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Website upsets poetry world

Librarian's 'Foetry' challenges validity of competitions

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.

Cordle has a day job as a librarian at Portland Community College. He also happens to be the most despised -- some would say most feared -- man in American poetry. At the very least, for the moment he is the most talked-about figure in this 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 as a whistle-blower, champion, and crusader. All agree that, for good or bad, Cordle has shaken up the establishment.

He did most of this work from his sofa.

For the last 13 months, Cordle has been running his website, Foetry, a spot created by laptop that 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, and some contests draw 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 Kevin Walzer, a poetry publisher based in Ohio, 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 become suspicious.

What transformed Foetry from just 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 gather information from contest organizers.

Then Cordle did what no one else had publicly done: He named names.

''Exposing fraudulent contests. Tracking the sycophants. Naming names." This became the website's motto.

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's Contemporary Poet Series.

As in many contests, the judges had not been named. Cordle secured documents through a public-records petition last year, gave their identities dating back to 1979, and then documented what he said were connections between judges and winners.

Confirming what many had suspected, judges frequently awarded poets with whom they had personal relationships.

Among poet-judges implicated were a Pulitzer winner, Jorie Graham at Harvard University; a MacArthur fellow, C. D. Wright at Brown University; and a former US poet laureate, Mark Strand at the University of Chicago.

William Logan, a poet and critic and professor of English at the University of Florida, said: ''The facts at Foetry are mostly right, the tone mostly shrill. Reading it, I feel caught between being grateful and being annoyed."

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," said Holmes, whose contest is named on the website as ''dodgy."

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 literary blogs.

Word leaked, and Cordle was outed. He was online at the moment his name appeared. He shut his laptop and sobbed. His wife, poet Kathleen Halme, was there, and she sobbed, too. She was against his project from the start.

Halme has had success as a poet, publishing two books and winning a prestigious contest in 1994.

With Cordle found out, Halme, 49, voiced fear she may never be published again. The fear of blacklisting, she says, is the main reason so few people have spoken out. In trying to help her, Halme says, her husband may have ruined her career.

Contrary to what Cordle claims, the contest method is not a great moneymaking scheme, says Ted Genoways, editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review at the University of Virginia. Genoways agreed with Foetry's main aim, to overhaul the contest system.

Perhaps most damaged was Jorie Graham.

At 54, Graham has accomplished what David Orr, a critic, called 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 chair at Harvard.

Last year, Foetry reported the following: In January 1999, while Graham was the judge for a Georgia contest, a manuscript by poet Peter Sacks was chosen for the prize. Sacks is Graham's colleague at Harvard, and her husband.

Graham says she did not arrive at Harvard and marry Sacks until 2000, but she does not deny they knew each other.

Paraphrasing the poet Ezra Pound, Graham said: ''It really matters that great poems get written, and it doesn't matter a damn who writes them."

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