Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Contributors' Notes

I've already said in a previous post that I like contributors' notes for several reasons. I like to know a bit more about the poets whose work has interested me. If a poet's work has really grabbed me, I might be inclined to buy that poet's book. It helps if that information is available in a note. So including notes can help readers decide which books to buy and help poets get some book sales. That's good for all of us.

But while I like to find notes, I don't like all the notes I find. Here's what I like and don't like. Remember, just one person's opinion.

1. I like to find a reasonable number of previous journal credits. I think 3-4 is ideal. More than that starts to look like bragging. Over 5 looks like desperation. Don't do it. I also think it's a bad idea to include forthcoming journal publications. After all, if someone looks at this journal in a year, those forthcoming poems will already have come forth. General rule of thumb: The longer the bio, the less impressive it is. Err on the side of brevity.

2. Now here's my main pet peeve in a note: Bean counting! For me, it's a major turn-off when the poet specifies the exact number of poems he or she has had published in the exact number of journals and anthologies. This is really unattractive, braggadocious, competitive, and amateurish. If you feel inclined to add this information, lie down and don't get up again until the urge passes. Likewise with specifying the number of Pushcart Prize nominations. It's nice to get some of these, but beyond a certain number, you start to look like a loser. Bridesmaid syndrome.

3. I am interested in the books you've published, but if you've published many books, just list the most recent. (For books, I'm happy to know about forthcomings. A foolish inconsistency?)

4. I always cringe a bit when I come to fat words like "widely" or "extensively." Err on the side of modesty.

5. I'm vaguely interested in where the poet lives, but I'm not especially interested in who he or she lives with. I do not care one whit about the animals that reside with the poet. Too cute. You've got a chocolate Lab? Nice, but that doesn't affect my response to your poetry.

6. I am interested in any significant prizes won. But don't go overboard here.

7. I'm interested in your occupation but probably not your hobbies unless they're really cool. (I'm betting a lot of people, though, would reverse this.)

8. If the journal allows it, I like to know your website address. I might want to pay you a visit.

9. I don't care where you went to school or what degrees you earned. And I really, really don't want to hear about who you studied with. You may have studied with the late William Matthews, but that does not convince me that you are his equal. Your poems will do that.

10. I also dislike reading that your manuscript, Such and Such, is in search of a publisher. Try Craig's List. Or do what every other poet does, i.e., send the manuscript out to publishers.

So those are my likes and dislikes. What are yours?

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  1. All I want to say is I am laughing so hard I can't stop...and it is the healthiest thing I've done in awhile. I absolutely love your post and recognize the wisdom in it....I am drawn to your advice to err on the side of brevity and modesty.
    Thank you for your work.

  2. You say you might be inclined to buy a poet's work if you read they have a book in their bio. It might make an interesting experiment to do a breakdown of how/why people buy books of poetry. I know my own buying habits tend to be first hearing the work read by the poet, then reading it myself in a bookstore or online, then word-of-mouth. I really can't remember the last time (if ever) I purchased a book of poetry based on reading one or two poems by the poet in a literary journal, taking note of their book mentioned in the bio, and remembering it at the bookstore. I have purchased one or two books of poetry based on reviews.

    Author bios and notes are tough to write. I think brevity is key. Give the reader a website to find out more about the work and leave it at that.

  3. I like bio notes, too, because I will look up a poet's book or chapbook. Like you, I don't care where a poet went to school -- but I am interested in where a poet works. It's a bit weird, but I have discovered local poets this way, and I live far away from most major cities, so it's always nice to see someone close (three hours or less is close for me!)

  4. Hi Diane,

    Good post. I too like bios.

    I agree with the too-big list of journals someone's been published in, but I tend to like all the weird details, like who is living with what pet and people's hobbies or jobs.

    I agree on an email or web address! Those always make me happy.

    I also LOVE IT when the poet says something about the poem in the journal. We do this a CCR with all our bios-- we ask the author to say a sentence about the work being published. It's one of my favorite things.

    Enjoyed your list!

  5. Kelli--I also like comments about the poem, how it came to be or some element of craft.

    Jennifer--I keep a list by my computer of books I plan to buy. Remembering titles of poetry books when I get to the bookstore wouldn't be of much use since most bookstores don't carry many contemporary poetry collections. It would definitely be interesting and useful to survey the poetry book buying practices of a group of people.

  6. Great post and a great set of comments. I am addicted to reading contributor notes. I, too, use them to gather titles for books to buy and keep the list on my desktop. If I click with a particular poet's work, I also use their bios to research any journals where they've published that I haven't heard of before.

  7. Chain bookstores do not carry a good selection of contemporary poetry, but indies often do. And, if you've got a list (organized!) you can ask them to order and they will. But that's a whole other blog post ... WHERE to buy poetry.

  8. Great list! I agree on every single point, especially about listing pets (way too cutesy) and spouses, and hobbies. Keep it simple, direct, and professional.

    Thanks for the great reminders.

  9. Ha! Think of how many errors of judgment could be avoided if we would only "lie down and don't get up until the urge passes." Great list, thanks, Diane!

  10. We should all have a special couch or bed just for that purpose.

  11. Instant turn-off: a list of all the weird or menial jobs an author has had. It drips condescension while trying to claim some kind of working-class cred.

    A link to an author's blog feels like a gift. I like that a lot.

    Guilty pleasure: which dog breeds they have. But that's just me.

  12. Huh. I need to really think about how I buy poetry more! Thanks for this post, because it has be thinking about it a lot. I just read a poem I liked, was unfamiliar with the poet, researched him, and then found some book titles to add to my wish list. I still don't know what he does for a living though. That's ok. I liked his poem a lot.


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