In Search of Poetic Justice
He’s not scary in person. Alan Cordle is 36, pale and round with thick glasses and soft fleshy cheeks. He smiles often and speaks in a wispy voice, which suits his day job as a librarian at Portland Community College.
Cordle also happens to be the most despised -- some would say most feared -- man in American poetry. At the very least, he is for the moment the most talked-about figure in this remote corner of the literary world.
Major poets, some with Pulitzer Prizes and MacArthur Fellowships on their resumes, call him an “attack dog,” an “assassin,” a “hangman” and, worst, a “brat with a major rage disorder.” His supporters regard him a whistle-blower, champion and crusader. All agree that, for good or bad, Cordle has shaken up the establishment.
He did most of this from his sofa.
For the last 13 months, when not shushing people at the library, he has been running his laptop-created website, Foetry, which purports to expose the corrupt world of poetry contests.
The number of annual contests in the United States has ballooned from five in 1980 to more than 100 today. Most charge “reading fees” of $20 to $30 an entry, with some contests drawing thousands of applicants.
In today’s literary climate, winning a major contest is one of the only sure tickets to continuing life as a poet. Winners get book deals and professorships; losers look for another line of work.
In this world, Cordle says, judges -- often “celebrity poets” who teach at prestigious schools -- routinely award prizes to their students, friends and lovers. It is in his view a world of cozy cronyism that few outsiders know or care about, although poets have been whispering about it for decades.
The victims are the thousands of mostly young poets who pay to get a fair reading, and who are essentially “defrauded,” Cordle says.
“It’s cheating. It’s criminal. If this was anything other than poetry, the Department of Justice would be all over it.”
According to Ohio-based poetry publisher Kevin Walzer, it would be like holding a big state lottery and then having “buddies of the Powerball operator win the big prize” again and again. Even if it were coincidental, people might begin to suspect.
What transformed Foetry from another obscure arty website with an attitude was Cordle’s penchant for research. Like an investigative reporter, he solicited tips from insiders and used open-records laws to get information from contest organizers.
Then Cordle did what no one else had publicly done: He named names.
The website’s motto became: “Exposing fraudulent contests. Tracking the sycophants. Naming names.”
Much of what Foetry calls collusion would not pass muster in court. Many examples fall along the lines of school connections -- a judge who attended the same school as the winning poet.
But some of Foetry’s examples appear to show true conflicts of interest -- such as the case of the University of Georgia Press Contemporary Poet Series.
As in many contests, the judges had not been named. Cordle secured documents through a public-records petition last year, revealed their identities dating back to 1979, then documented the connections between judges and winners.
Confirming what many suspected, judges frequently awarded poets with whom they had personal relationships.
Among the poet-judges implicated were Pulitzer Prize winner Jorie Graham at Harvard University; MacArthur fellow C.D. Wright at Brown University; and former U.S. Poet Laureate Mark Strand at the University of Chicago.
As word spread, more people logged on to Foetry, which Cordle says recorded more than 5,000 hits a day at one point. Among those who logged on or took part in discussions were some of the most respected bards in the land, including former Guggenheim fellow and Black Mountain poet Robert Creeley, Graham and National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Dana Gioia.
Foetry “confirms what anyone involved in poetry over the past 30 years has known for a long, long time,” says Neal Bowers, poet and Distinguished Professor of English at Iowa State University. Poetry contests are “rigged.”
“The world of poetry,” Bowers says, “is all about hustle and connection.”
Poet and critic William Logan, an English professor at the University of Florida, says, “The facts at Foetry are mostly right, the tone mostly shrill. Reading it, I feel caught between being grateful and being annoyed.”
Many others are outraged by Foetry, calling it a forum for poetry bashing and character assassination, a website for failed poets to vent their frustration.
Janet Holmes, editor and publisher at Ahsahta Press in Boise, Idaho, which sponsors the Sawtooth Poetry Prize, described the website as full of vindictive gossip.
“It gets pretty close to lawsuit territory, and, yes, I have a lawyer,” says Holmes, whose contest is one of those named on the website as “dodgy.”
Foetry says Sawtooth organizers allowed judges in 2002 and 2003 to award the prize to their friends. In one instance, a judge is accused of helping to revise the winning manuscript. Holmes calls the accusation “a fantasy.”
Much of the anger stems from the fact that for the first 12 months, Foetry was run anonymously. No one knew for sure who was behind it, and a spirited effort by members of the literati was conducted to root out the accuser. “Who is Foetry?” became a discussion topic on numerous literary blogs.
Word leaked, and Cordle was outed. He was online at the moment his name first appeared. He shut his laptop and sobbed. His wife, poet Kathleen Halme, was there, and she sobbed, too. She was against his little project from the start.
He did it out of love. Cordle says he created Foetry in April 2004 after seeing his wife enter contest after contest, only to have the judge choose someone with whom he or she had personal connections. Foe means enemy and is also a play on the French word “faux,” which means fake.
Halme has had success as a poet, publishing two books and winning a prestigious contest in 1994, but apparently not enough to assuage Cordle.
With Cordle outed, Halme, 49, fears she may never be published again. The fear of blacklisting, she says, is the main reason that so few people have spoken out. In trying to help her, Halme says, her husband may have ruined her career.
It has been a tense spring at the Cordle-Halme household.
A month after Cordle’s outing, the couple sits in their small, tidy living room inside a cream-colored house in one of Portland’s oldest neighborhoods. Cordle slouches on a beige couch. Halme sits in an armchair. They’ve been married 13 years.
“Here’s one from Queens,” says Cordle, reading from a stack of hate mail: “Dear Ellin [sic]. Well, you’re a little coward, aren’t you? Your wife must be about done with you. That’s too bad -- for you.”
Halme listens pensively, then heaves a sigh.
“You’re not going to shame the shameless into behaving,” she says after a moment. “Do you think you are?”
“In the first month I did,” Cordle says sheepishly.
Halme, who is working on her third book, says she has never looked at Foetry and from the beginning was “sickened” by the idea. In the next breath, though, she says “things have to change” in the poetry world. She just wishes it were someone other than her husband picking fights “with the pantheon of power.”
American poetry became contest-driven after decades of waning public interest. Major publishing houses, squeezed by a 1979 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that resulted in higher taxes for unsold inventory, stopped publishing poetry books in volume.
It fell to university and small presses to keep the genre alive. The easiest way for a small press to publish poetry was to hold a contest, collect entry fees and then use the money to publish a book by the winning poet. That constituted the prize. Selling 1,000 books is considered a success; 500 or fewer is more typical.
Contrary to what Cordle claims, the contest method is not a great money-making scheme, says Ted Genoways, editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review at the University of Virginia. Genoways says most small presses -- after paying contest overhead -- do well just to break even.
Though critical of Cordle’s tactics, Genoways agrees with Foetry’s main aim, which is to change the contest system. Genoways was one of those Foetry critics stunned by the disclosures about the University of Georgia.
Perhaps most damaged by those disclosures was Jorie Graham, who some say comes closest to being the superstar of American poetry.
At 54, Graham has accomplished what critic David Orr calls the trifecta of American verse: She won a major prize, a Pulitzer in 1996 for her book “The Dream of the Unified Field”; secured a faculty position at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop; and was appointed to a distinguished chair at the most hallowed of Ivies, Harvard.
Last year, Foetry revealed the following:
In January 1999, with Graham as the judge for the Georgia contest, a manuscript by poet Peter Sacks was chosen for the prize. Sacks is Graham’s colleague at Harvard, not to mention her husband.
Graham points out she didn’t arrive at Harvard and marry Sacks until 2000, but she does not deny they knew each other at the time of the contest. In fact, Graham felt awkward enough about it to ask the series editor, Bin Ramke, to make the call. Ramke chose Sacks, and Graham concurred.
Foetry contends that Graham, as a judge at Georgia and other contests, has awarded prizes to five former students from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
It also says that C.D Wright and Mark Strand have chosen former students for awards.
Wright did not respond to an interview request, but Strand admitted to selecting one former student, in 1998, for a poetry prize. He says Foetry’s accusations strike him as “much ado about very little.”
Strand also defends Graham, whom he says has been unfairly targeted.
Graham, widely recognized as a gifted teacher, admits that she has chosen former students but says that no rules had prohibited her from doing so and that in each case she selected the strongest work. She also says what Foetry has done to her is akin to a public lynching.
If it were up to her, Graham says, she would abolish contests altogether. Like many poets called to be judges, Graham sees contests as a necessary evil.
“This might be hard to understand, but one is doing all this incredibly time-consuming and mind-numbing work -- usually for free or a nominal fee -- for poetry itself,” Graham says. The call for a judge, she says, is to identify the most salient poetic voices that will carry the art into the future.
Paraphrasing Ezra Pound, Graham says “it really matters that great poems get written, and it doesn’t matter a damn who writes them.”
By extension, she implies, it shouldn’t matter that a contestant was a student in a class nine years earlier. Graham says she has been a teacher for a quarter-century and that she has 1,400 former students running around the planet, many of them writing poems. American poetry is a cloistered world; paths are bound to crisscross.
Graham recently announced she would no longer judge contests.
Ramke, the longtime editor of the Georgia poetry series, plans to leave his post, citing Foetry as the cause, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education journal.
A couple of highly regarded poetry presses, at Georgia and Colorado State University, have added language to contest rules that tells judges to “avoid conflicts of interest of all kinds.”
Two organizations influential in the poetry world -- the Council of Literary Magazines & Presses and Associated Writing Programs -- this spring began discussions on developing standardized guidelines for poetry contests.
Among the ideas being considered are rules that would bar judges from awarding prizes to former students, and bar poets from entering contests in which the judge is a former teacher. Judges would be identified from the start.
“I’m sure Alan [Cordle] would like to take credit for all this,” says Holmes of Boise. “The truth is it’s a good time to have this conversation.”
Holmes, whose Sawtooth Poetry Prize was criticized by Foetry, says that since Cordle’s accusations, submissions to her press have risen by 10%, reinforcing the idea that the world is a strange place with many kinds of poetic justice.
As for Cordle, he knew he had gotten the attention of the pantheon of power when Gioia, the arts endowment chairman, called from Washington on June 2 to offer support for Foetry’s goals. (Gioia’s office confirmed the conversation.)
On Cordle’s domestic front, there is still the “wrath of Kathleen” to deal with.
“We’re sleeping in the same bed,” he says, but nights are still frosty. He has promised to wean himself from Foetry and let others run it. Halme is skeptical he can let go so easily. She gazes at her husband with conflicted affection, her expression fluctuating between “I love him” and “I’d like to kill him.”
The last year has taken another kind of toll on Cordle. Once he used to like poetry. He studied modern poets in college, and for years he read poetry for pleasure. Now he is cynical about the whole enterprise. As an antidote, he’s been reading his wife’s new manuscript, of which the first line of the first poem reads, “Perhaps I was naive. I thought it was for beauty.”
Whatever else the line could mean, he says, it resonated with him immediately.
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