Sunday, September 23, 2012

Poetry and Gerbils


Poet and publisher Paul Zimmer has a terrific article in the Sept / Oct issue of Poets & Writers. He covers his work as a publisher of poetry books going back to 1967. During those years he worked for three different presses: University of Pittsburgh Press, University of Georgia Press, and University of Iowa Press. He talks about the arduous process of reading manuscripts, selecting winners, and notifying poets with either good or bad news. He also mentions that during his years as a publisher he never once charged a fee. He talks about the methods he used to make such work possible, a job that must be getting increasingly difficult with the "current overpopulation of American poets"—a condition he compares to a "gerbil farm gone bananas."

What Zimmer regrets about this proliferation of poets and poetry books is the loss of selectivity. There is simply too much. Ironically, in spite of a plethora of poetry books to choose from, way too few readers and writers of poetry invest in poetry books. Here's an excerpt from the article:

And yet Zimmer is not ready to give into despair. He adds, "I still feel poetry is the highest course for words, and that the spirit and impulse toward making poems is one of humankind's best chances toward possibly saving its hell-bent cantankerous butt." And he acknowledges that if he had it to do all over again, to work as a publisher and an editor, he would do it.

This all hit a chord with me. I have several times been asked by aspiring poets if I do mentoring (yes, I do). I ask the inquiring poet this question: "I assume that you're familiar with my work?" That question is a polite euphemism for "Have you bought any of my books and carefully read it or them?"

Too often the response to my question is some variation of this: "I've seen your work on the internet." When I ask what the person hopes to get out of being mentored, often the response is something like this: "I want to publish a book of my poems."

How can anyone possibly aspire to publish a book of poetry without first and for a long time avidly and regularly reading books of poetry? A poetry book is more than a bunch of poems. It's a collection of poems artistically arranged into some sensible order. An aspiring poet can learn about poem arrangement in a book only by reading books by other poets and studying carefully how it's done.

And one more thing: How can a poet expect other lovers of poetry to buy his or her book (should there ever be one) if he or she doesn't buy them? Does that make sense? Not to me, it doesn't.

The best teacher of poetry is a good poem. The best way to learn how to put a collection together is to study other collections. Aspiring poets are advised to invest in their education. Buy books of poetry. Support other poets. Otherwise, you might as well be raising gerbils.

6 comments :

  1. I love what you said about a book of poetry being more than a random group of poems. I've recently purchased my first collections and I've enjoyed reading them in one sitting--looking for the connections, and the thinking about it as a cohesive unit.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Good! May there be more like you! You'll reap many benefits from this.

      Delete
  2. Your featured poet and publisher is sounding a bit like a curmudgeon. first off I am glad to hear he appreciates his opportunity to spend his working career with poetry and writing. But too much poetry? Really? His job and yours as academic and literary elites is to by definition be selective and pick out the best that is out there for us masses. Why would you want fewer choices. The most innovative and expressive often comes from unexpected places. The more the better. Really - you go to a smorgasbord and complain there are too many items on the table - your sushi place offers too many menu choices? Who cares if the blogosphere is littered with housewives and the unemployed doing poetry challenges. "if the spirit and impulse toward the spirit and impulse toward making poems is one of humankind's best chances toward possibly saving its hell-bent cantankerous butt" then that impulse starts with folks creating their own poetry and sharing with others. It is the process not the end result that will change the world. Reading a great poem will not change the world. One person realising their creative power and intelligence by creating their own great poem will. Then as more folks experiment they will appreciate the joy and genius of more "approved" poetry. Sounds like publishing poetry will have to endure the same hardships and opportunities as print journalism in this new modern age of the internet, ebooks etc. Note I said opportunity - was there ever really a golden age of when everyone sat down and diligently studied their poetry books? In reality only a few read and appreciate a single poem much less poetry books and that number will only grow by having more people doing poetry and slowly appreciating its value in their lives.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm not arguing for fewer poets or less poetry but for more readers of poetry and more buyers of poetry books. I'm bummed out by the number of aspiring poets who themselves want to publish a book of poetry but have no interest in buying or reading someone else's book. They fail to support the community and they miss the best opportunity to educate themselves. But yes, I do complain at a smorgasbord--I can't trust that so much food will all be fresh.

      Delete
  3. I read the Zimmer piece with great interest, too, and now read your post, nodding in agreement all they way through. As a poet whose published work is split about evenly between ink and pixels (last time I checked, anyway) I have to say I harbor slightly more fondness for my paper babies, knowing that someone will hold them in their hands while reading, not just absorb them with their eyeballs.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for checking in. I've opened up a lot to online publications--there are some really wonderful online journals. But there is something about the printed page that's special. I regret that a number of print journals have had to close up shop.

      Delete

Let Me Know What You Think

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...