Saturday, November 28, 2009
Wednesday, November 25, 2009
Announcing a new self-publishing venture recently, Harlequin unleashed unholy fury from writers across the spectrum—established, emerging and hoping-to-be. Even the indie publishing community spoke up against the venture (make sure you read the comments on Small Beer Press’ hilarious post). They’re not the first publisher to experiment with a vanity division, but their readership is among the most intense. Apparently “brand” does matter in book publishing—or at least some do. In this case, the publisher’s struggle for new revenue streams slammed up against the reading/writing community’s passionate belief that the old school system is the only legitimate way to confer the title “author.” This conflict mirrors the poetry contest wars over the last twenty years. See under: Foetry.
Most poets spend several years and many hundreds of dollars submitting manuscripts to contests in hopes of being chosen for publication. While some of the biggest names in the business (Graywolf, Copper Canyon, FSG, New Directions) have not had to resort to the contest model, nearly every other house has. While there are decent arguments against this system (especially re: potential for scams), the truth is there isn’t enough money to be made in publishing a book of poetry by anyone not named Billy (Collins or Corrigan that is). In fact, I have serious doubts that the Knopfs of the world will be able to continue to publish money-losing genres like poetry as long as they report to corporate HQ in Germany. In fact, when the corporate model hit poetry in the 1970s poetry publishing saw a big hit at all the major publishers – a reality that motivated Daniel Halpern and James Michener to create the National Poetry Series. The current poetry programs for almost all publishers are simply a vestige of the old system that will soon be squeezed shut by the increasingly harsh economic reality for books. If there weren’t contests, the only publishers of poetry would be wealthy scions like James Laughlin. That worked out pretty well for New Directions and modernism in general, but it’s not a model that fills me with hope for our own crowd-juiced, hyper-capitalist, nominally-democratic moment.
Still, despite all the hand-wringing, poetry has never been stronger. You can disagree about who the “best” poets are, but there are very strong books coming out in every style – lyric, abundant, absurdist, austere, flarfy, conceptuallissimo, spoken word -- and that indicates a healthy environment of creativity and readership. While no single book sells enough copies to make a mark on Nielsen Bookscan, the number of poetry readers in aggregate has spurred a creative new business model that has the industry buzzing. Hell, even the 2009 National Book Award for poetry seems to be cause for more celebration than angst.
There remains a working business model for the James Pattersons, Sarah Palins, and vanity press aggregators. But there is no room in that model for worrying about literature. Once upon a time this would have been a problem for serious reading. Access to major publishers was the only way to get work into the hands of the reading public. But with inventories tightening up at independent bookstores and major chains alike, publication by a major house is no guarantee your book will be carried in a general bookstore. That, combined with anybody’s ability to sell anything to anyone online whether through Amazon, SPD Books or from your own site, means that there is no longer a distinct advantage to publication by a major house. Wanting it both ways -- corporate-style profits produced by thought-inducing, break-the-mold art -- is unrealistic and as condescending to people who enjoy books-as-mindless-entertainment as those who like them as brainfood.
Literature has always done its best work as a coterie business. So it will.
Tuesday, November 17, 2009
Sarah uses content in similar ways, of course, all good writers do. Her latest book is a prose meditation on a devastating illness she wrestled with in her twenties--and, as with Rachel’s work, it is in no way my experience, but it works through matters of suffering and desire in ways that extend my own understanding. But Sarah is wary of the ways motherhood would limit not only her physical capacity to write (the time and focus required to raise kids) but also a reader’s perception of her work (the ease with which a narrowcast mindset can shuttle off a book on motherhood to a “women’s only” section).
What does it say that this question, which feels so unavoidable to women writers now, does not come up with the two most important poets of the modern period, Emily Dickinson and Gertrude Stein? Nor for two of the most influential poets who came of age in the 1950s, Elizabeth Bishop and Marianne Moore. The difference is in the cultural context. Dickinson, Stein, Moore, and Bishop wrote before feminism had radically altering options open to women with children. Their choice was stark: kids or writing. There is no evidence to indicate that any of these four ever considered having children. Though they may have thought about it, the question was simply not aired. It is only with the generations that came of age in the 1960s and later that the question of motherhood and (not "or") writing seemed even possible.
Fatherhood has changed nearly as dramatically as motherhood in recent decades, becoming more and more a hands-on experience. Yet, I can’t think of any men who tackle the question of “father” vs. “non-father” writers. To be sure there has been a recent spate of famous men writing about the occasions of their fatherhoods. But these don’t go much farther than relatively charming (or annoying depending on your angle) exercises in the lovably clueless man adapting to new domestic roles in changing times. The matter of fatherhood is not an occasion for soul searching or culture rattling. It’s just cute entertainment.
In a recent interview for the Poetry magazine podcast, Tom Sleigh spoke of Thom Gunne’s domestic life in San Francisco, suggesting that Thom Gunne was one of the few men who wrote about domestic concerns--even though domesticity in this case meant San Francisco’s gay scene. As surprising as this is to me, I’m hard pressed to come up with counter-examples.
Of contemporary poets, Galway Kinnell has perhaps written the most about his children--what young parent can help but identify with the poem in which his toddler wakes up and crashes the bedroom the instant any sex threatens to occur. But it’s not clear that fatherhood changed Kinnell's writing, or changed the terms on which he encountered the world through his work. For Zucker, motherhood is a radicalizing subject that pushes the very form of the poem in new ways. For Sarah Manguso, "non-motherhood" is a question in the foreground, and choosing against motherhood an occasion for profound thinking (as is the inability to choose to have children for women who cannot).
Mostly, I am astonished that so few (no?) men talk about the ways children affect their work because having children has changed my own work in profound ways. This is true in all the obvious ways: by keeping me physically busier than I ever thought possible (tightening writing time to near zero), and by kid-matter inevitably invading the poems. But, more, the experience of having children has altered my sense of time, being and responsibility. It provided the occasion for the only thing close to a Blakean vision I have ever experienced. I spent the week after my first son's birth with just Miranda and the baby, never leaving, never sleeping, hardly eating. The closeness of it all became a fever dream that collapsed distinctions between inside and outside, night and day. When I first left our rooms to shop for groceries at the corner market, I looked at the 300 lb. man working the cash register and saw in him--physically, actually--the newborn he once was. It seemed neither confusing nor alarming, simply a reality that all the time of his existence was present in that one moment. Looking around, I saw all of us--the 80 year old woman behind me, hunched with osteoporosis, the sharp-lipped teenage girl one aisle over, the homeless man slogging a bag of cans for redemption--in our physical beginnings as infants. There was no distinction, in fact, between any of us. That this vision came from a near total lack of sleep and food is obvious. But while I don't see the layers of time as I did on that particular June morning 13-1/2 years ago, what I knew in that moment remains 100% real to me.
I like to read accounts of cave-meditators about the years spent alone with their infinite mind--the long, slow, boring, rolling, speeding, broiling, burning fact of it. In the course of my day, among all the wounds to lick, covers to tuck, shoulders to rub, porridge to sling, punches to punish, candy to swipe, tears to dry, feet to tickle, homework to enforce, empathy to extract, paperwork to push, soccer to coach, and plates to scrub, I think this father, this once-and-future narcissist known as me, is learning something of what they say.
Saturday, November 14, 2009
Is there a role for commerce in poetry? Ezra Pound worked his (crackpot) economic theories into his Cantos. Katy Lederer wrote a book using her hedge fund experience to spin the stuff of the money-drunk 00’s into metaphors for longing, ambition, sex, God and grief. Money is considered anathema to the dream of poetry even if (especially because?) most poets make a middling salary in gigs as college teachers. Poetry magazine’s $100 million windfall from a pharmaceutical industry heiress caused all kinds of anger and belittlements from poets (including me). Complements for the Poetry Foundation’s wide-ranging efforts since then have been grudgingly given, even though the money has not only been used to revivify the magazine, but also to support a relatively wide range of the art through mainstream outlets and through building up its own vibrant online center of blogs, links, videos and essays.
But this week a project launched that throws money and poetry in a way that can’t be dismissed as charity, or scam, or mere academic exercise: PoetrySpeaks. To even type the words “.com” after a poetry site instead of “.org” feels like I’m pimping for one of the sleazy contests that charge a bundle and deliver nothing but profit for the organizer. PoetrySpeaks is made equally out of a love of poetry and a keen business sense, and it displays the potential of both to enhance each other rather than cancel each other out. You can explore and even contribute to its resources for free. Or you can buy books, videos, or individual poems. One of the advisors to this project, Guy Le Charles Gonzalez, comes out of the Nuyorican scene from the 1990s and makes the case that this new .com site offers more dynamic possibilities than the current scene. And he’s right. While my own background is traditional, I can’t ignore the ways in which traditional readings have grown stultifying: long-winded, academic introductions, a prevalent anti-performance style (as if the material itself is so deep it needs to be flattened to be accessed), and audiences that are either half-asleep or all the way there. How have we come to this? Surely this is a total waste of our time. While my own preference is for quieter, page-based work, spoken word events are much, much more entertaining. You are much more likely to have an experience at spoken word than at a traditional reading. There’s something of a vacuum, an anti-experience, about a traditional poetry reading.
Poetry’s as relevant as the people making it. But as makers we owe our audience an experience. Otherwise we’re just keeping a diary. It doesn’t matter who your audience is--your lover, the guys on your soccer team, word-gamers, philosophers, whichever people are in the room with you right now--you owe it to the work to connect with them. One way of doing that is to create new works in new forms than the paper page: video and audio, digital and physical. MFA programs should offer classes in Flash, Illustrator and AfterEffects. These are the newest tools for working “by hand” with your words. But as Kat Meyer mentioned during a chat on Twitter with the founders of PoetrySpeaks.com, digital poetry now simply means anything that can be tagged with metadata and accessed digitally. So the old ways of working by hand can also be considered digital: the hand-stitched letter press book, the hand-built box with free-floating typewritten lines.
Poets need to break with the idea that their words deserve to be archived because simply because they’re labeled “poetry.” The work falls for its audience before the audience falls for it.