Sunday, September 23, 2012
Poetry and Gerbils
Poet and publisher Paul Zimmer has a terrific article in the Sept / Oct issue of Poets & Writers. He covers his work as a publisher of poetry books going back to 1967. During those years he worked for three different presses: University of Pittsburgh Press, University of Georgia Press, and University of Iowa Press. He talks about the arduous process of reading manuscripts, selecting winners, and notifying poets with either good or bad news. He also mentions that during his years as a publisher he never once charged a fee. He talks about the methods he used to make such work possible, a job that must be getting increasingly difficult with the "current overpopulation of American poets"—a condition he compares to a "gerbil farm gone bananas."
What Zimmer regrets about this proliferation of poets and poetry books is the loss of selectivity. There is simply too much. Ironically, in spite of a plethora of poetry books to choose from, way too few readers and writers of poetry invest in poetry books. Here's an excerpt from the article:
This all hit a chord with me. I have several times been asked by aspiring poets if I do mentoring (yes, I do). I ask the inquiring poet this question: "I assume that you're familiar with my work?" That question is a polite euphemism for "Have you bought any of my books and carefully read it or them?"
Too often the response to my question is some variation of this: "I've seen your work on the internet." When I ask what the person hopes to get out of being mentored, often the response is something like this: "I want to publish a book of my poems."
How can anyone possibly aspire to publish a book of poetry without first and for a long time avidly and regularly reading books of poetry? A poetry book is more than a bunch of poems. It's a collection of poems artistically arranged into some sensible order. An aspiring poet can learn about poem arrangement in a book only by reading books by other poets and studying carefully how it's done.
And one more thing: How can a poet expect other lovers of poetry to buy his or her book (should there ever be one) if he or she doesn't buy them? Does that make sense? Not to me, it doesn't.
The best teacher of poetry is a good poem. The best way to learn how to put a collection together is to study other collections. Aspiring poets are advised to invest in their education. Buy books of poetry. Support other poets. Otherwise, you might as well be raising gerbils.