No mini-bios?

January 7, 2011

Snakeskin is different from most online poetry magazines in number of ways. One of them is that other zines often print mini-biographies of the poets they publish:

Jenni Nosgood was born in Bromsgrove, England, before moving to the U.S. in the seventies, where she worked for many years as a waitress, pole dancer and legal secretary before taking up her current post as Assistant Professor in the Creative Writing Department of Tuscaloosa University. Her poems, prose-fragments and language-crushing experiments have appeared in The Shredsville Chronicle, Poemskunk and Fried Moose Droppings. She is married with four daughters, and is an active member of the Church of Latter-Day Saints.

That sort of thing.
The reason we don’t provide this kind of bio is simple. Before beginning Snakeskin I surfed the net (how small it was, how amateur, in those far-off days of 1995) looking for poetry sites. I found quite a few, and many were lively. All, as I remember, published little paragraphs of biography. And the trouble was that I found myself far more interested in the bios than in the poems. Partly, I suppose, this was because much of the verse on offer was the rather thin freestyle variety that did not interest me greatly. The proud little paragraphs, detailing publishing success in print periodicals already yellowing with age, offered a shortlist of the author’s more respectable achievements while omitting both the ecstasies and the disasters that are the real stuff of poets’ lives. I read them and tried to fill in the gaps, making up my own stories about the poets. The poems, I’m afraid, were soon forgotten in my enthusiasm for reading mini-bios.
If I had followed this trend in Snakeskin, I know that I would have been tempted to fill the zine with imaginary poets, whose fictional biographies would be far more startling than anything they could manage in the poetic line. I decided that this wouldn’t do.
No biographies.
Because the philosophy at Snakeskin is that the poem should be the star. Over the years I have developed a format that aims to be readable and, while not unattractive, deliberately unobtrusive. Sometimes I add an illustration to a poem (often when I feel that this helps explain what the poet is writing about, as with the photo attached toDonatello’s Goliath in the current issue). Mostly each poem just comes by itself, take-it-or-leave-it-style, for the reader to meet on its own terms.
Do some find this off-putting? Possibly. Each issue is a miscellany. Comic poems are next to deadly serious ones, long-established poets are next to newcomers in print for the first time. Sometimes it must be a shock for a reader to go from a neat little rhymed joke to a long free-verse exploration of personal pain.
That is the risk, but it is one that I want to take, because for me this unadorned manner of presentation expresses something that I value most about literature – that it is full, various and surprising. It is also a way of saying: “Don’t look at the poet. Look at the words.”
Biographies are claims for respectability. X has published in Y and Z magazines, so must be worth reading. To read some, you get the impression that poetry has a career structure, the move from little magazines to bigger ones, from pamphlets to chapbooks to major collections. I resist this view of poetry. Most poets do not develop in this way. Many start explosively and fade away. Others suddenly find a voice late in life, and maybe lose it again. Some poets maybe only ever write one really good poem.
So there we are. In Snakeskin the poems stand by themselves. And readers with a taste for biography can always head straight for Mr Bentzman’s soliloquies, which every month offer a new chapter from his life, described in a detail that makes it worth reading.

2 Responses to “No mini-bios?”

  1. Graham Hennin Says:

    Brilliant mini essay! Hit the spot!

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