Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added) is the best-kept secret
among contemporary American writers. --John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture Marly Youmans is a novelist and poet out of sync with the times
but in tune with the ages. --First Things

Friday, September 30, 2016

Golem and swan

Thanks to Prufrock News for once again featuring one of my poems, this time linking to "The Poet and the Golem" from Books and Culture. Artists of all sorts need chatty champions, people who are willing to get the word out and say in public what they admire and like.

For every writer who is the lucky recipient of a black swan, there are many more who go swanless. After Typee and Omoo, Melville went so swanless that he was eventually forgotten. Dickinson was swanless, though I expect swanlessness was good for her art--nobody chiseled off the oddly important dashes or beat her over the head with the idea of how very strange and curious her work appeared, and that much of swanlessness was good for her singular art. (Most people aren't so strong and vitally themselves as she was.) Poe was so terribly swanless. And Kafka was swanless. In fact, most artists in most artistic fields go swanless.

And so I very much appreciate that Micah Mattix, busy professor that he is, takes the time to share news about poets and writers he finds worthy on daily basis. It is a good thing that he does, and he does it faithfully. If you want to subscribe, go here.


  1. What an intriguing trope: the black swan. I will see how that might apply to my current reading of Nathaniel Hawthorne's tales; "Rappaccini's Daughter" seems to me at this moment, subject to revision, to be a parable about the artist as proprietary creator of the black swan. But, back to your posting, congratulations for achieving more readers throughout the shrinking world of poetry readers.

    1. I do remember, when much younger, having a hard time getting my mind around the idea that there's a tremendous amount of luck and randomness and unfairness in the arts. I had a hard time grasping that publishers, in general, choose which books to support and make lead books, and that those books tend to do best. Now it doesn't bother me--it doesn't affect the work, at least. But I do know writers who have been harmed by those facts combined with their own inability to come to terms with them. It's one of the reasons I like to support other writers when I can, and why I started Lady Word of Mouth, though I haven't done a new post there in a while.

      When I had a novel that suffered a triple whammy of editor departure, scandal about the lead FSG book that took all attention off the rest of the list, and pub date delayed to just after 9/11, I really understood that luck plays a huge role. And I understood that we can only do so much as individuals, particularly when we are motes in a very large country...

      "Good cheer despite all" is my advice to myself in the face of all writerly difficulties. But a lot of people have trouble pulling up their boots and marching off. So I think people like Professor Mattix do a grand job of finding and pointing to good but lesser-known writers.

  2. In 2004, my proposal got pulled out of a slush pile by an agent who helped turn into a book that got published by one of the big houses. It sold moderately well, and it still sells enough copies each year that I can basically pay my car insurance. I went through three editors (the first two left to have children); the paperback had an incompetent publicist, and it got short shrift when Jerry Seinfeld's wife's cookbook for kids commandeered every available printing facility in North America in the lead-up to Christmas; and until recently, the back cover of the paperback was incorrectly labeled "fiction." The sheer preventability of the problems still grates a little, and I now wish I'd spoken up more—but the truth is, I got lucky. I'm luckier than so many people who are still trying to have that brush with the big time at all.

    Rather than try to repeat those lucky couple of years, I've tried to use my blog to get the word out about books and authors that deserve more readers, even though I don't exactly have a huge audience waiting for my pronouncements. (One happy offline victory: I've managed to get two A.E. Stallings poems taught to our local tenth-graders alongside "The Odyssey.") The Lady of the House and I also try to buy art from working artists whenever we can afford to do so. I often feel like I'm an ant shouting at a mile-high tornado of superheroes, Kardashians, and robotic publicists—but I'm starting to realize that all of us who write, who wish we had more readers, need to show the same of fervor as readers, buyers, and fans. It's good for the culture, which needs bigger audiences for this stuff, but I suspect it's good for our own work as well.

    Speaking of which: I've just subscribed to Prufrock! Thanks for pointing me in the right direction. I don't like being on many email lists, but I think I'll like this one.

    1. Exactly--we need to keep talking about books and writers and other artists on our blogs and elsewhere. You will like Prufrock. I'm glad to have been in it a number of times now, and often see links to work by people I know and I like.

      I expect we've all had some luck fall in our laps. Louis Rubin sent a manuscript of mine (he had asked to read it) to LSU, and that was my first poetry book. My dream publisher was FSG, and the first time my agent submitted a book of mine there, it was accepted two days later. Those things feel lucky. Then there's the crazy bad luck, which is all over publishing because editors are always moving and abandoning books. And you can't help accidents of history or accidents of the list (sometimes the lead book eats all the air available and all the house's attention.) I just got tired of the NYC scene for a long time and so went with some of the houses/presses that asked. That's probably a bad strategy in the end--a sort of rebellion against all strategy, I guess.

    2. I understand that NYC fatigue. The New York publishing world is so weirdly mannered, and I encountered plenty of strange practices that struck me as more complicated than Byzantine court ceremonials, and just as efficient. And the bad luck you cite is real; without an engaged editor to serve as an advocate, some books will vanish entirely.

      Those big houses really do have a conduit to media outlets that help sell books. It can't be replicated, but I sometimes think that small presses should form some kind of PR consortium. The Internet was supposed to provide us with alternatives, but what I see is a different but just as restrictive set of gatekeepers, and fewer venues to discuss and buy books. We're now all left to wander up and down Twitter and Facebook, hawking our wares like Molly Malone.

    3. You are so right. There is the illusion of many new getting-the-word out places, but there are too many with little following, and very few with any helpful muscle.

      And I have never found that anything can replace the muscle of a big house with money to spend on promotion and marketing. It took me a while to get that because I tend to ignore that side of things.

      A PR consortium sounds brilliant! After all, they already have one for distribution. Often, people in marketing at small presses just don't have the knowledge and resources, and that would be a way of spreading such things in a more equal way. Genius!

      Yes, a lot of books just fall down a well without a guiding hand from an editor. Books just need an advocate, a champion. It's a big country, and a book is little and liable to vanish.

      Indeed, our wares may be like Molly Malone--none so pretty as she--but still have no better marketing and selling tack than she!

    4. The problem is, I hate coming up with wish-list items like a small-press PR consortium, because I'm really the last person who could do the idea justice, I don't like wishing for things that are unlikely to happen, and I don't know if such a thing is even economically feasible. But doesn't it seem like something that a publishing exec with the write blend of pragmatism and idealism and a love of small presses could actually do? If newspapers could all band together back in the day to form press associations, small presses could, perhaps, follow suit.

      Several of the artists out here in the boonies of Maryland have banded together to support each other's work and to share the costs of promoting three or four open-studio-tour weekends per year. In some cases, artists and craftspeople with open studios sell the work of their colleagues who have nowhere for the public to visit. Their effort appears successful (and I've seen with my own eyes that stuff sells during those weekends), so maybe small publishers should start small, with a few of them splitting the cost of a freelance publicist who clearly knows some of the right people. But do the presses that could work together well know each other? Could they afford a top-notch PR person, and are any such people even looking for work, let alone this sort of uphill challenge?

      Ah, the things I would leap into, were I fifteen years younger...

    5. It does seem doable, given the right person to launch such a thing.... Someone of energy. My friend Mary Bullington started a studio visit weekend in Roanoke, and it has been a huge help to lots of visual artists.

      I expect lots of presses do already know one another via things like the AWP conference....

    6. I suspect they do, which makes me think that most small presses simply can't afford the expense. But if I ever have the opportunity, I'd like to ask them.

      The open-studio concept appears to work wonders up here. When I'm visiting our local artists, I see textiles and pottery practically leaping into people's hands. It makes me wonder: what would be a comparable practice for writers? I'm going to think about that as the artists around here open their doors this coming weekend. (I suppose we could ally ourselves with these artists, but it seems excessive to ask them to hand-sell our books, especially for those of us who are too shy to ask...)

    7. I did do an open house event with a painter friend once. It was lovely, and loads of people came.

      And now I'm falling into bed, as I must get up early.

  3. black swans are not good for smaller venues; they thrash about and create mud waves and disturb the other inhabitants. the ideal is harmony, peace, predictability, and plenty of moss... the dark side should stay over there and not bother us...

    1. Hah! Maybe a small black swan, a lucky one, well-behaved...


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.