Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Precipitous slippage

Once upon a time I was a new-made Associate Professor with tenure; my answer to that lovely promotion was to quit academia entirely because I wanted to be a poet and novelist, not an academic poet and novelist. I felt that I would be a stronger, better writer outside the land of ivory towers. What I did not grasp at the time was how completely the academy would take over the world of writing, particularly the realm of poetry, and make it into a near-monolithic enterprise. (Simultaneously, both poetry and literary fiction began to move toward being minor arts--well, poetry was already on the way.) This change has meant that academic writers support one another and give one another various helpful privileges.

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
If you care about poetry, please consider buying books. While I would like you to support mine, I tend to be pleased when I see anybody buy a good poetry book. And I always remember the quote taped up on the poetry shelves at the Bull's Head Bookshop (UNC-Chapel Hill shop, now defunct) run by novelist Erica Eisdorfer: People who say they love poetry and never buy any are cheap sons of bitches. --Kenneth Rexroth. It's not polite, but it gets at something. I just looked it up online and found a different version that says, I’ve had it with these cheap sons of bitches who claim they love poetry but never buy a book. Maybe both are right, as Rexroth didn't hold back and may have been muttering variations on the theme for years!

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.

17 comments:

  1. I buy more poetry than I read.
    I know, that is far from perfect but I have so many poetry books to delve into over time. When I can concentrate more (a problem for me sometimes) and see more clearly (a problem for me sometimes) I have treasures to unearth and sink into!

    Poetry will never be something that is not read. At the moment the world is in shock, I think. There is SO much out there to see and hear.
    In time that will settle and (hopefully) people will learn to understand once more that poetry is good for them.

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    1. I don't have any faith in that thought, though it is sweet! But I have hope that a small core of people will still care about the wonderful things poetry can do with language.

      We need to chuck analysis and let children memorize and recite. Dana Gioia was right on that score.

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    2. Bravo! I embrace the "memorize and recite" prescription. I love the return to things past approach. But where would it happen? Students must have teachers who embrace and understand the concept. Do those teachers in K-12 and beyond still exist? Hmmmm.

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    3. If you take a look at poetryoutloud.org, you'll see the national program started by Dana Gioia back in 2006. He had some great ideas as NEA director.

      Around 2000, I made an anthology of poems for my daughter's class, and all the students memorized at least one poem and did a public recitation. I remember that my daughter did Kathleen Raine's "Spell of Creation" and Puck's song from near the close of MND. Was wondrous.

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  2. Four hundred copies is certainly nothing to sniff at! I dunno, this is such a complex topic (or maybe I've just thought about it way too much over the years) but I think part of the problem is that book sales in general are declining, which we can blame on everything from changing tastes to shorter attention spans, vaster entertainment options, increasing overwork/lack of sleep, and so on. I have heard that poetry is rapidly gaining in status again among da yoot, but I'm skeptical whether that will translate into more book sales. Some questions I keep coming back to: How big an audience is enough? Isn't there a qualitative difference between a numerically large audience we never get to interact with and people we can meet in person or chat with online? Is a book-length collection on paper still the best target that we should be aiming for, or should we be imitating pop musicians and exploring new ways of releasing our work, not to mention new collaborations with other artists? But academic conservatism might be holding us back. Claudia Rankine's film-essay collaborations with her husband, for example, are brilliant, and I love that she included the transcripts in Citizen. But why not try to get them on TV — or at least promote the videos online? I'm guessing because they saw them as an extra, and because there's no reward system in place for such things as there is for books. I could go on...

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    1. Hah, I was just wondering where I put my credit card because I need to buy a Bonta book. Must get organized--finding, tidying, etc.

      Yes, I wonder about those things as well. And as far as format, multi-pronged does seem best. Vaster options, yes, though not often better. I've long liked collaborations.

      As for books, I think poetry books are one of the best uses of print books. Bestseller shlock is a great waste of trees. And I still think that the beautiful, decorated book is wonderful as an object to view and book to read.

      The odd thing about the academy is that they would never see themselves in "academic conservatism," but yet they have built up a little-changing way to be in the realm of poetry. And the whole scratch-your-back thing is so pervasive and useful to individuals that I can't imagine things changing.

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    2. A beautiful object and also great for random access, which is one reason I prefer paper to digital for poetry collections. I like to start a new book somewhere in the middle, jump around for a bit and get a flavor of it before starting at the beginning and reading it through. And if I like it, I may read it a third time, in random order again.

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    3. Yes, I like being able to flip about in a poetry book. They seem like a good deal in that they don't take a lot of space, they're often beautiful, and they're easy to move around in--plus you can get a sense of the book so easily compared to a digital version. I am very big on rereading, and I often mark up my poetry books so I can pick up a book even many years later and see what I liked best long ago.

      Interesting that you are random reader! So all those hours of arranging and dithering are lost on you....

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  3. Chapters Literary Bookshop in Washington, DC, used to have a sticker that quoted Ruskin: How long would many people look at a book before they would pay the price of a turbot for it! "Too long" seemed to be the answer, for Chapters has been out of business for some years now.

    Pictures from an Institution was published in the mid-1950s. In part 5 of the chapter "Miss Batterson and Benson", there occur the sentences "But I was only a poet--that is to say, a maker of stone axes--and [the novelist] felt a real pity for me because of it: what a shame that I hadn't lived back in the days when they used stone axes! And yet, why make them now?" So I wonder how much better the old days were, at least the old days new enough for any of us to remember.

    A while back I posted an item about book sales: http://dc20011.blogspot.com/2015/10/books-by-numbers.html.

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    1. I was talking with Jeff Sypeck on his blog about numbers not long ago; I'll pop by and see your post. Numbers are enlightening.

      And I remember Chapters... think I was only there just once.

      Randall Jarrell was such a splendid critic. I loved his poems when my mother gave me a book of them in high school, and also his translations (with Sendak illustrations, especially!) He must have felt that he was in a later and diminished wave of Modernism--come late to the party with Lowell and Bishop and Berryman in the wake of Eliot and Yeats. So I'm not a bit surprised that poetry was seen as a lost thing in the novel.

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  4. If you're reading comments and want to see more, hop to my public Facebook page. There are some especially interesting comments from writers John O'Grady (including another saga of dropping tenure) and Mary Barbara Moore (another interesting path), both on my link and on several Facebook posts by John and by Clive Hicks-Jenkins.

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  5. I like that Rexroth quote, in part because it trenchantly identifies the cultural priorities many people take for granted. Folks will spent thousands of dollars a year on satellite-TV sports packages but balk at the $40 price tag on a piece of handmade pottery.

    Some of this, I think, is the naive optimism of affluence: people assume that those poets will always be over there doing their wacky thing, that the theater will always exist if they should ever choose to attend, that maybe someday they'll read that challenging new novel—and then they go binge-watch a TV show or listen to the "Hamilton" soundtrack again. Two years of doing P.R. for an art center taught me that if everyone who claims to "support the arts" actually did so, we'd all have more cash in our pockets.

    I have such mixed feelings about my time in academia—four years as a grad student, ten years as an adjunct. I loved teaching, but I never found the university a supportive environment for creating original writing in a voice even remotely resembling my own. I'm now doubly out in the cold, first as a nonfiction writer and also as a poet, but most days, the creative freedom feels worth it.

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    1. Most poetry books cost about the same as a city movie ticket or inexpensive lunch, so you're right about that! Maybe budgeting a certain amount per month would help. It is sad that we've gone so far away from William Morris's idea of everything in the house being useful or beautiful.

      That naive optimism includes the idea that somebody else will cover the expenses, I believe. I'm addicted to books and paintings, I'm afraid, but I have fewer temptations in terms of events. Just Glimmerglass Opera, locally, and some plays. Sometimes I go to all the operas; sometimes I don't. I doubt that I would be an opera-goer at all if not for having a major summer opera house nearby. But I do enjoy it, even though it's not really my natural bent.

      I loved teaching and colleagues and all of that, but it does eat up the same energies that would be used to write. Freedom is good, even freedom with few perks and connections.

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  6. I already knew this about why you quit academe, and having been on both sides of the fence, I can see why you did.
    I never published a book until I was forced out of teaching.Since then I have published 4 (a chapbook, a collection of poems, and 2 anthologies) and have two collections looking for a publisher and two more in the works. It makes a difference.
    Of course, that leaves me with little to no money to buy books, but I still do, whenever I can.

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    1. You are doing fine. And no doubt you and Richard will continue in that vein. Which is good.

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  7. Excellent post, Marly. Letter forthcoming.

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    1. Hurrah for letters! Thanks. Some people have written me notes about it, so that's interesting, and I met a new poet who seems interesting.

      I need to find my card and order a Bonta... Must tidy up!

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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.