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In Search of Poetic Justice

Contest-winning verses are fighting words at The site's founder, who says events are rigged, has rattled nerves -- even his wife's.

June 17, 2005|Tomas Alex Tizon | Times Staff Writer

PORTLAND, Ore. — 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."

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