Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Blurbs and poetry

          The poetry world is a small one. We sometimes focus on its niches, or at least its perceived niches—academic poets, experimental poets, performance poets—while at the same time recognizing the malleability of these subsets. Those who have been active in writing and publishing for a long time often have a large network of poet friends. It’s only practical—few others will put up with us! But poets tend to like the company of poets, and our friendships effloresce, often across our boundaries.
            It sometimes seems that only poets read poetry. When I was editor-in-chief of a literary journal, I quickly learned that marketing efforts—fundraisers, subscription drives—were best targeted on writers, because the general reading public was less interested in, and less willing to invest in, literary work.
            Most aspects of a close-knit poetry community make me happy. When we encounter each other in “normal,” non-poetry spaces, there are always those moments of sussing each other out—Who is your favorite poet? Who are you reading now? Where have you published?—to figure out if the other is the real thing, a person who lives and loves and writes contemporary poetry. When, in an unexpected place, I find someone who shares my commitment to poetry, I feel a surge of pure happiness.
            I used that word I used earlier, “close-knit,” because it offers a fairly accurate metaphor for our relationships. Like a thread that runs through a garment, touching hundreds of others, we all seem to know lots of poets, and if we don’t know someone, then we can count on the fact that a poet we touch does. There are not six degrees of separation in poetry; there is barely one degree separating poet from poet.
            So let’s talk about blurbs. My first book is coming out at the end of May, and my editor told me I needed some of these. My first thought was to contact my favorite teachers, who also happen to be favorite poets of mine with impeccable reputations, but as it happens, I cashed in those chits on my two chapbooks.
            I then thought about my best poet friends—mainly because I was late with the request. (I’m not sure why this surprised me so much! Almost all books have blurbs.) But when you know a writer well, you know how busy that person is. All of us who are engaged in this craft seem constantly to be writing, revising, submitting, blurbing, reviewing, responding to solicitations, teaching, editing, and so much more. It’s hard to prevail upon a friend, but I did ask one of my most treasured people—a poet I knew right after my undergrad years, and someone I spent nearly every spare moment with while I lived in the West, talking poetry with almost every breath.
            I had an advantage as a former poetry and chief editor, too; I knew a lot of people. I’d printed some of the biggest names in poetry and had friendly relationships with a lot of the writers I most admire. Contacting some of them was an option, but I’m not a big fan of rejection. The most famous names in poetry are also the most famous candidates to ask favors of. If they are to do any writing at all, they must quickly learn to say no, and “no” was the answer I anticipated from such loose relationships. Arriving at “yes” may have taken a lot of e-mails and a lot of uncomfortable moments.
            The idea of propriety also enters into deciding which writers to approach. Sure, I published some people—but do I want to come across (or be) a person who expects or demands quid pro quo? Is my back that itchy that I’d demand an exchange of scratches? The thought of that is what truly makes me break out in hives. Poetry publication and promotion should not be based on favors, but on mutual respect and love of the word.
            Ultimately, I asked a certain kind of poet—people I didn’t know well, but with whom I’d had positive interactions in social media, and whose work I absolutely loved. If I asked for a blurb, it meant that I read the person’s book and saw value in having this poet speak up for my work. All of my would-be blurbers (including the friend I mentioned earlier) are kind, friendly people who also happen to be breathtakingly good poets. They are all more advanced in their careers than I am, too—so as I prepare to put out two books, they have at least two books, or some serious editing chops, or some other solid claim on expertise that shows their opinion to be valuable. That’s just a practical move for a blurb, which exists to convince others to purchase and/or read a book.
            If I’m being honest, I think it’s a shame that blurbs are a convention in poetry publishing. We are not a culture that engages in vibrant, emotional debates about literature. There was a time in our history when this was the case, maybe when we were trying to claim ownership of some aspect of a national literature, and this is also the scene in other parts of the world (perhaps were poetry is more highly prized). In the present-day United States, we exist, to an extent, in camps, and we each think our camp is better and other camps are inferior. MFA programs create cookie-cutter poetry. Slam poetry suffers on the page. Experimental poets aren’t saying anything important, and conventional poets aren’t saying anything new. Beyond these broad assessments, we can expect few shouting matches among poets. We might be better off with a good donnybrook at the annual AWP Conference, or if the “M” in MFA stood for “melee.” For good or for ill, though, that’s not where we are. We write and let write. We judge quietly. We sniff.
            Often, though, what we do is cross boundaries and benefit from other types of poetry and from other art forms in general. We’re a fairly friendly bunch (again, possibly because what we do is almost universally unpopular). There are exceptions, but it seldom comes down to a rumble.
            So what do blurbs mean? Are all of us poets truly luminous and stunning? Readers of poetry should keep defibrillator paddles nearby for all the breathlessness reviewers report encountering. And so many collections are deemed “necessary” in blurbs that it’s a wonder we’re not all traveling everywhere with a pack on our back.
            I’d just as soon skip the blurbs. The few I solicited made me feel marvelous when they came in, and I’ll bet this is a common feeling for writers. I just don’t know how helpful most blurbs are to the people for whom they’re intended—potential book buyers and readers. Don’t we all learn more by opening to any page and reading a few words from an actual poem?
            And let’s not forget that we’re all basically friends here. If no one ever says anything is terrible, does another person’s compliment matter—especially in poetry, which is, in terms of readership, at least, the dimmest light in the American literary constellation?

            How luminous can we really be?

1 comment:

  1. I just went through the blurb thing myself (not for poetry, but my novel). All I say say is that keeping in touch with people is really important. Thanks for the thoughts, Karen!