A month or so ago I was asked to take part in a panel on publishing one’s poetry. No, take that back—I asked a local creative writing organization if they would sponsor a panel on publishing and let me be on it as my last public appearance as Cincinnati’s Poet Laureate. I had some things I wanted to say. Here’s how I started:
“If we want to eat, we have to tend the garden—and our poems are not the only things growing there.”
As a metaphorical vehicle for the literary scene, the necessity of the vegetable garden is admittedly inaccurate. We can go to the grocery store or McDonalds, eat a frozen Lean Cuisine, or the pickings from our neighbor’s trash can.
But still, as a metaphor for the kind of literary scene I want to be part of—local, and yet part of larger ecosystem—it’s not too far afield. (Pun intended.)
I recognize that I have a very particular philosophy around publishing and being published, at least in part because my first experience of both was within a community of writers, the Appalachian community, where both writing and publishing was seen as something that we do not just for ourselves but as a political act—to counterbalance commonly held misbeliefs about the region and its people.
And just as I have been the beneficiary of that community—brought along by writers, teachers, publishers, organizers of readings and workshops – I knew that most of us at that presentation on publishing, whether speakers or listeners, had also been the beneficiaries of the multiple communities of writers in this city and region, if only by virtue of showing up on that night.
There is a larger market for books about writing poetry than there is for poetry. (And for that matter, for blogs about writing poetry: more people read, or at least clicked, my first post, Too Personal: On Writing About My Mother’s Dementia, about writing Palindrome than have bought the book—though I am forever hopeful!) There are people who sign up for my classes on writing poetry and memoir who have never read my work. Everybody wants to write poetry; reading it, or buying it, not so much. There were more poets in attendance that night than at many poetry readings I’ve been to. My main message: it is up to us, the poets, to cultivate the community of both writers and readers, of speakers and listeners, of publishers and poets. We have to both grow the poems and be the market for them. Here are the highlights of what I shared:
• Publishing begins at home, with the reading and workshop scenes where our work can be heard by audiences of peers. And at the best of those readings and workshops those peers include a —wide swath of the ecosystem of our particular writing community—those who have been published, and those who are just beginning, as well as poets who are also editors, publishers, teachers—and who, like me, feel a commitment to give as we were given to along the way.
• It is in everyone’s best interest to be a generous part of a generous community. Show up—not just to be heard, but to hear. Readings and open mics give a sense of the broader scope of what poetry and poets are writing and publishing today, and a chance to interact with folks who may be way over there in the asparagus patch, so to speak. Skipping the featured reader, if there is one, to get to the open mic is not only rude, it is also a missed opportunity to interact with someone who is doing what you probably want to do too. And if you are a featured reader, well I hope it goes without saying that you owe your audience of poets the gift of hearing their words too. And it helps to set the standard for that particular reading, to show that we are a community, each of us part of something larger than our own words.
• I also am the editor of a small literary journal, Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel. I am always taken aback by the submissions we get from people who have never read the journal, some who have never even gone to the website to read the submission guidelines. (I recently had one writer who was offended when I asked him to go to the website and resubmit his poems following the guidelines.) If I’m not going to read other people’s work in a journal, why do I think anyone will read mine?
• Similarly with submitting a book length manuscript to a publisher without ever having read a book—or at least online material—from that publisher. And beyond the principle of the matter, there is the practical—what if I hate it? What if the book falls apart in my hand?
• Think local. Sure we all want Knopf, or at least Graywolf, but smaller presses often work harder to promote their work, sponsoring journal launches and readings and using social media to get the word out about their authors. This provides exposure for you and the opportunity to connect with other writers and editors. And look for multiple points of connection to increase your chances of publication. For example, a journal that publishes poets in the Ohio River valley, and is asking for work touching on the themes you address in your poems.
I was one of five panelists—two of us were journal editors, several volunteered as jurors or in other roles with small poetry presses, all of us were writers (mostly poets) with book credits to our names. One of the things that became clear as we were conversing with each other and the audience was that when people say we want to publish, what we really mean is we want our work to be read. Maybe there is a way for a poet to have her poems read without connecting with her community of readers and potential readers, but if there is, I don’t know it, and I’m not sure that I want to.
Don’t get me wrong, I love that there are readers of my work whom I will never meet. And I am not wild about the marketing aspect of having a book—in fact it triggers all sorts of my baser impulses, including at least five of the seven deadlies. But connecting with others through writing continues to be one of the joys of my writing life.
For more practical advice on publishing and on tending the poetry community, I suggest checking out these posts:
22 Ways to Be a Good Literary Citizen Without Spending a Dime (reblogged from Sundress Press)