Part 2 in our ongoing series, The Birth of a Press, CKP publisher Joan Cusack Handler discusses the ins and outs of running a poetry press.
Along the way it became clear that to sell poetry, publishers needed to expand its audience. Since marketing and selling books will only be as successful as is the product/literature desirable, the way to sell poetry is to increase both its availability and relevance to general audiences. But poetry isn’t discovered in book stores. One doesn’t happen on a great book of contemporary poetry displayed on front tables; these are reserved for Stephen King, John Grisham and self-help. Poetry tends to be hidden on back shelves and must be searched out. But only by those who know it’s there–poetry enthusiasts. Not the general reader.
Poetry often overwhelms and intimidates the general reader; in fact, most believe they aren’t smart enough to understand it. It’s more intelligent and more important than they are. It stands apart from them—several steps above them. Alas, it makes them feel small.
I knew first hand how intimidating poetry can be based on the way it was taught to me in college (it was never part of my grade or high school curriculum)—day after day dissecting word after word after word of The Wasteland. Alas, that experience was a wasteland for me and turned me away from poetry for many years. Not surprisingly, readers like me, diminished by the arcane ways that poetry was presented would not turn to it for pleasure or solace as those who love it do. It follows that to sell books of poetry, publishing’s challenge would be to create a readership that cares about it and believes it cares about them. Fortunately for me, many years later, having experienced the endless bliss one finds in the simple but profound brilliance of Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, and Walt Whitman, I returned to poetry and fell very deeply in love.
In my subsequent fantasies of my dream press, I vowed that it would increase poetry’s relevance to a general readership by publishing fine art that centered on real people living real lives and written in fine but accessible language. Ours would be a poetry of heart and emotion rather than exclusively intellect and ideas. Our challenge (and that of the broader literary/publishing community), would also include bringing that poetry to its readers rather than waiting for the audience to come to it. That would require an outreach program that brought the poems and poets to people where they live— in their homes, community centers, offices, hospitals, prisons, schools, geriatric centers, shelters. I was dreaming. I was planning. I was ready. Where would the money come from?