In response to the call for submissions on optimism (see Jacob MacArthur Mooney’s blog) for National Poetry Month, it seems a bit obvious to write about publishing, but I’m going to do it anyway. First, full disclosure: I’m finishing up an MFA, which includes writing the ubiquitous poetry “thesis”, which I, in moments of optimism, prefer to think of as a manuscript. It’s more direct; it can be embarrassing enough to be an MFA student (cliché for writers of my generation) and even worse when a well-meaning person asks me what I’m researching.
“Well,” I say, “it’s not research in a customary sense.” Square my shoulders. “It’s a book of poems.”
I skulk away before they can ask me any more questions.
The truth is, I don’t want to be asked where I’ve published and when my book will be coming out. Sometimes these questions are rhetorical challenges, sometimes encouragement. But in either scenario, they bust me up. Even though I’ve been writing my entire life (yes, granted, badly) and studying how to write for over six years, I’ve had one poem published in a literary magazine, and it took four years of rejections, at that. To be clear, I know my experience is pretty typical and I’m not complaining, per se. It’s just that it sounds a little crazy when I say it outloud.
I don’t stop sending out my work, though, due to firsthand editing experience. In 2009, I began editing PRISM international. I was happy and honoured to have the opportunity to put out a little poetic karma and publish some new writers. I viewed the cardboard filing box of poetry submissions as sacred stuff, not slush, and still do. So many submissions should be published but aren’t because there isn’t enough space – translation: funding. In essence, the rejection slips aren’t patronizing – they’re true. I know it’s hard to swallow. I track and rank rejections the way interior designers might quarrel over blue: “Well, it’s more of an azure.” “Definitely not – I’d say cerulean.” “But really, wouldn’t you say it’s leaning more towards purple?” In my case: “That smudge there – I think the editor’s pen touched the paper. Perhaps she was going to write me a note but was too tired.” “‘Thank you.’ Is that sarcastic or genuine?” “Send again? Okee dokee,” (this poor editor has no idea what he’s in for).
Shortly after I started working at PRISM, James Moore announced his plans to cut funding for magazines with circulations below 5000. Gordon Campbell followed up by cutting funding for the arts in BC by 90%. I’ve petitioned, written letters, sent emails. These cuts aren’t just killing literary magazines, I argue, they’re killing the careers of emerging writers. Obviously, I’m not alone – the implications of these cuts have been felt across the country. Thousands of people – established and emerging writers – and more importantly, readers, have appealed to these governments to reverse their decisions. But it hasn’t helped. As Billeh Nickerson put it at the Vancouver International Writers and Readers Festival, it will take decades to replace the lost funding infrastructure.
If there’s a positive side to the cutbacks, it’s the number of Canadians who have demonstrated how clearly they care about writing and publishing. So from a sheer economic perspective, there’s a market. And if literary magazines aren’t going to be able to showcase emerging writers’ work, perhaps it’s time to reconsider traditional publishing avenues. The passiveness of that sentence kills me. It’s time for poets to consider how to publish. That sounds a bit better, but still tentative. I’m just scared to say, “Poets need to publish themselves.” I’ve been taught that self-publication is the best way to ensure a literary press will never publish you. I’ve attended a couple of Writers’ Union conferences and know that in some circles, that’s old-school thinking, but I can’t bring myself to consider self-publishing as a viable option.
I’m also concerned that I’m, in effect, acquiescing to arts cuts and giving up on the “publish in lit mags, then publish your book” convention. And besides, I love my literary magazines – I love reading new work, skimming bios, and getting to know who’s out there, so to speak. Although (should I admit this?) I do shelve most of mine on the back of the toilet tank because I spend more and more of my reading time in front of the computer. To be clear, I still read bound, printed books, but I find myself reading blogs like I never have before. Lemon Hound, Vox Populism, Quill and Quire (to name a few) are all providing discussion points into poetic aesthetics, politics, and publishing. While I used to hate Facebook and Twitter, I’m discovering the potential of social networking for poetry – to keep it alive and out there – where it’s read, discussed, and felt, whichever the medium.
Poetry has been around a lot longer than literary magazines. There’s no question it will survive, but how? Will writers in my generation learn to produce handstitched chapbooks (a method poet Tim Lander advocates) or will we push out into another medium? I think we might do both – rely on the older traditions, but in new forms. In my program, some of us are talking about creating a publishing cooperative, a type of venue, which, I gather, went out in the sixties (twenty years before I was born).
If the literary magazines fold, a part of me wonders who will sanction new poetry. I hate that concept – “sanctioning” – but I can’t say that, for lack of a better phrase, quality control isn’t important to me; the new medium should uphold and respect the craft, skill, and hard work of writing poetry. But is that my MFA begging for attention? Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t do it any other way, but years of workshopping can have a negative effect on my sense of ownership of my work, and that’s something I need to come to terms with.
So I’m waiting to see what happens. In any case, regardless of how it’s written or published, poetry shouldn’t, as Tim Lander says, be reproduced without love.