Rhina P. Espaillat on commenting on poetry

Espaillat is one of my very favorite poets.  She’s a formalist who is
a master of the modern sensibility, so her crafted work will surprise
many readers who think of formal writing as requiring the use of
archaic words, twisted syntax, or stilted phrasing.  Her pieces are
small gems of human experience.

work in progress” is such an example. Better still, it’s a wonderful
little tidbit of the balance between offering a well-considered
critique and a writer’s choice.

I’d suggest signing up for Rattle’s poem a day if you have an interest
in modern work.  They select excellent pieces.

To Post a Poem or to Publish

In her July 10th entry, Remittance Girl wrote about how publishing doesn’t matter to her any longer.  Coincidentally, a number of my favorite writers have stopped publishing because their novels don’t make sufficient income for support.  Articles are beginning to come out about the impacts of electronic publishing and the changes in contracts, the fall of income for writers.  We’ve seen the changes in journalism and now fiction is falling as well.

As someone who writes poetry, even as bad as this sounds –  I just shrug.  I call poetry the “lowest of the low” for art forms because every stranger on the street you meet says they write poetry.  Making a living supported solely by your poetry, uhm, well, I’ve just never seen an example.  Writers might win a MacArthur genius award, or win the Nobel Prize and gain income that way, but even the Poet Laureate of the United States was listed as earning only $35,000  in 2011 and that’s for work other than directly writing poetry.  Making a living from writing poetry has long been undercut by the very people who claim to be poets, but never buy another’s book of poetry.  Prose and journalism are falling to the flood of equal, easy access to publication.

While I don’t know how to fix “the system” of income production for other fields in the creative industries,  I do know that it is a painful time in publishing. In this case, prose readers don’t want to pay the premium prices charged for new novels, to buy the subscriptions for the magazines, or newspapers with at least somewhat-researched articles – thus cutting off the flow of income of which supported the writers.

Where this  Walmarting of the prose domains will end, I don’t really know.  I can commiserate though as poetry in my adult lifetime (80’s onward) has been about “Read Me!” It is only rarely that I’ve ever heard someone recommend another’s book.  Frankly, I’m the only reader I’ve ever met who has collected books of poetry as part of my library. And the comment about “Read more poetry

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is seen as an insult to the person waving their electrons in front of a critic’s eyes.

It is the rare occasion when a poem is so good that it sweeps my critical faculties away on the first read.  Or rather, I shouldn’t claim it to be rare because there are a number of writers whose work just leaves me breathless for the most part, it is just that they themselves are rare compared to the amount of poetry I read because it is so readily available on line.  Prose writers are only now beginning to feel this effect of unedited, unexpurgated, vanity-published spew building to a slush-pile of available, cheap content which makes they, the True Craftspeople, hard to find, much less compete against.

The disregard for the craft and the flood of “cheap goods” is part of the dynamic change in the publishing industry.  Trying to withhold content, or the mantra I continue to see “Don’t write for free!” reminds me of a small finger in the last section standing of a dam which was already washed away.

So if the point of being published is not about income production, then what remains?  To me, it is the introduction to a specific society of readers. That is the purpose of working to be published.  What this means then, for the writer, is not that you have a chapbook out, or an Author’s page on Amazon, but that your work shows up associated with specific arbiters of taste and culture, that it’s possibly reviewed by venues such as the Best American Poetry.  And if the arbiters of taste don’t appeal to you, well, then, make your own, but the point is that there is critical thought behind the choices, there are winners and losers, it is not a democratic process, but a selective one.

The internet poetry boards are flooded with the democratic process, the equal access, the all-accepting entrants.  And no one reads another’s words.  All those poems will pass as technologies change, servers die, codes obsolesce and the languages become unrecognizable.  The hard drives seize and are buried in the rubble of the landfill.  There is nothing physical left of those words, and no memory of them beyond that of the ardent “poet.”  The democratic access to publishing is transient and self-aggrandizing.  This is what we have learned from equal access to the publishing process.

It is only content which is self-consciously crafted which does have a chance at memorable, and more importantly, physicality.  The form of a physical book will become the highest standard of regard for the word simply for the fact that it takes more resources and more effort to produce.  The arbiters spots are changing, but making a thing from ephemeral words is going to resurge like vinyl is in music.

It’s no longer a matter of “getting published,” but being published or recognized by people or organizations which matter to you – whom you read.  So, get out there – And Read More Poetry.




The New Re-Purposed Purpose of a Book

What is the purpose of “the book” any longer?  I write this question while I have a IMG_1745library of my own in excess of 3,000 physical books.  I number nearly that many in electronic books.  My physical books cover topics from ancient architecture and city planning, The History of Beads, everything ever written by C.J. Cherryh, a few of my favorite Margaret Atwoods, a copy of every single religion’s “holy” work, a few biographies (not my favorite genre), a number of “science for simpleton” reductionist nonfics, every Alice Hoffman, most Marge Piercey’s, and then a scattering of male authors which are early and / or hard to find in the U.S.

Since I got my tablet, I’ve moved away from the paperback novel.  The only works I collect in their first printings (either trade paperback or HB) are those novelists 51uYjP94oALwhose work I’d miss if the electricity goes out.  It also turns out that I don’t like electronic versions of cookbooks.  Tech manuals in electronic form are fine for me, but absolutely nothing to do with craftsmanship.  These days, I buy hardback books where the photographic or visual element are the centerpiece of the work.  The problem I’ve got is that my walls are shelves and I’ve run out of wall space  between the artwork I have up and the bookshelves.

While my “disposable” reading is purely electronic – that is, nearly all my romance and erotica – I can’t imagine losing the tactile quality of the physical book.  And while I might not be an avid collector, I think about the future of the book, and how what a book “means” is changing.

While my biggest concern is the secondary paperback market and the widespread Image-1availability of 2nd generation books at a reasonable price, one of the “promising” side effects of the electronic / transitory movement of words off the papered page is that it returns “the book” back to its “roots” in that at one time books were not disposable objects, but treasures.

Electronic publishing, like blogging, or poetry boards, or just the internet itself is the means for verbal diarrhea to overspill the page.   While I am one of those who will call a book “defective” and ask for a refund if I can’t make it beyond page 1, there are many of my electronic books I do love, but would never buy in meatspace.  They’re just not good enough.

Poetry is in even worse shape than the novel.  Not only did no one ever buy poetry since the late 70’s, now all the “poets” slap their print on demand works on Amazon where their rank falls below the 1,768,234th position.  Then there are the hastily IMG_1755printed chapbooks which are shoved into coworkers hands, a flood of posts on a dead internet bulletin board, and people’s responses in the comments section of a news article written in some desperate verse.  The small poetry sections of the few bookstores left feature mostly anthologies or dead poets anyways, with only a few representative live ones.

But I cannot claim to be free of hubris myself.  Because I don’t really want to try and organize myself to muck around with traditional publishing for The Marriage Bed
I’ve decided to take the letterpress printing a step further, I’m going to hand-set the typIMG_1763e and print the book in a limited edition run.  I love my work.  I believe in the pieces.  I believe in them enough that throwing them into the spectacle of electronic transience, or acid-paged burn just isn’t inspirational for me.

Who has last fondled their book of poetry?  Read a work time and again?  Made notes written in the margins about what inspired you in the piece?  When was the last time you re-read a live poet’s work so many times you felt their words to be your own?  When was the last time you held a book of beauty in your hands?

This slow process of hand-setting the type is an act of paying attention to each and every letter within each word.  One observes the punctuation around the phrases, the length of each line.  In considering the physicality of the object itself, the exercise is a second meditation on the work. The book will not be traditionally bound, but will be a series of cards, each set with their own poem and artwork.  There will be a limited edition box created for the cards as well.

It distracts from my writing, but the process is the closest I’ve gotten to taking my work seriously.

On writing poetry “for a living”

There’s an interesting thread taking place at the moment in the ERWA Writer’s newsgroup about what it takes to earn a living with your writing.  As I write poetry, I haven’t had to “worry” about trying to earn a living from the poetry alone.  While researching a response to Daddy X’s post about a poet he knew who was flexible in his jobs, I ran across this quote about Mary Oliver worth sharing as it relates to writing poetry for a living:

Mary Oliver once told an interviewer her secret to success. Throughout her life, she says, “I was very careful never to take an interesting job.” She explains, adding, “Not an interesting one. I took lots of jobs. But if you have an interesting job you get interested in it.” For Oliver, the only worthy interest was writing.

A folly of letterpress printing folies to fill a folio

I’m taking a class right now in letterpress printing. Beginning with the idea of the poetry cards I made for the SEAF event, I want to push that idea harder to create something like a “front” and “back” page of a “book.”   The idea is to create something akin to the old 45 record, where there’s a single song on the A side and a single song on the B side.

As an unpublished writer who focuses in poetry, I don’t carry my “slim volumes” around to share of sell.  Who the hell buys chapbooks anyways, much less actually reads the poems in damn books?  I think I know four people and they all write the stuff – and I’m one of the four.  However, at SEAF, I found people were fine with just selecting a single poem that they liked.  The card seems to have made the poetry much more accessible.  All my cards – and there were over 110 – got picked up except for two or three copies of Miami, 1964.  Image-1

I’m intrigued by the idea of being able to share small doses, single servings, if you will of poems.  And while the cards on photostock are all fine and good  – and I could get them printed professionally at 25c a card, that’s just not interesting enough.  So, I’ve decided to combine one ridiculous art form with a near obsolete technology for a culminating act of a folio of follies.  I’ll probably be lucky to get a single front page out of this class.  Setting the type letter by letter means those letters are held together in their line by compression.  I’ve spent more time cleaning up my spilled letters.

The letterpress printing set up is an enjoyable, if tedious exercise in construction.  What I’d originally created for the first business cards will not work.  So, this is making me re-engineer my design and my design ideas.  And if I take this from a single-sided card idea to a two sided one… nah… setting the type – letter by letter – where each letter and each space is held together only by compression, I’d have to make a payday for that doubling of work.  Which means I’ll be figuring out how to finish the back.

Why bother with all this you might ask?  What else does one do between being born and being dead except fill the time with folies.  Who knows how it will all turn out.  I don’t.