPhee; Crossing Borders: From Fiction and Poetry to Nonfiction, in Santa Fe, N.M.; and the 412 Pittsburgh Creative Nonfiction Festival. The last of these, supported in part by the University of Pittsburgh, home of the country's oldest MFA program in creative nonfiction, will be held November 10-13 and will feature, among others, Michael Ondaatje, a novelist who also writes creative nonfiction. 

If all of the organizations, institutions, writers and readers with an interest in creative nonfiction decided to withdraw support from Poets & Writers magazine specifically and the organization generally, the impact would be felt very quickly.

I am not advocating or proposing a boycott of Poets & Writers. I respect and value P&W's contribution to the literary world, and I agree with the organization's description of itself as "the primary source of information, support and guidance for creative writers." Its directory is, indeed, to quote from the P&W Web site, "a great resource for editors, agents, and reading series coordinators." But it is time—long past time, really—for creative nonfiction readers, writers and teachers to be included, without reservation, under the Poets & Writers literary umbrella. We are no less deserving of such resources than poets and fiction writers.

So, what am I recommending? I have two suggestions. First, let's begin a letter and e-mail campaign to the administration and editors of Poets & Writers, urging the organization to change its policy immediately.

Second, all of us who write, read or teach creative nonfiction must insist on equal consideration from all organizations—local, national and international—that exist to support creative writers and their work. Unfortunately, although creative nonfiction writing has gained a solid footing in publications and writing programs and has lately begun to attract writers from other genres, creative nonfiction writers—as the Poets & Writers policy clearly demonstrates—are too commonly still treated as unwelcome outsiders.

Maybe Poets & Writers will change its policy, and maybe it won't. But Creative Nonfiction, the journal that helped legitimize the genre, will continue to be at the forefront of the creative nonfiction movement, supporting those who write, read, and teach the literature of reality, for as long as it exists. We plan to continue to use our e-mail newsletter and website to call attention to organizations and policies that make it difficult for creative nonfiction writers to function as writers and compete in the marketplace, and I hope that more readers and writers will write to Creative Nonfiction, as Brenda Miller did, to tell their stories. 

*

The writers featured in this issue illustrate that writers can write creatively in more than one genre. We can cross borders. The lines of division between us are disintegrating.

Ira Berkow is a Pulitzer Prize—winning journalist for the New York Times. Hilary Masters is a novelist and short-story writer, as well as a distinguished essayist. Poet Toi Derricotte is a co-founder of Cave Canem and memoirist. Hilda Raz is a poet and the editor of Prairie Schooner, which has long published high-quality nonfiction. Lauren Slater, author of six nonfiction books and numerous magazine articles and essays, has just published a collection of short fiction. Laurie Graham has edited poetry, fiction and nonfiction by Terry Tempest Williams and Barry Lopez. In the book review section, Lea Simonds looks at the new nonfiction book by Ted Kooser, poet laureate of the United States.

The stories in this issue also flirt with the idea of crossing boundaries—between life and death, between countries and cultures and languages, and between individuals. Alle Hall explores the line between independence and marriage; Robert Wilder describes his daughter's entry into the world; and Mark O'Connor discusses how naming creates belonging. 

The last piece in the issue, Kathleen Tarr's "We Are All Poets Here," is, among other things, an essay about Russian poets generally and Boris Pasternak specifically, but the title also reflects the message of this editorial. Creative Nonfiction helps bring disparate groups together. In this issue and in this journal, "We are all writers here." 

Author Bio

Lee Gutkind

Lee Gutkind, recognized by Vanity Fair as “the Godfather behind creative nonfiction,” is the founder and editor of Creative... read more

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