Monday, November 07, 2011

Published Poets

There are two younger gay poets I've met online—Christopher Hennessey and Stephen Mills—who are both celebrating, in their individual ways, having their first volumes of poetry published. Congratulations to both of them for seeing their books into print. I look forward to reading both books, sooner or later.

I feel connected to both of these younger gay poets in part because they are both of Midwestern origin, as am I, no matter where we all find ourselves now. That there is a Midwestern attitude towards life, and a viewpoint that colors how we confront life and the world, I have no doubt. I have been immersed in a writing project that is based on just that premise, that the Heartlands in the middle of the country do have something unique and different to offer, culturally, spiritually, creatively. Both of these younger gay poets make sense to me, when I read their poems, in way that is unfashionably non-ironic and sincere. There is a connection based on real experience, not just imagined experience. That there is a wide difference in style and means only makes the experience given from reading their poems more genuine, more authentic. "Only connect," E.M. Forster wrote, and these two poets do connect.

So I congratulate them both, and wish them all the best—and at the same moment feel a deluge of complex emotions. A blend of pride, pleasure, and some envy. I try to keep the envy to myself, because envy is at root self-centered, and present unvarnished congratulations.

Questions arise, not regarding the quality of these poems being published, but regarding the entire paradigm of publishing. Are we still tied to the idea of A Book being somehow more important to a poet than any other form of presentation? Does being published by an Established (or New) Publishing House somehow make you more legitimate as a poet than not being published? Is it poetic merit rather than the luck of the draw that gets one a book contract? Why do some publishing careers seem to begin younger than others? Do publishing careers that begin young sustain themselves for the long haul?

None of this really has much to do with Christopher or Stephen, beyond being elicited by observing their good fortune. Emotions are like the weather, and many questions don't have definitive answers.

There has been a stigma for many years about self-publishing, about "vanity" presses. The gatekeepers of publishing taste have long insisted that publishing one's own work diminishes its worth and impact. This stigma is losing a lot of traction these days, however, as are the gatekeepers of taste (publishers, editors, critics). Self-publishing has become very easy to do, using new media and print-on-demand, and the criticisms of self-published works on the grounds that they lack quality of writing and quality of design are falling away, because so many good books have now been self-published that the usual claims by the gatekeepers have been called into question.

Walt Whitman published his own poems, in their early editions. He even typeset and printed some editions himself, since he was a pressman with the necessary skills. Whitman even wrote his own reviews, anonymously. Had he not done so, would his poems ever become known? Would Whitman the Poet ever have been known by the world, have the influence he has had, changed the face of English-language and American poetry to the extent he has? His poems were considered unpublishable by the gatekeepers of his day, which is one reason Walt went ahead and printed them himself. And it's a good thing he did.

What I'm doing right here, writing a post on my blog, is considered to be "publishing" by some, and not by others. A large number of poetry journals, both online and offline, are now insistent that poems submitted have not been previously published—which for some poetry editors means, never, anywhere, in any media. So, a poem I posted on my blog is unacceptable to them, even if it's my best current writing. Other poetry journals and editors don't care so much about this veil of invisible originality. There seems to be some anxiety in publishing around things never having been seen before, by anyone—as if, by posting a poem on your own website, your have diminished it, or at least diminished its usefulness to the poetry journal in question. How much of this is lingering stigma over "vanity" publishing, and how much of it is wanting to scoop the competition? It may seem odd to think of poets as competitive, yet many are, and so are many journals. "You saw it here first, folks!" Acquiring first publishing rights is a big deal for some editors and publishers. Poets who habitually share their poems on their websites or blogs, as I often but not always do, can run afoul of these publishing expectations.

Well, that's okay. If there's a journal I really like, that I want to submit a poem to, that only accepts previously-unpublished poems, I can just write a new poem. Some poet friends have a hard time with that, because they wait to be inspired in order to write a poem. As do I, but where we differ is that I know inspiration is endless, to be found everywhere and anywhere—the triggering moment is readily available—and that creativity itself is an endless river of life that never ebbs. I've met more than one poet who writes, as I do, from intuition, from inspiration, and who believes, as I do, that craft exists to serve the moment of inspiration, not dictate to it, who yet also believe that inspiration is a rare thing. Perhaps for them, it is. For me, I can always write another poem. Inspiration is not rare, it's everywhere.

We live in times of turbulence and change, on all fronts. There's a lot of uncertainty. People are anxious, and the old definitions and maps don't seem to apply any more. The psychology of retrenchment, which is what a lot of publishers are doing, is based on fear. The other option, of course, is to embrace change. Maybe it's still scary, but at least it's alive.

Poetry publishing is in severe fluctuation, like all publishing. I applaud the genuine, actual, physical books of poetry being produced—because, it must be said, never has more poetry been produced and published than ever before. The new media technologies make it so much easier to self-publish than in Whitman's day. They also make it easier for traditional routes towards publishing to be pursued: agent, editor, publisher, printing press, book. The gatekeepers complain that a lot of bad poetry gets published now—as though they were a new trend, and had not always been true. Most things published are crap, and always have been. What the gatekeepers want is the return of their power to influence who gets published, and who gets read. I don't have a physical book of poems in the works right now, about to be published, but I still get read. It's not a large audience, but it's an actual one. I don't think that's cause for despair, rather, it reminds me of Whitman's times, and how his fame grew slowly because his poems were good (especially in those early editions).

My two young poet acquaintances have been doing the proper work of authors who are being published: the work of self-promotion, of poetry readings, or advertising, of getting the word out. Both of them have promoted their books on their blogs and websites. That's a good thing, because that's what you have to do these days. Stephen has written about how necessary it is to participate in the business of poetry. He rightly points out that the Romantic myth of the public clamoring at your door for your works of genius just isn't going to happen. You have to get out there are participate.

I'm thinking of new projects to take on. My biggest source of anxiety remains my medical situation, surgery, recovery, surgery, recovery. I am only too aware of how life-saving it has been for me to have been writing a new music commission, the occasional poem, making art, making photographs: being engaged, every day, creatively and artistically. Making art has kept me alive, and has given me a reason to go on living. So now that I'm finished with the music commission (except for finishing touches and other post-production details, of course), I don't want to stop. I need to keep going. To keep making art.

I take a moment's pause, and look over what I've written in the past year or so, as part of this medical adventure. I realize that I've written enough poems in two or three series to assemble at least two full books of poetry. Perhaps I will edit and produce such a book. I doubt anyone will want to publish it, though, as I'm more than convinced than ever that my own poems are too "different" to be widely publishable. That must have been how Whitman felt: that he faced rejection, unless he published himself. Well, I don't compare myself to Whitman, but I think I know how he felt. And so I might take that same route, and make the book myself.

Although I'm not going to rush into it. The poem series that I've been writing don't feel "complete" to me. There are more poems to be written in each of those series, I think, because I'm not done with the part of life which spawned them. Maybe in a year or two, the series will have stopped, and I'll have moved on to something else. You never stop making art, or writing, although what you're working on changes are you do, and as your inspirations change. So I might just wait till the poem series that have been evolving feel complete. Meanwhile, nothing stops me from producing another chapbook of poems anyway. There's certainly enough in the hopper, enough accumulated material, to make that worthwhile.

I've been thinking, too, about more multimedia approaches for my work. I don't really separate visual and written work. There's a book I could assemble from my photographs of the Western lands, with accompanying poems. I would probably do it B&W, although with some color. On my next roadtrip out West, I will at least partly be focusing on making infrared photographs, some no doubt of favorite places I have photographed before. It all changes when you look through a different lens. You see things from a completely fresh viewpoint when you change your artistic methods. The familiar becomes strange and beautiful again.

So I have some options. The main thing I want to do, regardless of what it is, is start a new, long-term, all-encompassing creative project. This too is part of the business of art: Staying busy, making art. Even if you have to end up self-publishing, because only a few people care, it's important to get your art out there, get it available, make it keep happening and growing. As long as you keep growing and developing as a person, so should your art. And that's the important thing I would say to any younger artists: Keep going. Make art. Don't stop. Never give in. No matter what happens, your art is necessary to the world.

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Blogger Elisabeth said...

Thanks for introducing two new poets, Art. As for the issues you raise about publication on line or in hard copy, I'm with you on the inconsistency of approach. I struggle with this at times, too. Should I put up a post or does it become published and therefore not able to be circulated elsewhere. For me I reckon my putting up writing is treating it as a work in progress to share with my fellow blog readers and therefore not to be taken as published in any traditional sense. But at the same time I think, hey who cares. Though it perhaps matters more for serious poets.

Thanks, Art.

6:59 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

I don't think it should matter. Either a blog is for sharing, or it's not—but I don't like the implications of these publishing criteria that force us into a mild form of self-censorship. That seems to me to be a slippery slope towards more robust self-censorship, which could be pernicious.

12:05 AM  
Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

Strange, the word that jumped out at me reading this was ‘gay’, as if a gay poet is a different commodity to any other poet. I have nothing against gays, you know that, because I’d have felt the same if you’d said ‘women poets’. The issue I have here, and that issue extends to ‘indie poets’, is that it promotes clique-ism: gay men read poetry by gay poets, women read poetry by women and indie authors read other indie authors. I know we want to support our peers but I’m not sure that it doesn’t cause its own problems by drawing attention to which minority they’re a part of. I rarely mention on my site that I’ve self-published all my books. I wouldn’t have mentioned it at all apart from the fact that one of my readers made an issue about it in the comments a few years back as if I was hiding something as if I was trying to pull a fast one; that genuinely upset me. I have a couple of ebook reviews coming up – one’s going up tonight in fact – I don’t mention anything about how they’ve been published but then a lot of the time I don’t mention the publisher when I’m reviewing a book by someone like Canongate or Alma Books. I suppose there will be those who could point the finger at me for not promoting indie authors more than I do. I’ll be honest, the reason I don’t read more indie authors is because they simply don’t write the kind of stuff I’m interested in reading.

The debate over the worthiness of indie books will rage a while yet. I don’t remember what it was like for the indie record labels but I doubt anyone bats an eye these days; I certainly don’t. I’ve just added two CDs to my Amazon wish list by a fellow called David Chesky that have been released on his own record label and before today I’d never heard of the man.

12:35 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

That's a question that continues to pop up from time to time: "Are you a gay poet, or a poet who happens to be gay?" Frankly, those who identify as the latter tend to be wanting to have universal appeal, but often end up just being assimilationist to whatever the current poetic fashion is. Poets who identify as the former often tend to speak more directly from their own experience, about their own lives, and about what it means to be gay and a poet. I tend to identify with the former, and I've written about the issue before, on my other blog.

I do agree that identity politics can get silly—we're all human after all. yes, it can indeed draw attention to whatever minority one is a part of. On the other hand, as long as there are people who will bully and vilify you for being different in some way, it can be personally rewarding, and empowering, to embrace one's differences, and celebrate them. It can make for good art, too, that speaks to people of the same minority in ways that the "mainstream" art does not and cannot, and does not know how to.

Indie music has always handled publishing issues better than indie publishing, in my opinion. It's not that the same questions and answers don't come up, it's that most indie musicians have long put out their own CDs anyway, so it's a done deal. The only people who get really upset about it are the Big Record Labels, those who run the RIAA, who are mostly worried about losing their cuts as the middlemen for distribution. On the other hand, they've resorted to authoritarian and monopolistic tactics for so long that most musicians actively dislike them. At least, most of the ones I know. If Sony Music offered me a record contract, yes, I'd probably sign it, after going over it carefully with my own lawyer. But that's unlikely. There are too many fish, and it's a very big pond.

9:13 PM  

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