Thursday, February 07, 2008

Completing the questionnaire sent by the Poetry Foundation.

3. How can the delivery of poems from writers to readers be improved?

The relationship between poetry and books never really has been 1:1. Even if we set aside for a moment the role played by all of the many oral traditions that feed into and enrich poetry, we can find instances of poetry – Emily Dickinson is the poster child – with only accidental relationships to print. And the role of the self-published book, the commercial object with perhaps the least prestige of all, has been important to poetry in the U.S. from Whitman to the web editions of today. But try to get Ingram to distribute your little chapbook. The book industry is exactly that, and its relationship to poetry is counter-intuitive at best. The days when major publishers brought out poetry as a “loss leader” (or because some poet might turn into a profitable novelist) are almost entirely behind us. The number of trade publishers who even touch poetry are so few, and their collective aesthetics so very narrow, that they have largely relegated themselves to irrelevance. And book sellers are under profound pressure from the rise of alternate channels of retail distribution, including big box retailers and the web. Each week in America two new bookstores open, but five others shut down. With less than 2500 independent bookstores remaining, that trend is ominous. The same social forces that are creating pressures on the book industry are having an impact on society at large – they register as as rising demands upon time and the decline of literacy overall. What a curious moment in history to have more poets than ever before. And more good poets at that. One sometimes imagines that we will soon become a nation of poets, but simultaneously a nation without readers.

We need, I think, to acknowledge that there is no particular “natural” relationship between poetry & print – the best poets are not those most likely to be picked up and promoted by the trade presses, important writers are allowed to go out of print, chapbooks and print-on-demand volumes don’t fit the distribution model of trade books, etc. Some cities are well-served by an independent bookstore – such as Milwaukee by Woodland Pattern or Washington by Bridge Street Books – while larger metro areas like Phoenix go entirely without. It’s an irrational, accidental system and it impacts everyone, readers & writers alike.

I would love to see some of the money that is currently being misused by the National Endowment of the Arts to promote dead British playwrights redirected to ensure that each major metropolitan area has at least one decent retail outlet for poetry. What I envision is a program that would be open only to independent bookstores. The Endowment would offer annual grants to not more than one independent in each major metropolitan area that does not already have a bookstore with a substantial poetry section. By substantial I mean a minimum of 1,000 titles, not more than 25 percent of which are published by trade presses nor more than 25 percent by university presses, with at least five percent of the stock being chapbooks. The purpose of these grants would be to ensure that stores experience decent revenue per square foot for their poetry sections, and that each major metro develops at least one quality poetry outlet. This would also reward stores who have at least one buyer actively interested in the genre. Stores would have to apply for the grants and there would have to be a mechanism for ensuring that no current store in the area already met these criteria – I believe that neither Grolier’s in Boston nor Open Books in Seattle do, since both focus largely on trade & academic presses. I would start with the metro areas that don’t have such stores to begin with, and only once those had functioning outlets would I direct these funds back to areas like San Francisco and Milwaukee. There are an almost infinite number of variations on this one could imagine. Strengthening independent bookstores in a way that increases the distribution of poetry would have benefits at all points along the supply chain of verse.

A separate mechanism that might be created even by the Poetry Foundation itself would be a mechanism for the sale and distribution of chapbooks and print-on-demand volumes, perhaps coordinated by Booksense, but with a common front end on the web so that readers could turn to a single source for finding these difficult-to-obtain items.

Both programs would work to strengthen not just the distribution of poetry, but also independent bookstores. Any additional programs should likewise attempt to accomplish both things at once.

4. What hinders the discover, circulation, and celebration of poems in our culture?

The misteaching of reading, especially in the K12 curriculum, which causes so many students to think of language as instrumental and transparent, something to be skimmed rather than read. Whether you are a new formalist or a slam poet, a visual poet or a language writer, the absolute materiality of the signifier, the physicality of sound and of the graphic letter, is the one secret shared by all poets to which nonreaders of poetry seem literally clueless. It is “the news” that William Carlos Williams wrote about in “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower” for lack of which “men die miserably every day.” This is a larger problem than just one for poetry – it is one consequence among many of the larger issues confronting our schools in general. Dropping a few poets-in-the-schools into programs like a Marine strike force is hardly going to undercut the message students get continually, day after day, that language is to be mined for “information” that can be later regurgitated in test formats. It is more, even, than just the goal of developing critical thinkers, tho it is one important aspect of this. Until such time as our schools are given the resources they need in order to really address the whole child, not just managing to standardized tests, we haven’t a chance.

5. In what ways are poetry and the poetry community vital and thriving?

See my answer to number 1. There are more poets, and more good poets, now than ever. Tools like the web make possible modes of publication that didn’t exist even 25 years ago. Many of the “problems” of poetry really are the consequences of the abundance of writing and the needs of both artists and institutions to accommodate this new reality.

6. Other thoughts

It is worth noting how dramatically broader (and richer) the Poetry Foundation website has become since it began. It reflects the democratic vision that Poetry’s great editor, Henry Rago, had for the journal, and for the art, toward the end of his life. The journal itself is still playing catch-up in this regard, tho it too has shown encouraging signs of moving in this same direction. But the website itself is rapidly becoming one of the gems of the new world of poetry.