Part 1: No Room at The Inn
I’ve often thought of poetry as the orphan child of publishing. Commercial publishers have all but abandoned it. Other than the most visible and prestigious poetry virtuosos whose connection to a particular press give it a kind of pedigree— an aesthetic imprimatur— commercial presses do not publish poetry. There are reasons for this rather depressing state of affairs. Publishers cannot publish what they cannot sell. The audience for poetry is extremely small and is comprised mostly of writers, academics, and/or what might be considered an artistic elite. It would follow then that, since the audience is so limited, so also are the opportunities for writers of poetry seeking publishers.
To make matters worse, despite the fact that a writer may have as many as 30 or 4O poems published in literary journals, until you’ve published your first book, you are regarded as unpublished and are therefore ineligible for further awards, virtually stuck professionally. Without a book, you cannot teach. In some cases, you cannot even read your work since readings often take place in universities and book stores. Universities pay honoraria, but only to writers with published books; book stores tend to invite only published writers to read because they will sell books. Some poets turn to self-publishing for a solution, only to find it’s frowned on by the literary community. This, despite the fact that Virginia Wolfe and Walt Whitman, among many others like them, self-published. Sadly, the publishing community cannot help these new voices and rejects them when they try to help themselves.
The very noble task of keeping poetry alive then has been assumed by small independent presses. Bless them! Fortunately for all of us who write it, there are more and more cropping up every year. But alas, there are still too few to resolve the dilemma of the rudderless poet. The number of books that can be published by these underfunded small presses in a given year is a small fraction of the talent waiting in the wings for a vehicle to bring their work to their potential readers. Not surprisingly, the few available opportunities are offered to the more experienced, more widely published poets. The unfortunate result is that, other than a few occasional bows in the direction of a new talent, the majority of small presses do not print first books. Certainly not first books of poetry. They can’t afford to.
Except through contests.
Contests have become small press publishing’s very welcome resolution to the isolation of new poets. But the situation remains critical. Other than self-publishing, virtually the only way to get a book published as a new poet is to win a competition. But this means you have to be the one in a possible 2000 entrants to win one of a maximum of 15-20 first book competitions, so most new talent goes undiscovered. New poets are on their own, and the overwhelming proportion remain unpublished.
Regrettably but predictably, like their commercial older, bigger siblings, small presses too are constricted by the lack of funds, even more so since small presses that focus on poetry and literary prose do not have the popular best seller that their larger brethren count on to pay the bills. They must rely on other sources of income beyond sales. Most, therefore, are established as not–for-profit organizations that qualify for public support, such as grants and tax-deductible donations. But there too they encounter ceilings.
Small presses must live frugally. Most are founded, organized and managed by volunteers who work endless hours for little or no money. They love poetry and want to do their share to bring more of it—particularly contemporary poetry—into the world. Beyond grants and donations, most independent small presses help defray the enormous costs of giving birth to books by conducting the annual competitions mentioned above, which bring in substantial funds, making many more books possible and provide wonderful opportunities for the gifted, ‘unpublished’ writer who is the winner.
But contests have their downsides. Besides fueling the envy/competition (one winner versus hundreds, perhaps thousands of losers) that so many of us writers and artists battle with, contests require entry fees—many quite substantial. Since they are the only viable route to publication, more and more ‘unpublished’ writers spend countless dollars they often do not have entering multiple contests annually. For a fortunate few, there are letters announcing that they’ve been chosen as finalists; in the end, however, the likelihood of winning is miniscule.
The problem is even greater for an older writer. Readers for these contests are often young graduate students in creative writing programs. Their preferences in subject matter and writing style are often very different from that of their older sibs. As a result, publishing joins many other arts/professions which shy away from middle aged and senior writers—particularly those producing daring, unconventional work.
Along the way, this became my story too. I had started writing poetry when I was already 42 years old, but was now approaching 60 with no book. Sure, I’d received lots of encouraging letters from enthusiastic small press editors and contest judges telling me my book was in the running, a finalist even! Like so many others, I’d wait several months before the letter would finally come from the Academy or from Pitt… Each time, no shout of Congratulations! Instead, reaffirmations of how publishable my work is, how fine… but….
In the beginning you can’t believe it; you got here, all the way to this amazingly delicious place that says, yes! You belong here…in fact you’re right up there at the top with the best of them…. Unquestionably your book will be scooped up by another publisher, the editor reassures you; they see it time and time again; your book will find a home. And you tell everyone you know…
But then it happens again. And again… And all you want is to get your first book out there where people will read it—you imagine it beautifully placed in an artful collection. There’ll be a picture and ‘blurbs’ from people saying congratulations and calls for readings and getting to work on the second one. And you’re ready. The work is ready. But “We’re sorry…”
Too many of my friends, friends I got my MA with, friends I workshopped poems with, taught with, read with… all the same story, all this talent, all this art, all this disappointment/rejection. It was becoming increasingly clear that the likelihood of any of us winning became smaller with each year. Publishers seemed to pass over former finalists for the newest talent. Eventually we stopped entering… Some set manuscripts aside; others like me just continued to write more poems and finished second and sometimes third books and dreamed of finding them a home.