Saturday, June 07, 2008


My point in posting so many links on Thursday there were 122 sections, many with multiple links – was not to overwhelm you, but to indicate rather just how much is now going on in poetry. These represent just five days' worth of activity on the web of news stories, noteworthy blog comments & interesting new web sites. And it’s not “National Poetry Month” anymore either, which artificially pumps up the number of events and stories in the “regular” media concerning the existence of poetry. I’m sure that I missed many other items, especially blog notes, as interesting as those I chose to include. Plus there were at least as many other stories from newspaper sites that I didn’t include, either promoting a slam next Friday night or that a tenth grader has won the local poetry contest or whatever. I do include such items on occasion, but only when an aspect of the story illuminates something or the promo piece contains a substantive profile of the headline poet.

My point is that the problems of poetry today have, at least in terms of what’s going on, very little to do with scarcity & much more to do with hyper-abundance, a condition that poetry’s traditional institutions – schools, the publishing industry, arts programs in general – institutions that, at best, represent overlapping concerns that sometimes touch upon poetry, are ill-equipped to handle.

Consider publishing. There were last year over 400,000 different titles published in the United States, maybe 4,000 of which had anything to do with poetry – that’s actually one percent of all titles. Sixty years ago, when these things began to be tracked in earnest, there were a total of 8,000 titles of all kinds being published, only two percent of today’s number. But there were probably no more than 100 poetry titles in any given year, which is just slightly over the one percent of all titles we see today. The explosion of poetry that flowed from the New American poetries of the 1950s, the expansion of creative writing programs from a couple into a full-fledged industry, all that has not changed the ratio of poetry titles to all book titles overall.

One the other hand, in the late 1940s, there was one book title for every 18,750 Americans. Today there is a title for every 750 Americans. This suggests a far more crowded marketplace and it’s no wonder that the economics of book distribution have gone wonky. What percentage of this year’s 4,000 poetry titles are on the shelves of your look book merchant? In my case, if I look to the local Barnes & Noble superstore, it's less than one percent. If I go about twice as far, and in a direction I seldom travel, I can get to the Chester County Book Company, which can brag – legitimately – that it carries maybe three percent. Unfortunately, its proximity to West Chester University, home of the most conservative poetry conference in the country, tends to skew that three percent heavily to the School of Quietude. It’s not the three percent I want or need.

Somebody joked in the comments stream the other day that he was the only poet in America not sending me review copies of his books. In fact, a look at the current catalog from SPD shows that I seem to be getting at best twenty percent of what’s out there. I also get lots of chapbooks & odd press products, like poem cards inside of envelopes, formats that SPD actively tries to avoid, since there is no way it will ever convince a book store to stock them. There are lots of those sorts of items, and they have no distribution mechanism of any sort beyond the mailing lists of their publishers.

I don’t think it’s any harder today for a young poet to get published, it may even be simpler than it was when I was a pup. I do think it’s more difficult, considerably, for young poets to develop audiences sizeable enough to enable them to do such things as a serious national reading tour. That one book title for every 750 Americans – at a time when people are reading fewer books per person than ever before – suggests that the audience per book is going to be proportionately smaller than it was 20, 40, 60 years ago. The overall audience – what marketers like to call the total addressable market (TAM) – may be larger, even significantly so, but it’s just such a crowded marketplace.

This is where the institutions of poetry come into play. Art programs can fund readings that pay well enough to fund the travel of writers. Schools sometimes fund travel, especially to conferences. Awards generate attention & sometimes even a little distribution for their winners. Control the institutions & you can channel a lot of access. That’s why this year’s Lambda Awards are so disheartening. The Lambda Literary Foundation is, in its own words, “the country’s leading organization for LGBT literature,” the acronym standing for lesbian, gay, bisexual & transgender. This year’s winner, Henri Cole’s Blackbird and Wolf, was published by Farrar Straus Giroux, Macmillan’s literary brand. The former executive director of the Academy of American Poets back when it focused almost exclusively on School of Quietude poets, Cole is not only one of the most conservative of the finalists – the others were Rachel Zolf, Reginald Shepherd, C. Dale Young, Carol Potter & Dawn Lundy Martin – but the one finalist with a trade press book. Zolf is the only one of these poets who could truly be called post-avant. Some of the 45 poets whose books were entered but who did not make it even to the short list were Eileen Myles, Nicole Brossard, David Trinidad, Nathalie Stephens, Amy King, Ellen Bass, Edward Field, Forrest Hamer, Joan Larkin & Adrienne Rich. Overall, there were 35 books nominated by small presses, 7 by university presses, and 3 by the big trades. On the short list, one book was by a trade, two by university presses, and three by independent presses. In practice this meant that a small press book had a one-in-ten chance of getting onto the short list, while both trades & university presses had roughly one chance in three. Now these numbers are obviously too small to be statistically significant, but this is a scenario that we have all seen far too many times in the past.

Lambda doesn’t list its judges, but says on its web site that there were 80 of them – “writers, journalists, booksellers, librarians, professors.” The web site doesn’t indicate how many of each, or whether they subdivided the 21 categories amongst themselves, four judges for this category, five or that, or if they voted on them all as a group. Nor does the web site indicate how the short-list was developed. But it strikes me, looking at these lists, which get progressively less interesting as they proceed from long list to short to winner, that structurally this award is doing exactly what it was set up to accomplish – to promote gay-identified commercial projects within a distribution system for literature where all books are product. The award reinforces precisely the business model that enables GLBT bookstores in major metros, but it also is the model that has given us Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Borders. Lambda’s goal isn’t to change the model, merely to ensure that gay-identified merchandise has a little better representation in the marketplace. In that regard, Henri Cole could not have been a better choice.

So think of these as alternative logics – one a process of winnowing everything down to a single book from a trade press, and that long list of links here Thursday as a counterbalance intended to suggest that the world of poetry is not like this at all.

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