Thursday, June 14, 2007

Apparently, Poetry Is Dead

Just read an article in TIME that really pissed me off:,9171,1630571,00.html

I'll give you the gist. Stop me if you've heard this one before: Gee Whiz, Poetry sure has lost touch with modern audiences. Why, whatever did happen to the days when people read poetry? Poetry is just too gosh darned academic these days. If only those damn poets would write some accessible poems.

I know, you are all shocked by this deep assessment of the state of modern poetry. The best part is at the end, when Grossman writes:

"What poetry really needs is a writer who can do for it what Andy Warhol did for avant-garde visual art: make it sexy and cool and accessible without making it stupid or patronizing. When that writer arrives, cultural change will come swiftly, and relatively effortlessly."

What's funny is that in an entire article about how poetry should be more accessible, not once does it mention slam poetry or even spoken word poetry, the bastion of, as the oh-so-inspired headline puts it, "Poetry for the People." Nor did Mr. Grossman mention, for example, Bill Collins or even Bukowski, the unquestioned standard bearers in accessible poetry on the page, whose books sell thousands of copies. To read the article, you'd think everyone since Byron was an impenetrable academic post-modernist.

My guess is, the writer of the article doesn't actually, you know, read poetry. But as he writes, "Don't worry, hardly anybody does."

Look, you're Time Magazine. Can't you find someone who at least likes the medium they've been hired to cover? Is it that hard to find a columnist who likes poetry? Call me crazy, but in my experience a lot of poets are journalists.

Okay. I've vented. I feel better. But here's the trouble. If Grossman's theory is wrong, if the problem isn't the poetry, then what is the problem?

Well, first of all, I think it's funny that Grossman points out that Tennyson and Byron were "like rock stars." Because that's part of the problem here; in Byron's day, there was no rock and roll. Music and verse came together only for Opera. The 21st century guzzles way more verse than the 19th century - it just does it with musical accompaniment.

So yeah, pretty unfair to compare the modern stuff to the old ass stuff. But there has been a noticeable drop off in the profile of poetry over, say, the last forty years. People know who T.S. Elliot and Ezra Pound and such were at least; most people couldn't name five living poets to save their lives.

So poetry needs a pick me up, but what it doesn't need is to "become more accessible" or "become more relevant." The poetry is already fine. Which means the problem is one of marketing, distribution, and packaging.

So here's my off the top of my head scheme for how to make poetry a force in American pop culture again. Here goes:

1). Televise Poetry Slams
You mean to tell me that in a country that goes gaga over American Idol you couldn't get an audience for a slam? Come on, people! This is a world in which the national Spelling Bee cleans up in the ratings, where watching people play poker became a major national phenomenon.

All you have to do is send a TV crew to Nationals. That's it. Televise it on A&E at odd hours. Keep it on rotation. People will tune into just about any competitive event as long as you convince them it's an important competitive event. Show them the top poets in the world competing, and they'll watch.

2). Change The Books
Books of contemporary poetry come in two sizes: Small and Smaller. You have actual bound volumes for something like $12 usually, and chapbooks for something like $5. Both of these things seem like horrible rip offs to the people buying them. When you cough up $12 for a 60 page book or $5 for twenty xeroxed poems, it's tough to feel like you're getting a good deal. Poetry has to either fix the price point, or make the books bigger.

Personally, I think lower price point is the way to go. There is something nice about the thin poetry volume, and at $5, I wouldn't be able to buy them fast enough. Now I know, you can't afford that in the anemic poetry market. Well you know what? High prices aren't making it less anemic.

And while we're on the subject, stop expecting these books to sell themselves. I own a bunch of volumes of contemporary poetry. You know what they ALL look like? They all have an ambiguous, meaningless image on the front, over which hangs the title. The title, invariably, doesn't tell you anything at all about the contents of the book. The back covers? Usually blank.

Now, this all looks very cool in an austere poetic kind of way. One problem: your cover isn't marketing your book at all. Hell, if you don't know what you're looking at, you can't even tell it's a book of poems.

Think about the way fiction does this. The cover is usually a striking, specific image or design, calculated to make you go, "What the fuck is that?" If the author's name is a big draw, it's big. If the title is interesting, it's big. There's usually a quote on the cover too, so that after you've picked it up thanks to that darn interesting cover, someone is already telling you what a great idea that was. Then you flip to the back, and there's a description of what you can expect in the book, followed by even more people telling you how great it is. It's a perfectly designed marketing machine.

Now, poetry books are tougher because they are anthology-like in nature. Every page is about a different thing. But there's no reason your cover can't be striking. You can put a quote on there, and it won't destroy a thing, I promise. On the back cover, descriptions aren't going to do you any good, so do them one better - put a poem on there. Or snippets from several poems. Or just kick ass lines. The point is, you have to let someone know that this - yes this book of poetry you hold in your hands! - is one they will not regret buying.

3. When Someone Wins Something, Make Sure It's a Big Deal
If you want to make an Arts & Entertainment section or book review give enough of a crap about your book to review it, they have to be convinced that it's important. There needs to be some kind of hook, something to suggest that this book is more relevant than its peers.

So why not use victories in Nationals or IWPS as platforms to launch books? Take whatever the prize money is for Nationals or IWPS, and turn it into a book deal instead. Win at a big competition, get a nationally distributed book. Then, you go on the talk shows and promote it. And you send copies to every major A&E section you can find. You send press releases.

You mean to tell me the EW guy, wondering what the hell he's going to do for books this week, wouldn't latch onto the new book "From the National Poetry Champions"? Especially if it's gotten even a little media coverage? It's a slam dunk.

Of course, Nationals is a team event, which brings me to...

4). Make Your Poetry Team a Brand
Americans are conditioned to see brand, then individual. Look at how sports or music work. You start out with the brand, which has a memorable name and maybe a memorable logo, and then you have the members. Some people know every member of their favorite band in and out, some just know they like band X. In sports, you start out by rooting for your local team, even if you have no clue who's on it.

Poetry teams also give you a local rooting interest. And more importantly, they could give you that easy brand concept to bite into. My non-poetry-watchin' friends don't care that Simone Baubien, Brian Ellis, Shira Erlichman and J*me are performing. But I could probably get them interested in THE BOSTON NATIONAL SLAM TEAM. For one thing, you know exactly what it is. For another, you know you're watching the best.

And this isn't just about performance. Release books as a team, and not the usual chapbooks, but entire books, with each contributor putting in a book-sized chunk. It'd be an easy way to make bigger books, and you can charge $15 for a bigger book without it feeling like a rip off. (This makes economic sense too since, in small run publishing most of the cost is the binding - extra pages are relatively cheap) The Team Book would become something between an anthology and a single poet's book.

What makes the Team Book (or Team CD for that matter) such a great vehicle for expanding poetry's reach is that each one would make a new reader familiar with 5 poets. Unlike a big anthology where you'd see maybe one or two poems per writer and quickly forget them all, this would give you a chance to get more intimate with the poets. And even if you didn't remember all of their names, they are conveniently categorized in your head under their team brand. The branding would work even as teams changed because venues tend to produce similar brands of poetry year to year.

One of the big problems with contemporary poetry is that there's a lot of it, and very little to help a newcomer figure out where to dive in. The team book would break the scene down into digestible chunks, giving them five top poets at a time.

5). Cross Promote
Now, I know what you're thinking. That would be great, Kev, if all the good poets were slam poets. But what about the ones who aren't? Well, first off this is a rising tide situation. People need to see poetry, any kind of poetry.

But lets go back to the bit where we remember that marketing is not evil. For years fiction has been putting ads in the back of the book - "If you liked this, you might like these other fine Random House titles!" It rarely work, because we all know that two Random House books are nothing alike, but there's a good idea here.

Suppose I'm a new reader. I bought your book, I liked your book. And, unless a friend tells me another book to read, I think you're the only poet I like. You're different from all those other poets and their inaccessible poetry. Well, what if each book had a recommendations section from the author? I know, I know, a lot of politics would go into the selections, but so what? I think most writers would be cool with the chance to pimp their favorite books. And if they, um, shuffle feet, don't um, read as much, you know, poetry as they'd like actually, that's where the publisher comes in.

Look, America loves poetry. It just doesn't know it loves poetry. Maybe not all of these ideas are gold, and maybe they wouldn't bring poetry back by themselves. But this is how we have to be thinking. We have a marketing problem. The current methods of packaging and promoting this art form aren't working. The current image of the art form sucks. Poets need to get smart, make some moves and define their genre for the new generation. Or guys like Grossman will define it for them.


Artie_Moffa said...

"You have actual bound volumes for something like $12 usually, and chapbooks for something like $5. Both of these things seem like horrible rip offs to the people buying them. When you cough up $12 for a 60 page book or $5 for twenty xeroxed poems, it's tough to feel like you're getting a good deal. Poetry has to either fix the price point, or make the books bigger."

Oh, Spak. Adam Smith is rolling over in his grave. If people are buying the books of their own free will, then by definition they don't feel ripped off. It's the people who don't buy the books who have [slightly more] legitimate gripes.

I make a pretty decent living, plus I make my chapbooks by hand, folding them in my living room while watching T.V. So my materials costs are quite low. I give my chapbooks away, except for the most recent one, which was a fundraiser. I spent hours and hours working on those chapbooks, made 25, and so far I've sold 17 at $3/ each. And, yeah, I could spent that time at the office, made more money, and just handed the BPS team a check for $75 and saved myself a lot of hassle, but where's the fun in that?

But I'm not doing this for a living. Writing poetry is just a hobby for me. So I can sit here with my bookbinding skills and my layout skills and my proofreading skills and my cushy day job and lament that chapbooks cost $5, but the fact is that if I had to pay people to print/edit/bind my chapbooks and I were dependent on the sale of those books to feed me, well, I think $5 would be about the lowest I could go.

And they still might be too expensive. Enter Mr. Smith. He'd assure you that the market is not mean, patronizing, or culturally insensitive. Criticizing the market is like arguing with the bathroom scale. Adam Smith would say that if you're not making money on an enterprise, then the market is telling you you're doing something wrong. You either need to change your prices, change your business plan, or change your business entirely.

The anthology idea is something the BPS actually does, as I understand it. I'd also suggest podcasts, "Live at the Cantab" CDs and DVDs, play up the Cambridge Public Access conections, sucking up to reporters who come to the venue, maybe even assign them a "handler" for the night.

But, and it's just me here, sometimes I feel as if this little community is so delicate, so exquisitely perfect that I'm downright nervous about even suggesting changes. Which is stupid, I know, life laughs at attempts to pause it, but I have so much fun at the Cantab. Even when it sucks (and it can suck, and you know it) it's still awesome. It's already hard to find a seat on many nights; how much more popular do you want it to be? I worry that if we had podcasts and book deals and press coverage and sponsors and brands and...I'd worry that the very nature of the place would change in a way I might not like.

Kevin Spak said...

The one problem with your Adam Smith argument is this: "Adam Smith would say that if you're not making money on an enterprise, then the market is telling you you're doing something wrong. You either need to change your prices, change your business plan, or change your business entirely."

The thrust of my post is that this is exactly what the market is telling us. The public at large is not buying poetry books. Obviously you and I have no problem buying a poetry book because we know that a twenty poem chapbook can be plenty of poem. But in college, I couldn't justify spending $5 on a chapbook to myself, and I still hesitate to buy bound books for writers I'm not already familiar with.

My post was about ways of making more people read poetry. When you decrease price, you increase quantity demanded. That's just economics. And since word of mouth is still the best form of advertising, increasing quantity demanded should increase actual demand. And that, my friend, is economics.

But you might have a point about the whole enterprise of bringing poetry to the masses being a mistake. I admit, I can't imagine Cantab being much better, and if the Lizard Lounge needs anything it's less popularity.

Still, there's something nice about imagining a world where poetry was part of the national consciousness. Maybe it wouldn't be better. Probably, it wouldn't be better. But what the heck. It was fun to come up with wacky ideas for.

Incidentally, there are a bunch of poetry podcasts out there. I'd recommend checking out IndieFeed's channel. ( Their selection is hit and miss but they have download-worthy stuff in their archives. There's a recording from Patricia Smith's last Cantab visit, in which the host goes on about how great the Cantab is. Worth checking out.

The latest from Newser