Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Buy or Borrow a Book of Poetry Today: Not a Post on the BlazeVox Kerfluffle

57º ~ still dark out so hard to report conditions, the casters of fore have all fat suns in the next seven days, no rain, no clouds, no storms, and no highs above 85º, uhm, wow!

I'm up earlier than normal, unable to sleep for all of the tasks to be done.  These are good tasks that I'm excited about for the most part.  I just can't seem to get my brain to turn off and quit tasking and trouble-shooting for a few hours so I can sleep.

In matters of poetry, I've been thinking a lot about the fallout from the BlazeVox kerfluffle.  Read all about it here.  I'm not interested in rehashing what happened or in any pointing of fingers and raising of voices.  What I am interested in is poetry.

First, everybody just calm down.  Poetry has been around, according the brilliant Lucille Clifton, since the first human being walked out of a cave, looked at a sunrise/sunset, and said, 'ahhhhhhhh.'  It's not going anywhere.  It's part of the human condition.  How we get our words out to our audiences will change, of course; it has to as technology and communities change.  There is nothing devastating in that change.

Second, who in their right mind thinks that poetry is going to earn anyone besides a few Billy Collins and Rita Doves anything substantial in terms of monetary profit.  Look at the long history of publishing since the invention of the press, and you will find a long history of authors self-publishing or paying in some way to get their books to market, whether that payment be in cash exchange or favors.  I, for one, am not doing this for the money, although I hope to break even and usually do so every year in terms of strict dollars and cents.  I do this thing, this poetry making, because I have something that needs to be said and poetry works for me.  If you are jealous of the money-making fiction writers, go write a best-selling novel.  I've heard it's not as easy as you might think and many prose writers struggle to break even as well.

Third, (yes, I'm listing my points in exactly the way I tell my students not to; it's early, cut me some slack), third, as long as any publishing entity is upfront about their methods, then I'm cool with that.  Let the interested parties work out the details with their eyes open.  And here is my closest contact with the BlazeVox kerfluffle.  It seems to me that information wasn't communicated at the right time and then everyone lost their minds.  I'm glad it seems to be settling down, maybe.

Fourth, as I said on Facebook, if you are a poet and you would like people to buy your book, please ask yourself this: how many copies of contemporary books of poetry have you purchased lately?  If you don't have a lot of loose change, how many copies have you checked out from your public or school library (you can inter-library loan almost anything these days)?  By doing both of these things, you help insure the continuation of your art form AND YOUR AUDIENCE.  By not doing them, you contribute to its diminishment, although it will never disappear forever.

Fourth and a half, as I said on Facebook, if you are a poet and you aren't actively working to get poetry off the floor of academia and into the hands of regular readers, then you aren't growing the community.  Sure, for some of the most experimental work, this isn't a sure thing, but how do you know until you've tried.  Have you asked your local art space if they will let you display books?  Have you requested a table at your local farmer's market and sold poetry?  Have you created a broadside of one of your poems and stapled it to telephone poles around town?  Have you hosted a poetry event during April or some other time of the year?  Have you read for free just because you love it?  After over a decade of teaching, I know this much for sure: if you bring your passion to the audience, some of it will rub off on somebody.  (I've created English majors out of former business majors this way, god help them!)

Finally, do not be too quick to dismiss the audience of people who are not "professional" poets.  At one reading I did several years ago, there was a couple in the audience in their early 60s.  They weren't poets, writers, or professors.  They showed up because the reading (which was held on a rural university campus) was advertised in their tiny local newspaper.  My poems resonated with the man's own experiences on the land.  As I read, I saw how engaged he was; I watched his head shake in acknowledgment that, yes, this is a way he sees the world, too.  They bought a book.  Also, even more magical, there was a rural route school bus driver in the small crowd.  He was shy about approaching me and waited until almost everyone else had gone.  When he did, he pulled out his pocket journal filled with his own poems.  There was a time this might have sent me shrinking backwards.  Instead, I talked with him for five or ten minutes about the joy of writing poetry and encouraged him to keep writing.  Then, he pulled a folded piece of paper out of his other pocket.  On it was a child's poem with marker decorations.  One of the little girls on his bus loves poetry and they talk about what they've written during the long ride to the consolidated school.  I almost cried.  The man didn't have enough cash to pay the full price for my book.  I sold it to him for $8 instead of $14.  Best, $1 profit I ever made. 

I do not make money from my art.  I try to help my press make as much money as possible, since they are the vehicle for my words making it to my audience.  To that end, I give the press a small donation every year (they are a non-profit and grants are harder to come by than ever).  I work hard at marketing my book and I encourage folks to buy directly from the press or the distributor so that more money will go into the publisher's pocket.  I work hard at promoting poetry in as many ways as possible in the hopes the audience will grow and grow and grow.  I do that because I believe that poetry (and all art, really) has the power to make us better human beings, to help us come to terms with our lives, and to help us come together as a global community, which is really the only hope this planet has, in the end.


Anonymous said...

What a beautiful post that made my morning! Lovely.


Sandy Longhorn said...

Oh, Tara, glad you liked it. Your question on FB spurred me on. :)

Hope you are well and enjoying the luxury of electricity!

Kristin Berkey-Abbott said...

Wow! Great post!

I needed these kinds of inspirations this morning--thank you so much for writing them.

Kathleen said...

Lovely, level-headed, generous, and, yes, earnest! Thank you for this!

I am pondering the same things lately via Escape Into Life--the Labors of Love multi-poet feature, and, specifically, today's EIL blog on Art as a Labor of Love, asking about reciprocity...(re: arts community, but I like your real people example!)

Your post reassures me, since I've been doing that kind of stuff for a long time and meeting the same joy in REAL people who are real readers!

Again, thanks!

Sandy Longhorn said...

Thanks, Kristin. I had no idea they would prove to be inspirational words, but I'm glad they helped.

Kathleen, you are an AWESOME poetry cheerleader! I have the EIL links on my to-read for tonight after school. :)

Anonymous said...

We shut the door and locked it from the inside, then shook our heads and moaned, "Only poets read poetry." Why are we always so surprised when there's a knock at the door?

Great post, Sandy -- we could all do more to not just welcome a wider range of readers, but seek them out & invite them in.

Sandy Longhorn said...

Love the metaphor, Marie. Yes, let's swing the door wide and shout out invitations from the mountain tops and valley bottoms.

Karen J. Weyant said...

Great Post! I think that in the settings we teach in -- we owe it to the poetry world to stretch the poetry community beyond the academic doors.

(Also, like you, I refuse to comment on the BlazeVox situation)

Molly said...

I think your point about the segment of the audience that are not poets is so important. Sometimes it seems like some poets aren't satisfied if people simply enjoy their work -- without taking the time to analyze each image, look for the arc of the meaning, notice all the technical expertise of the poems. I think we do ourselves a disservice if we don't let people simply enjoy poetry. That's how I read fiction -- not to study the literary devices or specific issues of craft (although I do sometimes notice it) -- but to enjoy a good story with memorable characters who will teach me something.

Great post!

Jeannine said...

Yep. Preach it, Amen.

Justin Hamm said...

Thank you, Sandy. This was exactly my reaction to the BlazeVOX situation. Over the last year I've been doing a number of things to grow the writing/poetry community around me, but I've realized over the last couple of days that it isn't nearly enough. I have to do more. I usually get my poetry books that aren't by friends through the public library--and I'm sure they get sick of the requests I make for them to purchase--with the occasional trip to Left Bank Books in St. Louis for a chapbook. But I'm going to commit to buying two small press chapbooks or collections a month from here on out, and I'm going to try to subscribe to four new journals this fall.

Sandy Longhorn said...

Exactly, Karen.

Molly, wow, I hadn't thought of it that way before, probably because I don't want to be a critic.

Thanks, Jeannine!

Justin, excellent goals, but don't sell the library use short. If the books don't circulate, libraries will order fewer poetry books. Library sales are great, too.

Joannie said...

Wonderful post, and I'll echo Molly's comment about the audience members who aren't professional poets: I think they are my audience.

And I appreciate your comments about supporting the press that publishes your work. Yes, exactly.

Laura the Poet said...

Thank you for posting this. I feel the same way and I have been working on a post about it, but then I just thought I might be adding to the noise.

Like any community, you get what you give. I love supporting other writers in as many ways as possible. When I hear/read people's complaints about how "poetry doesn't sell" it just makes me think that we are the WORST salespeople ever! Why do we talk about our work in this way? It's almost like a point of pride and this attitude just continues to alienate people from poetry, making them think it's only for the select few who are crazy enough to care.

I am working on a list of ways that people can give back to their community and get involved. So many folks just want to take. Perhaps if people would offer to volunteer for organizations (like BlazeVOX...) then things would improve. We might not make any money, but at least we'd have a little more support and community.

Ok, I'm done. Sorry for the long comment!

Sandy Longhorn said...

Thanks, Joannie.

Laura, it's a noisy community sometimes, but it's ours! Thanks for adding your voice to the mix.

Diane Lockward said...

Well said, Sandy! Widening the audience for poetry is one of my passions. You've offered a bunch of wonderful suggestions. And I like that you encourage poets to support each other's work. That's so essential.

Sandy Longhorn said...

Thanks, Diane. Glad the post found a home with you. With our community as small as it is, I just don't understand those folks who would rather focus on finding all the negatives and divide us into different 'camps.'