Poems Published Previously, or Not
I have compiled a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet of all (I think) the poems I've published in print and online journals since 2001. The number of poems published, including several individual haiku, is over 50. And that's from not even trying very hard to get published. I found the number a little surprising, as I don't send out many poems to many journals very often. I have done some submissions in cyclic spurts of activity, when it interested me and I could sustain the work involved. But then I go through long periods where keeping up with the follow-ups is more than I can cope with. Well, maybe that will change, now that I will have back the energy previously stolen from me by my now-removed chronic illness.
And I've just had a couple more short poems published. This time I was asked if the poems could be reprinted, from where they had previously appeared, on this blog. It's always nice to be asked.
The concept of publishing and reprinting interests me in the wake of being asked for a couple of poems. What interests me, just now, is the assumptions behind the definitions of "publishing" and "reprinting." Essentially, these two poems were ones I posted on this blog; they were found by an editor, who asked me if they could be published in an online poetry anthology: essentially, if they could be reprinted. (Of course I said yes: it's a lovely online journal, the editor is an utterly charming individual, and my little poems will be keeping company with poems by other writers who I greatly respect.)
I've written considerably more than 50 poems since 2001. I've written, not counting haiku, at least 50 poems annually each year since 2001. I don't count or track or catalog the poems I've written beyond gathering them into an annual Microsoft Word file. Some years yield more finished poems than others; some poems are parts of extended series that might take years to compile, while others are stand-alone solitons. I don't spend a lot of time cataloging my work, as that is an effort I'm not very interested in; besides, I've always been ridiculously prolific, as a writer, visual artist, and musician. I stopped counting finished pieces years ago. Even in my youth, I thought it pretentious and egotistical to apply Opus numbers to my musical compositions; so why would I want to do something similar for my poems?
I haven't been writing many poems this past year—but then, I've been focused on writing lyrics for the new music commission, so that takes up that slack. If you count original lyrics for the new music as individual poems, add another dozen or so to this year's totals. And while I am writing lyrics, which is an entirely different kettle of fish than writing "pure" poetry, I do attempt to make these lyrics as poetic as possible, as much like good poems as I am able. They will be sung by chorus, or soloists and chorus, but that doesn't mean I will slack off from my desire to write the best words I am able, to function as part of the synergistic whole that is the words-and-music of a good song.
I do submit poems from time to time. It tends to be a cyclic activity: something I give a lot of attention to, when some journal or request for submissions ignites my interest, followed by cycles of disinterest.
There are a few poetry contests and journals I am thinking of submitting my work to at this time. I've sent off a couple of query letters this week. (Another advantage of being stuck at home post-surgery: I have time to write inquiries.) Some of these submissions are pretty straightforward. But one or two potential submissions have stumbled over the shibboleth of asking for poems that have never been published before, anywhere, at any time.
I still find it odd that a contemporary poetry journal would insist on this exceptionalism—an exceptionalism that masquerades as a request for originality. There is so much rhetoric flying about, in the postmodern Poetry World, about how originality doesn't matter any more, how "new" works can be made by recombining existing or found texts, and so forth. In other words, we live in a culture that has come to accept artistic sampling. (The ethics of sampling, versus pure originality, are rarely addressed, however.) So when an editor asks for something new, the assumptions behind the definitions of "new" and "original" become problematic.
I find it odd that a poetry journal editor would consider a poem I wrote and posted on my blog, or website, as "previously published." Not that anyone actually reads anything I post online—but the idea that posting a poem on this blog makes it unpublishable elsewhere seems rather parochial, especially in this current climate of artistic recombinant sapling.
Is the world so small that we need fight so fiercely against the corruption of unoriginality?
I know it might somewhat unfair to frame the issue this way. I know that one legitimate reason to ask for previously unpublished work is that it's easier for editors to deal with previously-unseen poems than to have to go through the permissions and copyright issues that can crop up. It just takes less effort to promote new work, in some cases, than it does to secure reprint rights and privileges.
But the assumptions behind the definitions of "new" and "original" and "previously unpublished" are not perhaps so clear-cut that they can be simply ignored. When I write and post a poem on this blog, few people will ever see it. If an editor would publish it elsewhere, chances are there would almost no overlap in audience. Logically, there doesn't seem to be any conflict. So why the bother about what poems are or are not "previously published"? It sometimes seems a bit extreme, this requirement to always be original and unique.
On the other hand, poems, even poems written by me, are not in short supply. There are always more. I cna always write a new poem, if I am inspired, to submit to a journal, on a topic that ignites my muses. So I don't need to spend any angst on the "previously published" issue. I can just write something new.
The question is, however: Should I be required to?
Robert Archambeau has an insight or two regarding poetry's popularity that I feel is correlated to this idea that poetry needs to be not-already-published in order to be published. (Stating it that way seems like a tautology; but that only points out how absurd this situation can become.) Mr. Archambeau concludes an interesting discussion of the generation of Russian poets that included Andrei Voznesensky, poets who were able to fill sports stadiums for their poetry readings, with the following comments:
. . . I think about this when I hear people say, of one or another contemporary American poet, "he deserves more readers," or "she deserves an audience." I think about it, too, when I hear suggestions about how to get more people interested in poetry (by adding music to readings, by putting little placards with stanzas on them in the subway, etc.) These are supply-side solutions to a demand-side problem. They try to make something available, in hopes that this availability will create demand.
The problem is, the demand for poetry, previously unpublished or otherwise, from the general reading public, is at a record low. Many poets seem to get quite upset about this contemporary state of affairs. The lack of a broad poetry-reading public is taken as cause for despair, and often as a "problem" to be "fixed." Which is where Mr. Archambeau's analogy from (Reagan-era voodoo) economics comes into play.
I like the analogy regarding supply-side economics. It gets at the very root, perhaps, of why attempts to enlarge poetry's readership seem doomed to fail. (I also find it interesting that supply-side economics doesn't work any better in the financial market than it does in poetry, yet the supply-side approach is steadily maintained by ideologues with agendas.) Perhaps the "previously unpublished" attitude of editors who reject poems published so obscurely that there would be no overlap in readerships is a supply-side attitude. The problem is that increasing poetry's readership is a demand-side problem, as Mr. Archambeau says, and there is no possible supply-side solution. When an editor rejects a poem published on one's own website as "previously published," they are buying into the supply-side ideology. Well, they may not know that, or frame the issue that way; some might be offended to have their requirements expressed in these terms. (One notices that it is very often possible to offend an editor's pride by questioning their publishing criteria. Perhaps this is yet one more example of how economic insecurity dominates arts publishing, how lack of an audience breeds poor self-esteem, which in turn breeds brittle egos.)
The issue is, as always: Does poetry matter? Or, if it does not matter, why not?
I am not convinced that it matters whether or not poetry matters. I am convinced, on the other hand, that making poems is wroth doing, whether or not the demand is there. I don't make poems to become popular, famous, or wealthy. I make poems because sometimes a poem is the best way to convey an experience, idea, or multiplex situation to another person. (Sometimes music or visual art are better ways to convey the same.) I make poems because that's often the best way, on a given day, for me to make art. Art is meant to connect with its audience: at its best, art connects with us on many levels, changes the way we see the world, and gives us an opportunity to open and expand our consciousness beyond its usual worn-in grooves.
Art is inherently not a supply-side commodity. Mostly, no one cares whether or not I make art. I care more than anyone else that I make art. (And I do make for more than one reason. Some days, recovering from chronic illness, surgery, or the dark night of the soul, it's the best way to cope with and overcome my immediate circumstances. Making art has more than once literally kept me alive and sane.) Supply-side thinking imagines that it is a problem to be solved that no one cares more than I do about me making art. Supply-side solutions are built on the assumption that an audience should care about the art I make. Further, that there ought to be an audience in the first place.
But there's no inherent requirement that my art have any audience. There's no natural law saying that people are supposed to care at all. That they should care about art, even a little bit. Arguments that use the word "should" invariably reduce to the opinion that you are supposed to care about my art as much as I do.
Well, I don't feel that way. I don't demand that an audience should care at all about my poems. It is very nice to be asked for a poem by an editor; and I usually say yes to such requests. It is very nice to hear that some artistic product that I made has been loved by someone—it's even more thrilling when I get feedback from someone that something artistic I produced made a difference in someone's life. I always appreciate hearing those stories—because I know I have a blind spot about how anything I do matters to anyone else in the world. My blind spot is that I usually I assume that nothing I do matters to anyone but me. That's neither angst nor loneliness, merely a recognition that I am only one small fish in a very large pond.
So, anyway, the next time I encounter a journal that requires "previously unpublished" work, I will make the choice, in that moment, of whether or not I want to spend the energy on submitting my work, or whether I will simply move on to other pastures. I do not despise any editor who requires that what I submit has never seen the light of day before—yet I still can't help but find that attitude a bit parochial, in this day and age. Publishing, self-publishing, print or online, has never been easier. It just seems like a waste of energy to require such purity tests regarding publishing, when so many no longer bother. It's a very big ocean, and it's full of fish. Requiring each little fish to come up with something never said before, ever, at any time, anywhere, just seems a bit severe.
So it's not that I would automatically refuse to submit to a journal that required work that is "previously unpublished." In truth, it's that my choice would be how much effort I wanted to expend to satisfy those requirements. I might choose to spend the effort needed to satisfy the requirement. Or I might not.
It's just too bad when an editorial requirement consistently closes doors that might deliciously be opened.