I’ve spent the last few weeks furiously editing my poetry manuscript, going over each word carefully, and rearranging the book. I feel that the finished product is strong—very strong. I worry that I probably wasted a lot of money this past spring term submitting to contests, but I suppose that’s part of a writer’s life these days. I wonder how much money I’ve spent the past three years on contest fees? I don’t even want to know.
Which, of course, makes me wonder: is the contest route the only way to get a book of poetry into print anymore? Of course not. Some presses offer open reading periods. At the same time, however, many of the better small presses open their doors to unknowns (like yours truly) only during contest season.
But I’m getting off track here. I wanted to write about editing and architecture, particularly the overall arc of a book of poems. The last decade has seen the publication of many books of poems that are project-oriented. I think of Tyehimba Jess’s amazing debut, Leadbelly, a biography-in-verse of the famous blues singer. I think of Kevin Young’s Black Maria, a noir-in-verse that’s well worth a read (or re-read, as it were). Books by Jake Adam York, Sabrina Mark, Sean Hill, Danielle Pafunda, and others pop to mind. I don’t know if this is something new in poetry publishing1. And I don’t want to pass a value judgment on this trend, saying whether it’s good or bad. It just is.
And because it just is, I found myself looking for some kind of overarching something to hold my book together. I found it, I believe, but I don’t want to talk too much in specifics here on my blog. Suffice to say that this urge to build a book as a “project” (for lack of a better word) might spring from my love of narrative fiction.
I come to poetry as a storyteller. From my earliest years, I told stories (often whopper lies to whomever would listen). When I first went to college, I wanted to be a novelist and write books and follow in the footsteps my then-heroes, Ernest Hemingway, J.D. Salinger, and Jack Kerouac. I loved narrative, then, and I still do, now.
At the same time, I have a musician’s love of the lyric moment. As a guitarist, I like getting in a pocket, some blues or jazz riff, and staying there as long as I can, working the scale, working the box. I love how a writer like William Matthews does the same thing in print, occupying a moment in time and exploding it, a al John Keats. Rodney Jones does the same thing for me, though he manages to somehow be a lyric storyteller.
Which is what I want my book to be: a lyric narrative. Or perhaps a narrative lyric. Or something.
I think of the jazz musician’s journey, the way he sets out from the tonic note and occupies that space before returning to the dominate. Jazz is this way—the story of leaving and returning. But it’s not just the overall story of departing and coming home that interests me about jazz. It’s the journey itself, the way the soloist brings himself back home. That’s what interests me. That’s the kind of poetry I’d like to write.
Recommended reading: Michael S. Harper’s Dear John, Dear Coltrane, Ed Pavlic’s Winners Have Yet to Be Announced: A Love Song for Donny Hathaway, T.R. Hummer’s The Infinity Sessions
1 Of course, in the end, the overarching project book isn’t new at all. See Charles Olson’s The Maximus Poems and W.C. Williams’ Paterson among many other, earlier examples.
It was a common scene in any given undergraduate workshop in which I was enrolled: the group would discuss a poem, and afterward, the poet, connecting her life with her art would say something like, “But that’s how it happened.”
The professor would then swiftly remind the young poet that life is life and art is art. Just because something happened in life doesn’t mean that a reader has to accept it in writing. The class moved on to the next poem or short story, and the lesson stuck in my head. Over the years, I have struggled with this tension between life and art.
Last night, I was lying awake, thinking about a possible poem: my mother used to clean houses to help make ends meet. She worked a split shift at the local telephone company, and in the four hour break between shifts, she picked up my brother and I from school, got us home, cleaned a house, came back home, made supper, and headed back to work. Thinking about that routine, I became fascinated by the duality of it all: two jobs, two sons, two homes, two worlds, two lives, and so on. I imagined the structure would be in couplets to emphasize the two-ness of the poem.
Then, as I tried to work out the opening lines in my head, I began to think about how much of my writing emerges this way: from life experience. It’s not such a strange thing, really. I think that many writers turn to the page to make sense of the world. But in the workshops I took, I was taught that on the page itself, I learned that my life didn’t matter all that much. Only the writing mattered.
I don’t want to give the impression that my professors were terrible people. I had wonderful teachers, all caring mentors who helped me as I struggled to learn how to write. Particularly Ed Pavlic at the University of Georgia pushed and prodded me, helping me to find my poetic voice. Without his advice, I’m certain that I would still be struggling to rewrite John Donne and Mark Jarman. Without Ed’s influence, I’d be the same poet I was ten years ago and not constantly evolving and restlessly experimenting.
My teachers, however, knew my writing, not my life. The lines I spun were more important in the classroom that the experience that inspired those lines. My teachers understood that editors and potential publishers knew only the words on the page, not the awkward balding big man with glasses who wrote poetry to try to make sense of his place in the world.
Yet, I can’t ignore my life. I can’t pretend that I don’t write from experience. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting many brilliant writers in my life, poets and fiction writers and essayists motivated by theory and poetics. Their work is widely praised and rightly so. But my writing is less theoretical, less motivated by a poetics and more experiential. In many circles, that fact makes me a second-tier poet. In writing about my life, I risk sentimentality. But I think that every piece of art should run that risk.
Of course, I realize that my life experience is a kind of fiction. What I remember about my childhood is very much a narrative I’ve built over the years. But that narrative emerges from actual fact—things that I remember happening. And when I write about those things, I realize that the artifact that emerges (the poem itself) is not the actual experience but a kind of re-writing of that experience. I guess that in writing about my life, I am trying to re-write my past. For each poem, then, I have two memories: the experience that inspired the poem and the poem itself. And at various times, one is the shadow and one is the fire. One is the tenor and one is the vehicle.
For me, the necessary fiction of poetry makes the experience bearable. The poem distances the reality, and the reality focuses the poem.
This is starting to get tangled, and I don’t want to suggest that every poem I write works this way. For me, writing a poem happens mainly in revision, when I am fine-tuning lines, reading the work aloud, and trying to find the poem’s shape. In that process, the experience fades into the background, little more than white noise at the edge of my consciousness.
But in the end, when the poem is abandoned (says Valery), I am left with a thing (artifact? by-product?) of both artifice and experience. It’s trite to say yin and yang, so I won’t. I will say that in the end, my life and my writing have become so entangled that when I read my work, I often can’t remember the actual events any more. I remember only what the poem allows me to remember. And I think that’s enough.
I’ve had three acceptances in the past two months, an essay to Atticus Review
, and poems to both Waccamaw
and The Chattahoochee Review
. I couldn’t be happier. These are all fine journals, and I’m honored to be included among the fine writers they publish. No bites on my manuscript, however. Of the six or so first book contests I submitted to this year, I’ve heard back from two. The book’s still out, though, so I suppose there is hope.
It’s curious how closely my self-worth is related to publication. As an editor myself, I know what a crapshoot publication can be. Often, editors reject work not because the work is subpar (though that happens a lot), but because the journal has already accepted similar pieces. Of course, editors all have their own aesthetic tastes, as well. Writers should read journals before submitting to them. When I started doing so, my acceptance percentage definitely rose. So, rejection doesn’t have a lot to do with me
personally. Still, I find myself down in the dumps after a round of stinging rejection. I suppose that will never change.
I’m giddily excited about the new American poets U.S. postage stamps
The new Cortland Review
is ridiculously good. With a feature on Claudia Emerson and poems by Robert Wrigley, David Kirby, David Wojan, R.S. Smith, Mark Jarman, and Kelly Cherry, the issue even features a Music Section with a video of Emerson performing a song with husband and musician Ken Ippolito and a recording of Cornelius Eady singing a song he wrote.
On new draft this week. That totals four new poems over the past two months. Not bad, but certainly not very good, either.
I’m hoping to get back to work on the novel when the spring term ends. Teaching a three courses and advising both the college’s literary magazine and its student newspaper, I have very little time to sustain the energy I need for working on prose. I can steal time here and there to work on poetry, but prose is a different story. This summer, I’ll have the time I need to sit down for a couple of hours each afternoon to write, just as I did last summer.
Suggestions sought: name some absolute must-read books of poems that have come out in 2012.
***It's National Poetry Month. But (and equally as important, at least for me), it's also Jazz Appreciation Month. What's your favorite jazz album? For me, Miles Davis's Kind of Blue has to be one of my tops picks, but so are Coltrane's Blue Train and A Love Supreme.***
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I wrote a poem for a friend last night, someone I’ve know for a good while now who recently had a death in the family. I’m staying abstract in my description because I don’t want to talk about the poem or its subject. Instead, I want to focus on something I noticed as I revised the piece: how my imagination and the natural world seem indelibly melded.
Writing the poem, I started out with the image of pine pollen on a car windshield, a common springtime sight here in South Georgia. As the poem took shape, some natural associations of spring and winter emerged: spring as rebirth/ revitalization time and winter as death/ end of life. At first, as I worked on the piece, I rejected these associations. I wanted to do something “new.”
As I’ve thought about the poem, though, I’ve been wondering if my associations are tied to art/literature or to real life. And no, I don’t have a problem with the term real life. Despite what some post-post-postmodern mumbo-jumbo would have us believe, there is difference between life and art. The world is not merely a text.
Do I associate spring with rebirth because all the poems and literature I’ve read over the years have told me to do so? Or, is there something inherent in the blossoming dogwoods that touches some deep, metaphysical part of me (call it a soul, call it psyche; just know you can’t measure it)? I suppose this question is unanswerable. But just because a question doesn’t have a definite answer doesn’t mean that one shouldn’t ponder it.
The question is aesthetic as well as metaphysical. If in creating art, I must always seek to defamiliarize and make new, then shouldn’t I always seek to distance my poetry from standard associations? Should my writing never associate spring with rebirth? I’m engaging in a bit of either/or thinking here, I realize. But as someone who values good writing and appreciates the challenge of a difficult poem, I find these questions urgent.
Writers can’t escape who they are. Whatever we write, we find ourselves speaking, above all, as ourselves, either through the lyric I or through some dramatic guise. So, if there is some part of me that associates spring with rebirth, then my poetry will naturally have that inclination, as well, unless I temper it or work against that impulse. And I’m not arguing that I shouldn’t. I wonder, though, if I’m giving up some essential part of my by rejecting this association. Should I reject it simply because I worry that a reader (or editor) will say, “Oh, this is trite and old. Everyone knows that spring equals rebirth. Yawn”? At what point am I lying as a writer? At what point am I lying as a person?
“Poetry,” Robert Frost said, “provides the one permissible way to say one thing and to mean another.” His statement reveals a lot about the way Frost thought about poetry: for him, it’s metaphorical and intentional. The surface of the poem (say, the subject matter) says very little about its depth. And if in that depth, my associations of spring and rebirth appear time and again, then so be it. Perhaps in the act of saying one thing and meaning another, poets stumble through a linguistic landscape only. But in that linguistic landscape, poets surely find shadows of the real, even if those shadows are cast by words.
It’s that season.
Book contest rejections are rolling in, and I spent yesterday in a funk because I got not one but two rejections from publishers. Although intellectually, I know that I should just keep on working on the manuscript and sending it out, emotionally, I felt really low. hence a couple of “Woe is me” Twitter and Facebook statuses. Back to the salt mines, I suppose.
Still, I can’t help wondering where the line is. If the manuscript is continually rejected and if you’ve worked and worked on revision after revision, do you continue to send it out or do you scrap it? Is it time for me to write a new book of poems? I don’t think that’s the case, but when I get hit with two manuscript rejections in one day, I tend to meditate on these thoughts.
I read once that Larry Brown had written two entire novel manuscripts (which he trashed) before he wrote Joe. I cling to the fact that Wallace Stevens didn’t publish Harmonium until his 44th birthday. I’ve read that it took J.D. Salinger ten years to write Catcher in the Rye.
So, keep writing, right? Keep revising. Keep sending it out. I’ve got work to do, and I continue to keep working. Some of the wind’s out my sails, but I’ve not yet drifted into a Sargasso sea, but the winds are calm, and I’m caught in a current. Who knows where it will lead?
This is excerpted from a long essay I'm currently writing. Please drop me a line to tell me what you think, particularly if you have any ideas about what I should be reading/researching. I'm planning on including a section in the essay about famous marginal notes/annotations, such as Blake's annotations of Sir Joshua Reynolds.
Thanks for reading.
In college, I was a big fan of used books. A first-generation college student, I never had very much money. So, I always tried to register early. This way, I could get to the bookstore early, too. I combed the used books, looking for the best copies, the least-tarnished and annotated copies. As a freshman and sophomore, I worried what people would think about overly-abused texts. I wanted to fit in, not stand out. Plus, I wanted to be the one who wrote the formula for the quadratic equation in the margin of my algebra textbook, not some unnamed freshman who came before me.
However, as I entered my upper-division courses in literature and languages, I found that my habits changed. I looked for books with annotations. I wanted the books that had copious notes written in the margins. I remember finding a well-used copy of – Romanticism anthology. That semester, I was assigned a long essay on Shelley’s “Adonais.” My tastes were distinctly 20th century. I favored Eliot and Yeats, Frost and Stevens. I found much Romantic poetry inscrutable, too concerned with flowery diction and the elevation of the self. I must confess, too, that I was a rather lazy student who hadn’t yet developed a taste for wrangling with a text and teasing out the various meanings of a poem.
Whoever owned that Romanticism book before me had heavily annotated “Adonais,” and those annotations helped me as I read the poem. I read it again and again, slowly adding my own notes beneath and beside the ones that were already there. The previous owner had helped me with the poem. His or her notes provided the scaffold on which I built my own meaning. I don’t remember how well I scored on that essay (probably not too well). I do, however, remember those notes. And I remember the strange feeling that in some way, I was having a conversation with the previous owner about Shelley’s poem.
As I advanced through my undergraduate days, I became an inveterate annotator. I’m ashamed to admit that at times, I even wrote in library books. I wasn’t, however, the only one who did so. I had a distinct rule: if the previous patron had annotated the book, then I felt license to do so, as well. When I did write in library books, I always used a thin-leaded mechanical pencil. In an American authors class I took under Dr. Carlos Dews at the University of West Florida, I read my way through all the required Tennessee Williams’ plays, each one a loaner from the campus library. Likely, my notes may still be in some of those books, thin, light words and thin lines joining sections of the text. Whenever I turned the books back in, I never erased the annotations. I hoped that another reader might find some use in them.
Only when I began teaching as a graduate assistant did I see the true value of annotating. In writing those notes, I wasn’t merely explaining the text to myself. In the act of annotation, I was writing a new text composed of the original text and my writing. I didn’t read Tom Phillips' A Humament until much later in my scholarly life, but I think the comparison holds. Just as A Humament is a “treated” text, so the poems in the X.J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia-edited An Introduction to Poetry become my own “treatments.”
I always found a lot of joy in annotating a poem. I remember sitting in the graduate student offices at the university, conferencing with students over short essays they were composing for my class. Their assignment: analyze a sonnet, paying particular attention to the way that the strict form of the poem informs the poem’s content. A young woman was sitting with me, one of my students who was completely confused about John Donne’s “Unholy Sonnet XIV,” “Batter my heart, three-personed God.”
I opened my text to the poem and put my finger on the poem. “Right here,” I said, about to make what I thought was an important point about the text.
“Wow,” she said. “I sure wish I had your book.”
I looked down at the poem, now scored over with my own black pen (I preferred and still prefer to write in ball-point pens with fine tips). My circles and lines connected parts of the poem. My notes and half-sentences ran up and down the poem’s side. I’d circled parts of the title. My chest swelled a little with pride. This was how a professor was supposed to read. I was struck by an odd fact: the student was more impressed with my annotations than she was with Donne’s powerful words.
Florida Literary Arts Coalition/Other Words Conference
at beautiful Flagler College
in one of my favorite cities, St. Augustine, Florida, a place that has a wonderful mixture of old world charm and new American kitsch. Along with editors of On Tap
, and Quilt
, I was on a panel addressing literary magazines and journals. Each of us came to the table with different backgrounds and different magazines. For instance, Pegasus
(the campus literary magazine I advise) is a small, regional journal while CaKe
(FAMU’s literary journal) is nationally-recognized journal of poetry and art. While we all had different backgrounds, we all agreed on one thing:
even in the digital age, print journals still matter. And they may matter more now than they ever have before.
A literary magazine isn’t merely a receptacle for words. It’s a manifestation of a community of writers who have come together because they love the written word. Granted, Pegasus
is a small magazine; we have a small staff. Fortunately, we are funded rather well, and we an afford press runs of 2000 issues, usually. We’re a non-profit, so we make no money off of our publication. In publishing the magazine, however, we come together as a group of writers and artists who believe that, despite what popular culture keeps telling us, the humanities and the literary arts mean a lot to a large group of people. I can’t express the satisfaction I get each spring when a new Pegasus
arrives fresh from the printer.
The community created by a literary magazine staff, however is only part of the extended community of the literary magazine audience. When I first started publishing in little magazines in the late 1990’s, a friend said to me, “Who’s going to read that besides you and the people in it?” I remember worrying about that fact. Who would read my work besides other writers? It didn’t take me too long to figure out that writers were the perfect audience for my work. Indeed, I don’t know anyone who appreciates good fiction or poetry any more than writers themselves. The subtle references and allusions writers purposefully drop into their work delight me as a reader. A musical turn of phrase sends me to the internet to Google the poet. Literary magazines and journals allow this kind of extended community to exist.
Unfortunately, the term literary
is ideologically loaded. For some (many?), the word may conjure images of gate-keeping academics blowing pipe-smoke on the unfortunate plebe who deigns to enter their safely-guarded world. The word evokes Norton anthologies packed with obscurantist writers and politically-charged canons protected by tightly-knit society of nefarious editors. And certainly, these charges probably have some real-world validity. However, in my experience, most of the literary community I know (the Southeast) is an open and inviting, eager for new voices to find their place in the ever-long symphony. Meetings like the Gulf Coast Association of Creative Writing Teachers Annual Conference
and the Florida Literary Arts Commision/Other Words Conference are manifestations of these communities. In addition, the community of writers in the blogosphere and on social networking sites is an extension of (and in many cases, its own) the literary community.
At the conclusion of our panel at FLAC, Michael Rumore, the Editor-in-Chief of Quilt, made what I thought was a startling claim. He said that he thought of Quilt as an organization/community and that the magazine itself was secondary. I was a little taken aback. I’ve always argued that the reverse is true. However, after my visit to the conference and after hearing from all the different literary magazine editors and advisors at the conference, I think that Quilt’s editor just might be right. A magazine (print or online) is a manifestation of community. Without a community of writers and artists, a magazine cannot exist.
Why print journals? Why not just navigate everything to the web? The answer is simple: a magazine’s design goes far beyond how it looks on the page. The texture of pages, the size of the journal, the font, the white space:
all of it is a Gestalt. I don’t devalue the role of online literary magazines; I think that journals like Waccamaw
, and The Hobble Creek Review
are doing amazing things and publishing fantastic writers. Those journals reach an audience that a print journal may never reach. At the same time, however, I argue that a printed journal is greater than the sum of its parts and that in a world that seems obsessed with transitory trends in fashion and pop music and television, it’s a tangible manifestation of what matters and what’s beautiful. A printed journal is a distilled moment, a frozen pocket of time. And here’s to hoping that, despite what some are prophesying, I don’t think they’re going anywhere any time soon.
I spent that past Saturday at the
On my Facebook page a couple of days ago, I posted a little graphic that read “There is No Such Thing as Too Much Books.” I didn’t think that the picture would engender much conversation. After all, most of my online “friends” are writers; they love books, right?
Not long after I posted it, a thread had developed about book ownership. One person agreed wholeheartedly with me. Another pointed out that, ultimately, owning too many books can become like an addiction. He posted that when it got to the point in his house that he had to clear paths to his bedroom, his bathroom, and his kitchen because of stacks of books, he realized that he’d hit terminal mass. I’d never quite thought of it in that way. But my online friend is right, in a sense. Unless you live in a palatial estate, you must at some point become super-saturated with books.
In my house, I have four book shelves, two seven footers (with five shelves) and two three footers (with three shelves). In my office at work, I have two shelves, a six footer with three shelves and a long six-foot one with three shelves. All of these are packed with books. I haven’t even mentioned the various literary magazines that litter my house or the unpacked boxes of books crammed into closets at home and at work. I’ve not hit terminal mass, yet. But I fear I may be close.
But here’s thing: I love
books. I love how they feel in my hand. I love how they smell. I love the artistry of design behind book making. I love looking at a new hardback and exploring it: has the publisher opted for a rough cut to the page? What font does the book use? How do the pages themselves feel? Glossy? Rough like old skin? Smooth? I know that I shouldn’t, but I can’t help purchasing more books.
So, it’s understandable, then, that I’ve been ambivalent about ebooks since their introduction. For me, reading is more than mental; it’s visceral. Reading is physical. Reading is intimate. Though I’ve read numerous ebooks on my Kindle, I never feel as though I actually own
them. I own the digital copy of the words, but I don’t own a book
(I guess that assertion reveals something about the way I define book
This week, Amazon announced
a Kindle lending library
. Amazon Prime
members can lend and borrow form other Kindle owners. I’m intrigued by the idea. I love to lend books to others, particularly my students. Inviting a person into a book is rewarding and exciting. But in lending a book, I am lending something real and tangible, not a digital copy of text. Plus, I don’t purchase enough books from Amazon to justify the nearly $80.00 a year fee that members of Amazon Prime pay. In addition, my local library
(like so many others) lends digital books for free
I’ll freely admit that, in some ways, I’m not only acting a bit like a Luddite, but I’m also being hypocritical. I love my Kindle
, particularly the way that a newspaper appears on it each morning. I like browsing the online Kindle bookstore. And I’ve found that on long trips, my Kindle in indispensible. I can’t tell you how many crossword puzzles I’ve worked on my Kindle. I’ve also taken chances of different kinds of literature by reading it on my Kindle. I’d probably not know about such wonderful noir and sci-fi writers like Anthony Neil Smith
and D.B. Grady
and Derek J. Canyon
without my Kindle. So, in my reading life, I find plenty of room for an ebook reader. I’m even seriously considering purchasing a Kindle Fire.
Where does this leave me, then? I love physical books, and I like ebooks a lot. The future of publishing probably lies with ebooks, particularly educational publishing (have you seen The Wasteland App
? Amazing.). Ebooks are here to stay. I can’t imagine hitting terminal mass on ebooks, either. If my ebook reader gets full, I can always archive the book for later. Does that fact mean that print books will disappear? I hope not. However, to survive, traditional publishers are going to have to do what the newspaper industry did: adapt or die out. Meanwhile, I’ll continue my book collection, both digital and mortar board. At least with my ebooks, I won’t have to purchase a new bookshelf. But I’m not so sure that’s a good thing.
Below, I've listed fifteen random poetry prompts, some I've used, and some I've never used. Some I made up off the top of my head; others were taught to me by various teachers and writers over the years.If you're a regular visitor to my blog, let me apologize for my lack of posts. I've no other excuse save this: I teach college composition, and I've been doing a *lot* of grading.If one of the prompts below leads to a particularly interesting poem, please feel free to send it to me at email@example.com. I'd love to read it.
- Write a poem that is an anti-epiphany. The speaker must realize something in the third or fourth line of the poem. By the final line, the speaker must realize he or she is wrong.
- Write a poem about your favorite day of the week.
- Write a poem and title “In [Your Favorite Writer’s] Country.” Try to imagine that particular writer’s style in the poem.
- Write a prose poem that’s about reading poetry.
- Write a lineated poem that’s about reading prose.
- Write a poem in which you refer to yourself as “you” throughout. See Richard Hugo’s work for numerous examples.
- Write a poem in which the title is the title of a favorite song (pop, jazz, blues, or otherwise). Do not refer to the song in the poem.
- Write a poem about zombies.
- Write a poem in which the speaker observes a man and a woman at dinner (possibly on a date).
- Write a poem in the form of a grocery list.
- Write a poem that in some way parodies your own work.
- Write a poem about performing action (like, say, reading or jogging) that describes that action at length. The poem should ultimately not be about that action at all.
- Write a poem about a town you’ve never been to.
- Write a poem about the first time you ever went swimming.
- Write a poem in the form of a letter. In the title, mention a season of the year (e.g. “Letter to Bill in Summer”).
If you enjoy this kind of thing, be sure to visit Robert Lee Brewer's website
, Poetic Asides. A He posts weekly poetry prompts and advice for writers. Drop me a line below if you have any ideas for writing prompts.
The BlazeVOX kerfuffle
(if it is indeed a kerfuffle) has made me—as it has many others—wonder about the state of and the future of literary publishing. Poets and writers around the web
have attacked and defended the press’s new practice of asking nicely/insisting that poets help to cover the cost of publishing that poet’s book. As the advisory editor of a small undergraduate journal, I find myself in many ways nodding in agreement with BlazeVOX’s position. However, as a poet and writer who is currently shopping his own manuscript, I find myself gritting my teeth and mumbling under my breath.
The fine folks at Finishing Line Press
published my chapbook, A Visible Sign
, a couple of years ago. As a part of the publication deal, I agreed to help Finishing Line drum up a certain number of presales. The press run of my chap was based on the number of presales. Of all literary ventures, chapbooks are most certainly a labor of love. I understood Finishing Line’s position on the presales. While many of my friends and family were supportive, a few writers and editors that I knew asked me why I chose to publish with a vanity press. I didn’t think of Finishing Line as a vanity press (and I still don’t). I helped fund the printing of my book by selling copies of it before it was printed. Thus, I contributed to its publication cost. Nonetheless, I didn’t think of my part as “paying out of my own pocket.” I thought that I was helping a wonderful literary press bring my work to a reading public. I saw myself as promoting literary publishing as much as I was selling my own book. As an author, I had a stake in my own publication.
The BlazeVOX decision, however, has less to do with literary publishing than it has to do with publishing at large. The truth is that the printed book is now having to compete with the electronic book. No longer mere novelties, electronic books are cheaper to produce and thus cheaper to sell. I own a Kindle, myself, and I’ve read a lot of novels on it (no poetry as of yet, though I’m not sure why). Like vinyl, printed books are quickly becoming the purview of collectors and specialists. I’m not going to prophesy the death of print (so many others already have), but I will say that in order to survive, printed books have to become more than merely a receptacle for words. Instead, the printed book itself is going to have to become a work of art.
Certainly, the book has a long history as an artifact. Illuminated manuscripts are merely one example. Handmade books in small press runs have been a part of publishing since before Gutenberg, and I believe that the small pressrun/handmade book might be one way that a publisher can distinguish its books and create a market for such books.
I’m impressed with Slash Pine Press
, a publisher of small, limited-run handmade chapbooks. Their work makes the book itself as valuable as the text contained within. Their publications are more than a ink printed on a page. Their books are works of art. They design and create books that give value to the printed word in a way that a mass-produced book simply is incapable of doing.
I don’t want to give the impression that I hate large presses or despise large press runs. I’d love for my manuscript to picked up by a major press. I’d love to have a couple of printings of my books. However, I also think that as we move further into the 21st century, literary publishers are going to continue to face funding problems. Capitalistic supply/demand economics isn’t kind to literary publishing because American popular culture doesn’t value the very things that literary publishing champions: individuality, hard-won positions, questions, and writing that challenges more often than it entertains.
Ultimately, I close not knowing how exactly I feel about BlazeVOX. My sympathies are with any literary publisher. I don’t think that BlazeVOX is trying to take advantage of its authors. The press is doing what it can to stay afloat in a tough economy. I do sympathize, though, with those struggling writers trying to cobble together a life out of words. I understand the outrage when a poet finds that she must help fund the publication of her own book while so many seem to navigate the strange waters of literary publishing with ease. Perhaps instead of attacking BlazeVOX, however, writers and those invested in literary publishing might turn the lens back on themselves. If we’re not willing to support our art, who will?
1 I think that the term “vanity press” is loaded ideologically, and I shy away from it, but I use it here to make a point.