Monday, January 10, 2011

Part One: "Not here/Not here the darkness, in this twittering world.” – T.S. Eliot

Thanks to C.E. Chaffin for introducing this quote to me.

I saw a picture the other day. It was a picture of an eagle feasting on a mallard. It was gruesome. The mallard’s body was shredded into a mass of blood and feathers. In the eagle’s beak, held by a tenuous bright red thread of flesh, was the only intact part of the duck remaining— its iridescent green head. And its eye, focused on the camera, the eye—that eye was clear and bright. It was beautiful. It was horrible. It was life. It was death.

It was poetry.

Recently I’ve enjoyed a conversation concerning “value” in relation to words and more specifically, poetry. For the purpose of this essay, the picture I described may serve as a somewhat obvious visual metaphor for the mass marketing mentality in the publishing world. There are those who eat, there are those who get eaten. No? Simple fact of life. Knowing this, who is crazy enough to suppose they want to be a writer, especially a writer of poetry? If poets are anything in this scenario, poets are the ducks. So, the question is, are the only roles available to us in the landscape of modern publishing those of predator or prey? I’ll come back to this later.

First of all I don’t suppose to tackle the entire publishing market right now. No way. No how. I’d like to focus this first part on “value” as it relates to the process of writing and the publishing of writing, particularly, again…the value of writing and publishing poetry. Let me throw some facts at you:
According to

11,766 poetry/drama books were published in 2009. That’s up 105% since 2002.*[i]

What to do with all this poetry? More is less and less is still too much?

To quote a friend and fellow poet, Steve Bunch, “Poetry has become a commodity--not as lucrative as hog bellies, mind you, but a commodity nonetheless--and the more of it that gets produced, the cheaper it becomes.”

Others share Steve’s view, claiming that there is just too much poetry out there. In “The New Math of Poetry” published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, David Alpaugh tells us: 
"Len Fulton, editor of Dustbooks, which publishes the International Directory of Little Magazines and Small Presses, estimates the total number of literary journals publishing poetry 50 years ago as 300 to 400. Today the online writers' resource Duotrope's Digest lists more than 2,000 "current markets that accept poetry," with the number growing at a rate of more than one new journal per day in the past six months. Some of these journals publish 100 poems per issue, others just a dozen. If we proceed cautiously and assume an average of 50 poems per publication per year, more than 100,000 poems will be published in 2010."

Are we about to be crushed under the weight of all these words? Perhaps the answer is the culling process of contests. Surely a sifting of chaff from wheat occurs there, no? Alpaugh continues his monolithic math equation:
 "Fifty years ago, the Yale Younger Poets was the only poetry-book contest in America. If this year's 330-plus contests continue to grow at the rate of just a half-dozen new ones per year, more than 50,000 prize-winning volumes will have been published by the end of this century. Add the hundreds of non-prize-winning chapbooks and collections with similar growth rates, and poetry books will easily top 100,000 by 2100."
Wait a minute. 100,000 poetry books by 2100??!! That’s assuming the ancient astronaut aliens don’t return to take over the planet, or that the meteors supposed to collide with the earth in 2012, leaving remnants of humanity huddling over open fires in caves and using a chisel and stone to write with, instead will glide right by us.

See, Aplaugh is actually being hopeful here!

Eh-hem…moving on. Or moving back, to regard the picture of the eagle and mallard again. Here’s a quote from Raymond Hammond, editor of The New York Quarterly,
“Contests and reading fees within the writing community are nothing more than a form of cannibalism.”
Oh, this just gets worse and worse, not even predator/prey, eagle vs. mallard, but ducks eating ducks??? Say it ain’t so!

You remember those funny signs you would read when you went swimming in the summer.

It seems as if Poetry may have become the P in the publishing pool. Realistically speaking, who cares about poetry besides the poets who are writing it? And do the poets writing poetry only care about their own publishing prowess, what more to the mallard/eagle scenario is there? Duck/duck/goose?

Should the gatekeepers be more selective?  How important are words? Do the value of words and poems directly relate to how often those words are read or how well they are understood?

I’ll tackle these questions and more as I continue to, um, dive (oh the horror, the horror, she's punning now)  into the “value” of poetry.

Stay Tuned for Part 2 of “Not Here/Not here the darkness, in this twittering world”

[i] Now here we have “poetry” lumped in with “drama” and I’m honestly not too certain why they are lumped together, but we might assume “drama” to mean plays and the like. I do not have data concerning the percentage of increase in published plays, however, looking at the production aspect, there does not seem to be a boom in the world of theatre in terms of extra productions via broad-way or local venues that I have noticed, (admittedly I’m no expert on this.) Still, the growth in this statistic seems more likely to directly relate to the increase of small presses and published poetry books and chapbooks. As I don’t have direct data concerning this issue, I’m going to just go ahead and run with that assumption and if I’m wrong…well, then I’m wrong.