by Karl Young
I started getting requests to write recommendations for jobs related to literature and art in my early 20s. During a few years in the 0 decade of the new century, I got virtually none, though this may have more to do with problems receiving my mail and missing a few that were sent to me. They have resumed. They haven't gotten back to the level of more than half a dozen a year, but they may. I'm not sure, but this seems like a large number for someone in my position. Writing such recommendations has involved puzzles within puzzles within puzzles for me. At the same time, writing them over a long period of time has given me an appreciation of this "genre" of writing I might not have received if I had not been asked for so many or if I better understood the procedures of which they are a part. This is a genre with significant differences from writing introductions, blurbs, and other items for books, web sites, and other more public venues, but it has come to seem a form of micro-publishing, it seems worth comment in itself, and it seems particularly important in a time of economic recession — not that the arts are ever in anything but recession.
In addition to providing me with puzzles, challenges, and a sense of professional recommendation as a genre in itself, the circumstances of recommending and even receiving recommendations have provided comedy and a few picaresques and some of the disappointments of other activities. One of my favorite examples of burlesque comes from a recommendation made to me. This was in an application for the job of gallery director of Water Street Arts Center in the mid 1970s. The applicant's vita included study under Walter Hamady, and she listed him as a reference. I hadn't heard anything about her from Walter's students or seen any of her work in their shows. I thought this may have been because she did not complete a degree in printing or design — a situation I could appreciate given problems with advanced degrees I'd had myself. But I imagined that sticking out several years of apprenticeship to such a disciplined and demanding master, and one of the two most accomplished in the field of printing from lead type in the U.S., would have left her with appreciation and knowledge of both the extremes of traditional artisanship and a sense of the potentials in American avant-gardes. This could be true even if her own work didn't impress Walter or me, but left her with an appreciation of the work of others. Nothing in her interview seemed to recommend her, but the other applicants hadn't impressed me much either, and the listing of Walter as a reference stuck with me. When I phoned Walter, his response was predictably terse: "Oh, she's an asshole. She never understood printing, and I can't think of anything that would make her a good curator." Walter doesn't simply say such things behind people's backs. He's refreshingly free from phony courtesies, and has no problem saying things like this directly to the people he's talking about. My guess was that the applicant knew what Walter thought of her, but didn't expect me to check. Oddly, this did give her a bit of a credential: she had shown chutzpah in listing Walter as a reference. It also generated a bit of sympathy. But none of this lead me to think further of pushing her for the job with the other members of the Board of Directors.
I've never known quite why, but a form of humility has stuck with me since this incident. Part of it comes from knowing that I can be judged by my recommendations. Part comes from knowing that slips in this area can make the difference between getting or not getting a job in a field where employment is always difficult, and how a few words written and spoken at one of these turning points can make the difference between the applicant being able to continue and perhaps mature as an artist or losing an opportunity with life-long consequences. Part of it is realizing how ruthless someone in my position should be: a gallery director, after all, has a great responsibility in choosing and promoting work in a field where the producers are too many, the audience is too small, and that audience needs considerable attention and respect if it is ever going to grow large enough to support a decent arts scene.
At the time, when I was still in my 20s, I hadn't yet realized that recommendations could cause all sorts of problems for the recommender. In writing recommendations, as in writing introductions and blurbs and even publishing books and at the oddest extreme, hiring people, a process of resentment can begin on the part of part of the person recommended, introduced, published, or hired. I've had my share of people who've never forgiven me for doing something that helped them. In this respect, I don't think I've been less lucky than others. On the contrary, I think I've suffered less than most advocates in this respect. I certainly can't claim anything like the resentments and betrayals of those whom Ezra Pound backed, even before his collision with politics, and whom Ernest Hemmingway most eloquently condemned. But the implications of gratitude, of being in someone's debt, can touch on some extremely dark areas of human response and interaction. Perhaps the most profound aspect of this phenomenon comes from the way origins function in mythologies, personal and public. If you were there at the beginning of a myth, you're always a threat to the development of a full mythology. In a society such as that of 20th and 21st Century Anglo-America, where one of the strongest elements of personal myth doesn't depend on your line of succession, but on how close you've come to being "self-made," even the role of making recommendations can be tricky.
For me, the fact that I have been involved in all sorts of activities, particularly at their origins, for some four decades, but have staunchly avoided becoming part of any kind of cabal, clique, or movement, has put me in an ambiguous position as far as allegiances go. Most of those who have followed what I've done have claimed that I would be better known had I not remained unclassifiable, or, as Ron Silliman put it, perhaps most cogently, if I created a "Karl Young Brand." Whether this is true or not, my lack of affiliations has given me a mobility I could not have otherwise enjoyed. The fact that I have gained the interest or respect of people in widely different literary and artistic camps has done a great deal to make up for lack of status that a group or personal brand may [or may not] have brought, and is apparently one of the reasons why I get what seems like a large number of requests for recommendations. It may provide a partial answer to one of the puzzles in being asked to write recommendations.
The first big puzzle, then, is simply why me? Due to a number of misfortunes in my early 20s, and more complicated problems later, my only academic credential is a B.A. Hence I often find myself in the position of being asked to recommend people for jobs and for promotions at schools that wouldn't hire me. In some instances, my publication record has been the reason I've been asked to write the recommendations.
In most instances, I don't get answers when I ask why a recomendation has been requested, and the puzzle remains. One of the reasons for it being a puzzle, presumably, is precisely that although I have been engaged in hiring in arts organizations, I have not been part of the committees and departments and other entities where applicants or sponsors take the process for granted, possibly without fully understanding it themselves. At times my questions about why I'm being asked have given rise to farcical situations where the sponsor or the department chair or the program director or someone else in a position of authority has assumed that I was not asking why me? out of simple curiosity and to get some information to use in writing a concise and relevant recommendation. I have in such situations been told that there's no secret agenda or conspiracy involved, even though I never thought there was.
The challenges involved tend to be considerably more interesting. The first comes from my ignorance and inexperience. I don't know much about the tiny "audience" who reads my recomendations. In the instances of applications for jobs in academe, I assume it consists of one or two people from administration, and a larger number of people who teach and serve on committees such as this on a temporary or rotating basis. I can thus assume that they have advanced degrees, but don't really know what that may mean. I've encountered my share of professors who can't write a simple declarative sentence, went all the way to the Ph. D. level without reading more than a dozen books complete, writing none themselves, and specializing in one of the hybrid or artificial disciplines concocted during recent decades. However grueling the process of degree completion from prelims to thesis defense can and should be, I know of schools that have allowed people to sail through without much effort and without gaining much from it. However much this may be the case, there's no reason to assume it. But as with other forms of writing, I should assume the best of my audience: it brings out the best in me as a writer, . Hence I should assume that the audience is intelligent and well educated by demanding standards. I should also assume that the readers in the English or Art department have strong opinions, some of which they have based their careers on and in which they have a strong personal and professional stake. This does not mean they are at all familiar with the specific field or genre or medium in which the applicant works. They may even be hostile toward it for reasons based in difference of opinion or orientation, or in prejudice based in ignorance of a field in which they are supposed to be experts. I should assume that some in the audience are from other disciplines altogether. They may be open-minded and sympathetic (perhaps more so than those in the same area of study), or they may be in bitter feuds over such problems as funding, such as allocation of funds within departments or between departments. Those who work closer to the applicant will probably be most concerned with how they can get along with the applicant if the recommendation is for hiring, but in the case of advancement, their relationship to the applicant is probably already established and nothing I have to say will change it. I should assume that the audience does not particularly relish this part of their job, and would like to get the process over with. Much the same applies to an arts organization, though it requires some transposition in terms.
That's essentially a general overview. The most important factor is that those for whom I write are almost invariably avant-gardists or others outside the mainstream. Hence such factors as challenges to expertise, inter and intra departmental feuds, etc. may be more intense. I may also have to educate my audience in a way that does not suggest condescension or otherwise ruffle their feathers. When the applicant deals with political, social, or cultural hot button issues in his or her work, I should not try to avoid them, but present them in such a way as to push the buttons any harder than necessary.
Since I like to assume the best of my audience in writing criticism and commentary of any sort, much of what I've said in the previous paragraphs applies equally to writing for magazines, web sites, and books with a larger circulation. Differences may be subtle or simple. On a simple level, I often mean to provoke controversy and to challenge my audience in writing crit, and to avoid it in writing recommendations.
It's easy enough to laud the successes of schemes for funding arts programs through organizations such as the National Endowment for the Arts in the 1970s or the W.P.A. in the 1930s, or from corporate sponsors and individual patrons at various periods. It's also easy to complain about the lack of funds and the inadequacy of pay for sale or use under current conditions. To me, it's more important to argue for workable means of sustaining writers and artists outside any models now in practice. But the best thing I can do on a practical level under current circumstances is to support individuals one at a time by whatever means I have available to me. One of the most important of those in the last two decades, when I have not been in a position where I could play a role in hiring people myself, has been through writing recommendations.
On the most fundamental level, helping good people get jobs is the best currently available long-term means of supporting their work. I've written my share of recommendations for brief programs which assist in the support of the artist in the hand-to-mouth manner in which most of us get whatever pay we can. Writing recommendations for long-term jobs helps achieve a much stronger means of support for them. The most important forms of employment are usually in teaching, librarianship, and curatorial work in galleries and museums.
Writing recommendations for long-term jobs can be difficult. On several occasions, I have declined to make such recommendations. Sometimes this has been because I didn't know enough about the applicant, and sometimes because I couldn't write a recommendation in good conscience. Saying no is particularly difficult in such situations, and I dread them. But writing them for people who do good work is a great satisfaction as well as a means of promoting, perpetuating, and strengthening the arts most important to me.
Writing the recommendation for Joel Lipman which I'm using as an example here was particularly gratifying. I felt more optimistic about current possibilities in visual poetry when I wrote this recommendation. Whatever the milieu of any given moment for this genre, Lipman has been one of the half dozen best practitioners in the U.S. What's more, his abilities are difficult to deny even by those unfamiliar with the field of visual poetry. He's also a teacher who takes his students seriously and works responsibly with them. In recommending him, I was recommending the genre and the art of teaching at their best. Perhaps writing a specific recommendation for Lipman was more important for the advancement and audience building of the small, despised, and marginalized genre than writing many of the general polemics for the genre itself.
I received the request for the recommendation in November, 2008, from Thomas E. Barden, Professor of English and Director of the Honors Program for the University of Toledo. Barden may have seen the web survey of Lipman's work I curated and read some of my comments on Lipman. There's a good chance that Lipman suggested me to him, though he did mention that he'd seen work of mine before when I asked him some questions about the request. An interesting additional feature of Barden's original request was that it included mention of my expertise and extensive writing re d.a.levy. That this had included my commisioning Lipman to write on levy may have been part of Barden's motivation. But even if Lipman had specifically told Barden that I had done so and that levy had been an important influence on him, it would seem almost inconceivable that anything having to do with levy, misunderstood as the quintessential bad boy of the 1960s, should appear in a request for a recommendation for the a position above that of Full Professor in a large university's English department would have been close to inconceivable in a previous generation. Then again, Lipman's ability to work his way to the top of the academic ladder, despite his controversial artistic and political positions on the one hand and what to me were his obvious and irrefutable abilities on the other is to me an affirmation of progress in the status of avant-gardes I have worked to further.
When Lorine Niedecker died on the last day of 1970, I had my doubts that she would be remembered by many outside the small group who had accepted her because they were poets and knew precisely how difficult her accomplishments had been. I didn't stop pushing her books, writing about her, and trying to interest as many people as I could in her work. I contributed my iota [no more than that] to the process, along with a large number of readers who did not drop the chain of recommendation. That she has become an American classic, even appearing in the basic Norton Anthologies, has given me the ability to continue advocating writers whose chances have seemed equally slim. I don't have any doubts that similar recommendations from a growing number of readers who've never been seen, or could ever have been seen, form a network of literary criticism more important than any that sees its way into print or the arrangements of electrons that create letters in websites. "Reviews" and recommendations, spoken in conversation, written in letters on paper and sent by e-mail, may ultimately be more important than any other.
Click here to go to recomendation for Joel Lipman
Click here to return to Some Volumes of Poetry, Part 4