Facebook Poetry – Oxymoron or Hamburger-Chain Art?

by Tolu Ogunlesi

Social Networking and Serious Literature
Can never share the same Posture

– Poetry Police Manifesto

Recently I got a phone call from a friend. He needed a mutual friend’s phone number. Then, just before the call ended, he chipped in: “Yeah, regarding the Facebook Prize, I don’t know whether to congratulate you or to chide you… Facebook, isn’t that the dating site…?” He was referring to the 1st Facebook Poetry Competition, whose results were announced November 16, and in which I took the First Prize. My friend’s probably not alone in wondering about a “Facebook Poetry” Prize. The fact that “Facebook” and “Poetry” appear in the same phrase sets alarm-belIs ringing in many minds. I sent an email to friends informing them of my win. Most responded to congratulate me. But I imagine that not a few would have had the same questions hovering on their minds. After all, isn’t Facebook for poking, and throwing sheep and generally fooling around albeit in a very charming manner? Well, maybe we could extend the Facebook coverage to slam poetry/spoken word, and rap. And then, of course, Dating. If it’s the internet, then it’s got to include some dating. And who doesn’t know that the internet is the natural habitat of self-appointed, bull-spouting connoisseurs of everything from Penal Codes to Pre-adolescent Pornography to Poetic License. Which is why we should be concerned, alarmed even. And which is why we need the Police. One week after the announcement of the winners of the Facebook Poetry Prize, a certain Jill Rosen, who I presume to be a high-ranking member of the P.P stirred – on Facebook – complaining about the “quality” of the Facebook Prize winning poetry:

“Ahem, the winning poems are very very so-so, to put it mildly. Another of a million of pointless poetry competitions that encourage bad taste and mediocre poetry, and are judged by people with no taste and are made out to seem like a big deal…And no, I did not submit my poems and it’s not “sour grapes.” I’m just sad when the idea of poetry is debased by people without talent. Poetry is not a hamburger chain, you geeks”

And I smiled. Perhaps I’d have been the one saying that, had I not won. Ms. Rosen’s alarm is nothing new. That’s the job of every Defender of the Holy Kingdom of poetry. They come in various guises and disguises. The “Internet is spoiling Literature” School. The “Post-Quality” Literary Movement. When members of this movement think of the internet, the word “dumbing down” is what comes to their minds. In their beginning everything was Serious. Now Poetry has been rendered “pointless.” Mediocrity reigns. Ezra Pound, in the Golden Age of Poetry, declared “Literature is news that stays news.” Now, in the age of the internet, the boundaries are blurred, gone even. There is no “News” that stays News anymore – instead there are now blogs and search engines and portals and social networking sites, all intent on messing poetry and literature up. You’ll recognise the grumblers by their dismissive tones. All Ms. Rosen can say is the poems are “so-so.” Critic-speak at its most eloquent. Of course she knows what Real Poetry should be. I still can’t shake off the feeling that she’s lamenting simply because it’s “Facebook.” Truth is, there’ll always be loads of crap on the internet. That’s not news. Crap didn’t begin with the Age of Social Networking. Neither did allegations of crap. David Orr, Poet and literary columnist, writing in the New York Times Sunday Book Review months ago, had this to say about the Almighty New Yorker:

The New Yorker tends to run bad poems by excellent poets … many well-known poets don’t write what’s known in the poetry world as “the New Yorker poem” — basically an epiphany-centered lyric heavy on words like “water” and “light.”

Take that, or leave it. Or is it that simple? Well, my point is simple. To Generalise about Literature, as many so-called critics are wont to do, is unfair, and Absurd. If it’s Facebook poetry, or Bebo Fiction, it can’t be anything but crap. By the way one of the Judges of The Facebook Poetry Contest was Todd Swift, poetry editor of Nthposition, Core Tutor with The Poetry School and author of 4 collections of poetry. Certainly not a candidate for a “Hamburger-chain Poet” nomination.

Another “by the way.” This is not my first “social-networking” Literary Prize. Earlier this year I won a Bebo contest for Nanotales – short stories of less than 1,000 words. The 25 winning stories will be published in an anthology in 2008. The Judges of the contest (which was a collaboration between Guardian Unlimited and Bebo) were Sarah Crown, literary editor, Guardian Unlimited, Alan Yentob, creative director of the BBC; Caroline Michel, MD, William Morris agency; Franc Roddam, film director and founder of Ziji Publishing; Joanna Shields, President of Bebo, International; and Ziv Navoth, Nanotales author and concept creator. A press release from Bebo in May 2007 explained that Bebo and Guardian Unlimited teamed up “…to redefine the boundaries of literature.” Why shouldn’t they aspire to that? The Guardian Unlimited’s (my favourite literary site) monthly online Poetry Workshop (where submission is open to all, poets and pretenders alike) predates Facebook Poetry. And then, regarding crap subs to contests (the Facebook Poetry contest entries are available for public viewing on the Contest web-pages, which means that it is crapspotter-friendly), surely no one can prevent mediocre entries from being submitted to a contest. Even the $30,000 Nigeria Prize for Science hasn’t found a way to stop people from sending home-made bottles of wine for consideration.

Sadly, now that I have won the Facebook Poetry Contest, I realise that I am taking – or have in fact already taken – a big risk. I have made myself eligible for the dismissive tag of “Facebook poet.” Is that tag currently in existence? I don’t know. But I have a feeling that if it isn’t already, it soon will. There goes the “Facebook Poet.” Am I a Facebook Poet? Yes, I am. I won the first Facebook Contest, didn’t I? And am I excited by that? Yes, by the possibilities hanging on to it. There’s a cash prize of (a modest) $150, plus the new friends I’ve made – poets who have got in touch to congratulate me. And then there’s the publicity. Google and the other search engines will pick up the news, and spread it (hopefully) far and wide to the ends of the web. My ego will welcome the self-appointed title of “Facebook Poet Laureate” Social Networking sites are only one of the many platforms where I ply my art. I will never tire of submitting to magazines and journals, in print and online. I will continue to enter for poetry contests, to the extent that I know that they are not scams. And above all, I will continue to write poetry, and read poetry. And work at improving my craft. A few months ago, John Ashbery, arguably one of America’s most successful and most celebrated poets, committed the literary sacrilege of the century – by accepting to become the first Poet Laureate of MTV-U, the subsidiary of MTV Networks that broadcasts only on College Campuses; MTV-U-Tube if you please. I fear to imagine what the Poetry Police are plotting at the moment. Petitions asking the Pulitzer Prize Committee to strip him of his 1976 Award perhaps.

I think the words of Robert Archambeau, writing in the Samizdat blog, about the Ashbery appointment, capture my feelings best:

Good (if belated) news, everyone: John Ashbery’s been appointed poet laureate of MTV (really). On balance, I’ve got to say I think this is a good idea. Not only does it bring exposure to an important poet, it chips away at the old high culture/pop culture division, a cultural holdover that has shambled on far too long after Andy Warhol dealt it what should have been a mortal wound. More importantly, the idea of an MTV laureate (and of any corporate laureate, really) helps to de-sacralize the idea of laureateship by dislodging it from the marble mausoleum of Serious Civic Grandeur.

Serious Civic Grandeur. I like that. That, I think is what Jill Rosen was looking for in the Facebook Contest winning poems. She won’t find it. I end with a warning. For those outraged by the incursions of Social Networking into Literature, spare your anger for the future. For it will only get worse. Sorry. Long Live the New New “Laureateship.” You Tube, U R Next!


Tolu Ogunlesi was born in 1982. He is the author of a collection of poetry Listen to the Geckos Singing From a Balcony (Bewrite Books, UK, 2004). Apart from writing for Farafina and MADE magazines, his fiction and poetry have appeared in Wasafiri, The Obituary Tango (Caine Prize Anthology 2006), Sable, Orbis, Eclectica, and elsewhere, and are forthcoming in Poesia, Conceit Magazine and Absynthe Muse Review. In 2007 he won a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg poetry prize, and the Facebook Poetry Prize. He currently lives in Lagos, Nigeria.