Those of us outside the academy are somewhat in the cold, particularly if--as I do--the writer believes that the diminishing returns of Modernism are upon us, and that the way forward is back through tradition and form. Free verse and an obsession with originality (I don't see how that works, given that we're more than a century past modernism's birth--Modernism hasn't been modern for a long time) have become a kind of ideology in our university system. A large number of journals are associated with colleges or are founded by MFA graduates. Most of these are primarily interested in free verse. Meanwhile, I am not primarily interested in free verse, although I do have a recently-finished collection containing poems that derive from a foreign chant tradition that looks free but contains many rhetorical flourishes allied to that tradition.
Do I regret my decision about leaving the academy? No, I don't. I am a better writer because of that choice, and I also had the luxury of having three children, which I probably could not have managed if I had stayed in college settings as a writer and teacher. I find that it is hard to do three major things well, but two--well, you can give up a lot of things that are enjoyable but not essential and so make two big callings work.
I still have a few writer friends who are in the academy and make their living there; I think it's fine that they made the choice to stay in. Most people who gain a perch there do, after all. I just think that I made the right choice for me. What else can we do but try to make right choices? I admire people like poet-professor-mother Luisa Igloria who grasp after mastery in three realms. The late Doris Betts (professor, dean, writer, mother) comes to mind among novelists.
We live in a time when very few poetry books sell in reasonable numbers. I've talked to various editors about sales and found that some poetry books don't break the 50-mark. That's pretty sad, isn't it? I hear that Copper Canyon books sometimes make it to 600; those are the sorts of little numbers a poetry press depends on. (The funny thing about a poetry book is that it can become the sort of book that you return to again and again. So in that way it's a better bargain than most books.)
My picture of how my own poetry books are doing is a bit fuzzy. I know that Thaliad continues to trickle (or seep, maybe!) along in sales for Beth Adams's Phoenicia Publishing and is heading toward the 400-mark in combined paperback/hardcover. [Update: I was pleasantly wrong! 425 copies so far, as of January 19th.] The Foliate Head has sold out its first and second hardcover printings at UK's Stanza Press, though there are still a few copies available on line. I'm don't know the paperback or hardcover numbers at Mercer for The Throne of Psyche. Those are my three books that can be called "in print," though The Foliate Head is technically out of print.
|Interior illustration by Clive Hicks-Jenkins|
for The Foliate Head
Yes, poetry is rapidly losing its status. Yes, what was once an important art is now a minor one and in danger of going the way of lacemaking. Times change. Television and internet make inroads; well, that's just how it is, we say. What we add to culture changes culture.
But if you care about poetry, do more. In fact, all of us need to support what we love in a time when what is seen and praised and supported is heavily-marketed, commercially-validated books, film, visual arts, etc. And we need to remind ourselves over and over again that we can choose. We can choose roads less taken. It will make all the difference.