The Phrasing Of ISP Letters Is Misleading
Professor Len Roberts, ISP Educational Director
by Ugochukwu Ejinkeonye
a leading U.S. poet is professor of English at Northampton
Community College. He has published ten books of poetry and
three books of translation in the Hungarian. He has been
published in several distinguished literary journals and
magazines, and received several awards for his work. Five years
ago, he was hired by the International Society of Poets (ISP) as
Educational Director. After a series of e-mail correspondence,
he granted this e-interview to Ugochukwu
he stoutly defends the activities of the controversial
poetry body, trying hard in the process to restrict his comments
to the ISP Conferences and its offerings.
always known about ISP and their events?
learned about ISP three years ago (in 2000), when one of their
lecturing professors, a friend of mine, invited me to lecture. I
lectured at my first conference and then was asked to be ISP's
Educational Director, with complete freedom to hire lecturers ,
judges, and readers that I thought would do good jobs.
I then hired, and
continue to hire, well-reputed poets to judge, lecture, and
read. If you look at our poets' roster, you will find they have
received awards such as the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book
Award, the Poet Laureate of the U.S. position, the Poet Laureate
of Delaware position, the Governor's Award from Ohio, the
Guggeneheim Award, as well as National Endowment for the Arts
and Humanities Awards, and...many publications by our nation's
very best journals and book publishers. The judging of poems at
the conferences is impeccable, as are the lectures and readings.
I read the
evaluations of the conferences, and more than ninety percent of
the respondents greatly enjoy what we offer.
What is your
assessment of ISP’s commitment to poetry, literature and
is committed to allowing just about anyone--your aunt, my
grandmother--who publishes their poetry on Poetry.com to attend
their conferences. Poetry.com, as you know, is an open site
which many, many people greatly enjoy being on and reading from.
ISP's conferences usually have participants who have been on
Poetry.com and want to read their poems live, as well as compete
for the monetary prizes.
ISP is not
dedicated to "academic" literature in any way; they
are interested in common people's poetry, the poetry of those
who have not attended college, perhaps, or have not taken a
creative writing course. ISP does encourage scholarship to the
extent that they have poetry writing courses, which are quite
good, by the way, and they provide very informative lectures at
This is not
"scholarship" in the sense of academic credentialing,
but rather information about the writing of poetry for the
common people. The owners of ISP want to make profits, which is
expected, but they also provide a free on-site publication arena
(Poetry.com), as well as informative conferences. Their books,
which, again, consist of poetry written by amateurs, not
professionals, are well made and attractive. Contributors may
buy a copy, but they do not have to.
ISP is not,
certainly, like the Academy of American Poets, nor does it claim
to be. Its function is to provide arenas for non-professionals
to enjoy their own and others' works.
associating with ISP, have you heard of any unflattering
comments about them?
have read criticism of ISP on the internet, and Charlie Hughes,
who once published my poems in his journal, has sent me some of
these criticism. The only valid complaint I find among all of
these criticisms is that the phrasing of ISP's letter is
misleading, making the poet think that he or she has already won
I do think the
phrasing should be clearer, as I have said, but that is a
marketing decision, one which I have no power over. However,
you need to note that all the major criticisms of ISP (by any
radio or television outfit) was done more than four years ago,
before I became educational director of the conferences; since
that time there has been no major broadcaster who has criticized
the conferences for any reason whatsoever.
In fact, most of
the individual criticisms I read on the sites (and I do keep
familiar with them) is that they were misled to attend the
conference; none of them, to my knowledge, complains about the
judging, the lecturing, or the readings. Not one. That should be
noted, I think, in any fair appraisal of ISP's offerings.
any one made any complaint directly to you?
two or three people have complained directly to me, before
attending the conference, and I have had ISP refund their
payments. Again, no one has ever complained to me about the
conference activities themselves.
is the necessity of lacing the ISP letters with some dose of
deception to make people register for the conference?
of the phrasing is not as clear as it could be.
How do you
feel after an ISP conference, and bitter cries rent the air,
with loud complaints, and even threats, as some have reported?
complaints I have heard after the conferences is that
individuals have not won the prize. In fact, one year there was
a rumor that the man who won the first place prize was my son!
The man was 45, which means I would have had to sire him at the
age of 10! If you show me any complaints about the conference
activities themselves, I guarantee I will address them
You see, some
people come to these conferences for the wrong reason--to win
money, rather than to learn more about poetry. Most
participants, however, more than ninety percent, come to enjoy
the activities and learn. These people are most satisfied, and
you should talk to and about them as well as the very faint
minority who complain.
you don’t think those flooding internet sites with bitter
stories about ISP have genuine complaints? You think they
are merely green eyed rivals?
have no doubt that some rivals have complaints about ISP on
sites, and that some are written by disappointed participants.
Again, I think the only valid complaint is that about the
phrasing of the letter. The others are false or the result of
hoping to win money rather than learn about poetry.
Will you be
proud to identify with ISP any day?
hope that is obvious, especially when I can say poets such as
Lucille Clifton, Stephen Dunn, W. D. Snodgrass, Robert Pinsky,
Herbert Martin, Grace Cavalieri, Fleda Brown, and many others
are also proud to be associated with ISP's conferences. I have
many poets contacting me, asking if they may work for us.
What you need to
understand is that the conferences are wonderful arenas for
common people, who cannot or would not attend a college poetry
writing course, may gather to learn more about poetry. Many of
them have written only one poem in their lives, and they're
proud of it, so they get to read it. They also hear wonderful
lectures and poetry readings. Any fair assessment of ISP must
include this information.
What is your
advice to prospective participants in ISP Conferences?
Roberts: My advice is to
read the letter very carefully and to realize they have not won
a prize yet; they are invited to attend the conference, only.
Second, they should not come if they intend only to win the
prizes; the odds are greatly against them. Third, they should
come if they want to read their poems to peers and to
participate in a weekend of lectures and readings. Fourth, and
last, remember this is not an organization for
"professional" poets; the poems will be written by
common people and heard by common people. This is not a
"literary" event in the academic sense; it is a
gathering of people who like poetry.
I have worked in
many poetry conferences over my lifetime, and I must say that
ISP's conferences offer as many beneficial lectures and readings
as any others I have attended.
Do you think
ISP could still attract any crowd if their letters are
straightforward, clear, and not deceptive?
Roberts: Definitely, and
that is the major goal I am working toward, as are the other
poets who work at the ISP conferences. In fact, I am sure we
would attract larger crowds.
you know about their parent body, the International Library of
Poetry (ILP), can you assess their publications -- content,
physical quality, critical acclaim, etc. Are people excited
buying their books, or rather, would you proudly display their
anthology on your study/office shelf; would recommend them to
any class of students, will you teach them?
Roberts: I do not know
much about ILP, but I have seen some of their books, which seem
well-made and attractive. I know nothing about their selection
process but I assume it is open, as are the ISP conferences,
meaning anyone may submit and probably be published. I think
such vanity publishing is fine, too, by the way, as long as the
poet understands the situation.
I would display an anthology of the
winners of the ISP poetry conferences, and have done so, on my
shelf. They are quite good. I would give an ILP anthology to my
relatives, those who like poetry but do not study it. I would
not give such an anthology to my students, for the ILP poems,
for the most part, are not "professional" and
therefore do not demonstrate the techniques I want them to
However, I do use parts of the ILP's
Poetry Writing course in my classes, for they use professional
examples and very well written.
Tell us about
yourself, your work, and academic career.
Roberts: I have published ten books
of poetry and three books of translation from the
Hungarian--with good U.S. publishers. I have had poems published
in major American journals such as The American Poetry Review,
Poetry, Paris Review, Hudson Review, Partisan
Review, and so on.
I have received a Guggenheim
award, as well as two National Endowment for the Arts Awards and
one National Endowment for the Humanities Awards. Three times I
have served as a Fulbright Scholar to Hungary, Rumania, and
Finland, and I have received the International Teaching Award
for Fine Arts. If you need more information, please search my
name and poetry on the internet.
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