I've overheard a number of recurring conversations about how to sustain publishing ventures and small presses, mainly focusing on the question of how to fund such ventures. In some circles, the solution offered is to charge reading fees and run contests. This can be problematic for a number of reasons that have been well documented all over the Internet, but people can run their presses however they wish, and many presses with contests have produced some of my favorite poetry books. Another solution -- and one I like a great deal -- is to use print on demand or the downloadable/printable publishing via the internet. Another solution I like is that of funding publication through pre-sales to public and university libraries. Another solution is to form press collectives.
Yet one of the things that is often missing from the conversation is how this question of sustainability is often explored in a way which presumes the necessary conflation of poetry and "the market." Which is to say that the way this question often gets posed elides the difference between "publishing" and "selling." While it's true that many modes of publishing involve the selling of texts, it's also true that many of them don't (including some of the methods mentioned above).
public | profit
One of the main reasons poetry publishers have trouble breaking even is because the world of publishing is set up to promote profit. For big publishers of best sellers, this means using cheap labor and publishing titles that will sell. Pro-capitalists will tell you that the market consistently produces work of the best quality, but the for-profit definition of "quality" gives me the creeps. And I'm not really sure if it makes sense to invest in the notion of "quality" or to adopt market terminology when talking about art. To me, there is inherent contradiction between "publishing" (to make public) and "profiting"(to gain). Historically, whenever it has become cheaper and easier for one to self-publish, there has been a move on the part of those who previously controlled the means of production to squash the efforts of "the masses." And this is when the idea of quality is invoked; once the elite-test cultures of bourgeois taste are weakened, many are quick to declare that culture is in "decline."
And I've also heard lots of talk about how poetry is "dying" and losing its audience and how it is a marker of some sort of death of culture. To me, this just seems like another way of saying that some definition of bourgeois approved culture is losing ground. In other words, I think it is an argument that has a lot to do with class. I mean, the *type* of poetry discussed in the recent Time article is very specific -- vaguely traditional poems written mostly by educated white people. If we define poetry as a radical engagement with language and text, then I think it is clearly thriving in hip-hop scenes, graffiti scenes, DIY craft scenes, and elsewhere. More and more, I think articles like the one in TIME are really talking about the demise of some culturally sanctioned bourgeois idea of poetry more than they are actually talking about *poetry.*
readers | buyers/customers
There is also lots of talk about how an audience for poetry can be widened and developed. To me, this question is sort of backwards and conservative. The audience for poetry *has* widened and developed, it's the "definition" of "poetry" embraced and promoted by certain poetry institutions that has not. Personally, I am not comfortable defining the potential audience for poetry as "buyers." Partly because -- as I noted earlier -- I'm not a big fan of the market paradigm, but also because I don't believe that poetry is limited to books or any type of "marketable" good or property. I don't think it is productive to hope that Americans will come around and start buying more poetry books. I don't think the question of whether or not "future generations" will thank us for poetry is dependent upon the increased sales of poetry books.
Yes, books are great. I'm a BIG fan of books. But what about community-based workshops in homes, women's shelters, after-school programs, libraries, prisons, and hospitals? What about the celebration and acknowledgement of poets working outside traditional/academic disciplines? It is a fact that for every voice that has ever been and is recorded, there are millions that were and are not, and at a certain point one has to ask if the market model and the version of poetry represented in the TIME article are really the best way to "preserve" poetry. And who does the market benefit? Who benefits from "poetry" as defined by TIME magazine? What happens when poetry is given away? When it is defined as various and multiple?
"the market" | self-publishing/DIY
I don't mean to diminish the work independent publishers do to make and distribute books of poetry. I know it's hard work. It's simply that I'm made uneasy by the conflation of poetry and capitalism that is often invoked when people talk about how to "save" poetry. Moreover, I'm not comfortable with the way an engagement with capitalism shapes who/what gets published.
Much of the most exciting new poetry I've encountered over the past several years has been self-published or else published by small DIY publishers. I think the stigma of self-publishing *has* been removed. If we wait for the "authorities" -- whoever they are -- to say that self-publishing is okay, then we haven't escaped the market logic at all. For independent publishers who've accepted the limitations of the capitalist model to present themselves as martyrs is a truly bad faith gesture.
Of course poetry books from independent publishers are a *huge* part of my life as a poet. But it seems like many people who do amazing work have struggled against the contest model. Instead of waiting for years to win a contest and get the seal of approval from a university or small press, many writers *are* self-publishing and I think this is a really good thing. Especially for "future generations" who I hope will be able thank us for making poetry less exclusive, less sexist, less racist, and less elitist.
also, here is an earlier, related post.