Alan Cordle has become "cynical about the whole enterprise" of contemporary poetry as a result of his efforts at "exposing fraudulent contests" and "tracking the sycophants" at his website Foetry. He thought poetry was about beauty, but the publishing of poetry has turned out to be about "cozy cronyism."
It's hard to believe that Cordle was really as naive as he claims he was when he discovered that judges of poetry contests sometimes select the manuscripts of "students, friends, and even their lovers." Poets are as fallibly human as anyone else, and surely Cordle did not assume that writing poetry afforded some kind of exemption from this truth. But perhaps Cordle should give himself a break--he thinks he's discovered that poets are unscrupulous and poetry contests financially corrupt, but he's really discovered that poets (and editors) prefer what they prefer and that getting published (in fiction as well as poetry) is not simply a matter of producing good work and having it recognized as a matter of course. In some ways it is only to be expected that poets would choose to extol the work of their own former students, since presumably those students exemplify in their work the qualities valued by the teacher to begin with, in some cases writing poetry directly influenced by the teacher's work.
To the extent that poetry/fiction prizes are explicitly "fixed"--the winner is known in advance, the other contestants deliberately bilked of their entry fees--Cordle's efforts to uncover the practice would be both welcome and justified. But I can't see that any of the examples described at the Foetry website reach this level. Few of them go beyond the "this poet knows that poet/this poet previously expressed admiration for that poet" variety of accusation. In my opinion, the fact of the matter is this: All poetry and fiction prizes, either those rewarding entire manuscripts or those that identify individual poems or stories as "winners" in literary journals, are inherently suspect, what might be called systemic scams. Print journals continue to proliferate, as does the cost of printing them, and since the readership of these journals is too small to support them through subscription, and the support provided by universities (where most of the journals reside) only weakens (as does support for university press poetry publication), these meaningless prizes and the entry fees they generate have arisen as a way of maintaining the supply of ink and paper.
I believe Ted Genoways, editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review, when he says that most contests simply allow small presses to scrape by. Surely no one thinks large sums of money are at stake in the publishing of poetry and short fiction. Nevertheless, without the sums that are produced, such publishing would likely collapse from its own puffed-up weight. Contest money serves the system as a whole, at least for the moment, to forestall the day when small-scale print publishing as it has been conducted for the past forty years (a period that also coincides with the growth of creative writing programs) can no longer be sustained. In the meantime, aspiring and lesser-known writers will undoutedly continue to pay for the opportunity to be rejected by the literary journals or presses of their choice.
Why anyone would willingly participate in his/her own exploitation and disillusionment in this way is beyond me, but I guess the allure of being published in a literary magazine, even if most copies will sit unread on library shelves, or by a poetry press, whose books probably won't even make it to most libraries, is still strong for some writers. Moreover, such writers ought at least take to heart what Foetry has managed to make clear: Editors do indeed prefer what they prefer, and mostly what they prefer is the familiar and the compatible. And this is true both of those publishing conventional work and those who tend to publish more experimental fiction or poetry. (We are told in the L.A. Times Article that NEA chairman Dana Gioia has contacted Alan Cordle "to offer support for Foetry's goals." One suspects that Gioia, a poet in what Ron Silliman calls the "School of Quietude," would like to combat the influence of "post-avant" poetry--more highly esteemed in some quarters of the poetry world--and the venues that favor it.) The chances your work will meet the expectations of these editors is slight, even when you're seeking ordinary, non-contest-related publication.
Perhaps the greatest harm these literary contests do is to collectively perpetuate the idea there are commonly recognized standards by which all literary work is judged suitable for publication, that work submitted for publication to the most desirable venues will be assessed dispassionately and will get into print only if it is objectively the most meritorious. Where would these standards come from? Literary criticism of the kind that might help to establish such standards hardly exists any more, having been replaced by a species of academic criticism that finds value in literature only in its utility for advancing outside agendas and by newspaper-based book reviewing that rarely does more than provide crude consumer advice. At best, it seems to me, literary journals and many small presses proceed according to a kind of literary conventional wisdom whereby everybody publishes what everybody else is publishing. It isn't cynicism to think that literary publishing in the United States is far from a meritocracy (even if you don't think those involved are necessarily morally corrupt). It's common sense.