81º ~ a stronger breeze than yesterday, cloud cover, the chance of storms
Reader, today, I spent the morning at the desk by finishing my read-through of a manuscript for which I've been asked to craft a blurb and then crafting said blurb. I've written a handful of blurbs over the last couple of years, and it dawned on me today that nobody every talked to me about writing one. I've gone blindly forward, so I thought it might make a good blog discussion.
First, what do you all think of blurbs?
If I know a poet personally, I skip the blurbs. If I've read previous books by the poet, I skip the blurbs. If I've read a poet's poems in the journals and those poems inspired me to buy the book, I skip the blurbs. I don't live in a large enough city to support large selections of poetry at the bookstores, so I don't tend to browse the shelves, where reading blurbs might come in handy. Instead, I often use the blurbs to check my own reactions to a book I've just finished, especially if I'm having doubts about my own reading of the poems.
Lately, I have taken to glancing at the writers of the blurbs, as the blurbers are often from the same aesthetic as the writer of the book. For years when I was just starting out as a poet, I didn't understand the incredible diversity in poetry today; after all, we don't label and shelve books of poetry based on their approach, language poets on the bottom shelf, new-formalists on the top, narrative poets using the American vernacular stretched through the middle, etc. Lately, though, as I've built my personal library of poetry books and as I've read and read and read as widely as possible, I've come to know the groupings more by instinct and muscle memory than by any outward label. This can help me place a poet new to me before I open the pages, but it guarantees nothing about how I will receive the work.
So, what do you do if someone asks you to blurb?
First, I'd say only say "yes" if you can honestly say you like the work and feel a kinship for it. No, you don't have to be exactly the same kind of poet as the writer of the book, but a connection of some kind is necessary, lest the reader of the blurb feel fooled. When I was asking for blurbs, Mary Ann Samyn was so smart. She asked for a copy of the manuscript and the right to decline after she'd read the poems. (This is something I forgot until just this moment!)
Also, consider the time it takes to read a pre-publication manuscript and craft the blurb. Recently, I've had to decline some requests in order to focus on my own work.
In any case, once I've said yes and received the manuscript, I read through and take notes on the themes that pop to the surface. I'm old school and need to have the manuscript in hard copy, so I take my notes on the title page, which I've clipped together with all of the front and back matter. That way, I'm reading just the poems, undistracted. As I read, I turn over each page into a "read" pile on my left. When I come to a poem where I feel certain lines really speak to the major themes of the book, I underline and annotate on that poem. When I flip it over, I turn it crosswise to the rest. That way, when I've finished the whole stack, I have a dozen or so poems that I pull to re-read. These are the poems I use as references for my blurb, along with the notes I've taken on the title page.
In terms of logistics, if the publisher or poet has given me a word-length or other requirements, I keep those in mind as I start to draft. I keep it in present tense, like a good literary analysis instructor. Not everyone does, but I like to include at least one short quote in the blurb. For those people who use blurbs to make choices about what to buy/read, I think this is a great way to offer a snippet of the poet's voice.
Once I have a draft, I email it to the poet and ask for his/her feedback. I am completely open to any response, and I'm willing to scrap it and start over if the poet feels I've misrepresented the book in any way. After all, it's an honor to be asked to blurb and I wouldn't want to let the poet down. After the poet and I have settled on the draft, it goes to the publisher who may or may not want revisions (most often cutting due to space issues on the cover). Again, I'm willing to work out whatever is best for the book.
So, what are the benefits of blurbing? 1) I get to read the manuscript before almost anyone else. 2) I get to exercise those analytical skills that I don't use when writing poetry. 3) I get the free publicity of having my name on the back of someone else's book. And who knows? Perhaps, someone will read the book and my blurb and look up my work. 4) I get to give back and cheer on another poet.
Any blurbers out there with other thoughts on the topic? Feel free to leave a comment.