Americans Love Poetry, But Not Poetry Books

Whether poetry is useless or dead is a question that arrives as regularly as cicadas. Newsweek proclaimed verse a corpse it in 2003; in 2013, The Washington Post's Alexandra Petri called again for a coffin and a shovel. Still, every spring, ivory towers open their gates and a few thousand new Masters of Poetry stroll out. According to Poets & Writers, there are 204 MFA programs and 21 Creative Writing PhD programs, each graduating a new crop of poets each year. When you add on the countless numbers who write poetry outside of academia, it seems pretty clear that poets aren't unicorns—rather, as in sci fi alien invasion movies, they are already among us: what’s interesting is that poetry’s popularity is so often called into question.  People often dismiss poetry by saying it only matters to other poets, but a few minutes spent sifting through the Favorite Poem Project's online archives proves otherwise; these short documentaries present a wide range of Americans—salesmen, construction workers, bakers, nuns, anthropologists, accountants, Marines, and Bill Clinton—reading aloud their favorite poems. To listen to photographer Seph Rodney talk about coming home from a disappointing date to find solace for his loneliness in reading the caustic urgency of Sylvia Plath's“Nick and the Candlestick” poem, despite his surprise that this woman from a “well-heeled New England family” could speak to “me, a man, a Jamaican immigrant—you could hardly get two people in the world more different” is to understand how false the misconception of poetry’s irrelevance is. Robert Pinsky, founder of the Favorite Poem Project, stresses that the organizers didn’t solicit participants; rather they sent out a call for people to apply to share the poems that moved them. “I’m very proud that the Favorite Poem Project didn’t tell anyone to read poetry; we asked people,” said Pinksy, “We had no advertising budget so every time I was interviewed as poet laureate, whenever I published anything anywhere, I asked [them] to advertise it. I used to give the cards to cab drivers and we got 18,000 letters from people who wanted to participate and read their favorite poem on camera.” Poetry Foundation president Robert Polito offers a similar anecdote to illustrate the value people outside the literary community ascribe to poetry, mentioning how a friend who teaches at a military academy frequently receives letters from former students, soldiers who tell her that “the experience of interpreting poems in her class proved the best preparation for the complex and ambiguous circumstances they encountered in Iraq and Afghanistan” Although Americans’ love for poetry has yet to reach the wild heights of Abu Dhabi’s hit reality show Million’s Poet where 70 million global viewers watched dueling versifiers vie for a $1.3 million cash prize, Americans are actively involved in reading it—particularly outside the traditional literary arenas of bookstores and libraries. Since 1992, New Yorkers have enjoyed “Poetry in Motion,” a joint program run by MTA and The Poetry Society of America that showcases poems next to the usual subway car ads for the preternaturally ageless Dr. Zizmor’s dermatological services and Seamless web food delivery; this past spring, the two-day Poetry in Motion festival in Grand Central Station offered an immensely popular Peanuts-inspired “The Poet is In” booth where poets wrote personalized poems for individual commuters. According to Alice Quinn, PSA’s director, “People were weeping; one person even asked ‘Will I be able to win my wife back with this poem?’” The Poetry Society of America’s partnership with New York City’s Botanical Gardens also draws hundreds of thousands of visitors each year to wander curated exhibitions pairing Emily Dickinson, Federico Garcia Lorca, and Edna St. Vincent Millay poems with botany. Poets House’s Zoo project, created after the Central Park Zoo asked the nonprofit for help designing on-site installations to evoke an emotional response from zoo-goers the zoo directors felt had been lacking, has proved similarly popular. A study conducted by the Central Park Zoo after the project began showed that significant percentages of zoo-goers felt the poetry enhanced their appreciation of conservation; less than 1% of those surveyed reported disliking the verse. Thanks to the ease of sharing poems through email and social media, it’s possible that poetry’s audience might be greater now than ever. According to The Academy of American Poets director Jen Benka, the Academy’s Poem-a-Day has over 300,000 readers, so large an audience that the Hearst Corporation recently partnered with the Academy to include the poems in their online and print newspapers and magazines. Benka points out, “The general perception of people who read poetry is not fully accurate. We know there is also a dedicated readership—people who love poetry who are not poets themselves who are completely dedicated to the art form and take it as seriously as poets do…The only reason Hearst listened to us [for the partnership] was because our Poem-a-Day audience was impressive to them.” Robert Polito seconds the importance of technology, pointing out that the Poetry Foundation’s website receives tens of millions of unique visitors each year. Perhaps the greatest argument for poetry’s Internet audience is Patricia Lockwood’s poem “Rape Joke” which went viral almost immediately after being published on The Awl in 2014—within hours of being posted, the poem had over 10,000 likes on Facebook and was soon fodder for articles on Salon and The Guardian. But book sales belie this wide readership. While there are the occasional poetry-only bookstores, like Brooklyn’s Berl’s Poetry Shop, in 2011, New York Magazine compared the numbers for two poetry big-hitters (Wendell Berry and former Poet Laureate Billy Collins) with a book ghostwritten for a 23-year-old who catches a leather ovoid. The result? Berry and Collins sold 2,928 and 18,406, respectively, while Tim Tebow’s autobiography sold over 282,000 copies within six months. The discrepancy between poetry readership and book sales doesn’t matter for nonprofits which rely on generous donors and endowments, but for the independent presses who publish the bulk of modern poetry, sales are a matter of survival. It’s not enough to break even with printing costs; presses also need to cover overhead, not to mention pay authors, book designers, and the IRS—with such tight margins, what often gives is editors’ paychecks; many independent presses are entirely volunteer-run, with staff putting in long hours on top of their day jobs, personal lives, and their own writing. Low book sales make sense when operating under the commonly accepted fallacy that the primary audience for poetry is other poets, but the challenges independent presses face to stay solvent seem particularly poignant when looking at how extensive poetry's audience really is. It should go without saying that no one goes into poetry for money: presses publish poetry because they love it. Although discussions of sales numbers and strategies to increase readership can sound crass, behind the business-speak are editors who want their authors to find a wider audience because they believe in their poems. And paired with this idealism are reasonable practical concerns: unless a press is affiliated with a university (and not always then: let’s not forget Eastern Washington University Press, closed by the university in 2010) or funded by a generous donor, book sales are part of a grim equation where low sales not only equals fewer readers to experience the poet’s work, but also the possibility the press won’t have the money to publish new books or stay afloat to keep their current catalog in print.  While presses naturally want to increase sales, there’s also an ambivalence about what that entails, particularly since they have scarce resources and have to make hard decisions about how to allocate their budget and time. Editors want new readers, but not all are actively engaged in cultivating new poetry converts as opposed to focusing on readers who already love poetry. Christopher Janke of Slope Editions says that, “[While] we take this issue of general readership very seriously, and we talk of it often...we do not aggressively pursue non-poets/those who aren’t already readers. It is enough work for our all-volunteer staff simply to edit and publish manuscripts that we find compelling.” Gabriel Fried of Persea Books concurs, saying for Persea it’s “[a]n issue of time and money--mostly time. But also money!” It makes sense that editors concentrate on what would naturally appear to be the widest pool for sales: the poetry community itself. That said, if editorial resources are small, those of the poets themselves might be even smaller--rare is the poet whose pocket is deep enough to fund as many book purchases as he or she wishes. And, for that matter, even when the intention to buy the book is there, that doesn’t guarantee followthrough. Joe Pan, of Brooklyn Arts Press, points out “The truth is I've seen many people excited for a friend's book to come out and when it does come out, they don't buy it. Or they put it off for a later time that never comes” This is where I step out from behind the scrim of journalistic objectivity to admit I co-run an independent press, Augury Books. At Augury, we’ve taken a twofold approach: attempting both to widen our authors’ readership within the poetry community and to find new poetry readers from outside the community. The largest step we’ve taken towards finding new poetry readers has simply been to try to broaden our readership in general by publishing other genres—short story collections and creative nonfiction—both as books in our catalog and also as individual pieces in the ad hoc occasional literary journal we run on our website. Our hope is that readers who like the prose we publish may discover, as they poke around our catalog, that they like the poetry too (and vice versa). We’ve also made a consistent attempt to have a mix of poets and prose-writers—both those in our catalog and others we don’t publish but whose work we love—read at our launch parties and AWP offsite readings—again hoping that listeners who are there for an author in one genre may find themselves drawn to work they hear in other genres.  This approach is shared by many presses, including Ugly Duckling Presse. Daniel Owen, one of the collective’s editors, notes “UDP publishes a number of titles that are not poetry.  The annual Emergency INDEX documents performance, we publish at least one playscript a year through out Emergency Playscript Series, and have been doing more prose lately…So, in a sense, we're attracting non-poetry readers by publishing things that aren't poetry.  And readers who are interested in these books might be interested in checking out some poetry books as well.” A more idealistic grounding for the strategy of attracting new readers simply by publishing comes from Nate Pritts, of H_NGM_N, who notes “Publishing poetry in any form – whether stapled sheets of paper or books with spines and national distribution, whether folded pamphlets left on coffee shop tables or online pixels – is a strategy for reaching a wider audience” but follows this with the caveat that “sticking with that endeavor, keeping the magazine or press or activity rolling over time, is another strategy.”  Almost every editor I spoke with listed practical ways to increase sales. These include keeping book costs low, working to widen national and international distribution (both through using distributors like Small Press Distribution and by relying on Internet sales on Amazon), attending book fairs and conferences, sending out review copies, exploring new technology like e-books or smartphone apps (although the development costs sometimes prove prohibitive), and developing relationships with bookstores—all of these strategies keep books within financial and geographic reach of potential buyers, as well as establish the press itself as a recognizably consistent presence in the literary community. Numerous editors also mentioned maintaining a social media presence through email blasts, Facebook posts, Twitter, and Tumblr (although most admitted they delegate these tasks to interns) and almost everyone uniformly pointed out the importance of the poets themselves being involved in the literary community through teaching and giving readings. At Augury, we’ve found using multiple forms of media such as guest blog posts and radio interviews have helped with sales—after a small local radio show in San Diego interviewed one of our authors, we sold 11 copies of her book within a day. Crowd-sourced fundraisers are also a useful sales platform, as they offer the chance for buyers to receive giveaways like posters and first editions; according to Joe Pan, Brooklyn Arts Press doubled their pre-sales with their recent Kickstarter campaign.  While these strategies are all useful, they can apply to any genre. Other strategies are more poetry-specific and these strategies often—much as with many of the poetry institutions—put poetry in unexpected places. Wave Books famously rented a bus in 2006 and toured the country, giving readings in places as varied as Seattle’s Space Needle and the Naval Academy in Annapolis, as well as in galleries, bars, and prisons. Bruce Covey, editor of Coconut Poetry, in his role as chair of the Poetry Council at Emory University, has put poems in elevators, stairwells, shuttle buses, and inside a traveling poetry gumball machine. Cooper Dillon distributes drink coasters emblazoned with poems at local bars. These strategies rely on the idea of “if you build it, they will come”—in this case, “if poetry is there, people will read it / listen to it.” Here, there’s just as likely a chance that those who already read poetry will enjoy the reading in the park or the poem on their coaster as much as that a previously non-poetry-reading drinker will see the lines underneath his or her beer and feel moved by them enough to later—soberly—track down more of the poet’s work; either way, the hope is that being exposed to the poem will lead to someone buying the book it appears in.  Some presses rely on technology to maintain ties with readers: Sarabande Books sends out a weekly poem selected by the editors to their email subscription list. Copper Canyon, Omnidawn, YesYes Books, and many others (Augury included) include the option of purchasing books from their back catalog when submitting a manuscript for consideration. Editors stress that purchasing a book won’t help the submitted manuscript’s chances, but the purchasing option serves as a reminder to prospective authors that it’s important to be familiar with (and support) the catalog of presses you want to have publish your work. Other editors, such as H_NGM_N’s Nate Pritts and Matthew Zapruder of Wave, mention booking readings at galleries or rock shows as a way of bringing their poets to an audience already interested in visual art or music. Rebecca Wolff, of Fence, has made an active attempt over the years to lure visual arts connoisseurs by advertising in magazines like Art Forum and BOMB, as well as soliciting cover art from visual artists whose work seems to visually match the press’s experimental aesthetics. Wolff also occasionally reads poems on her community’s local radio station for National Poetry Month. The appeal of auditory poetry is echoed by poet and critic Stephen Burt’s exhortation “Radio. Almost anything involving radio” when asked about the most effective strategies to attract new people to poetry, as well as the continued popularity of the NEA’s Poetry Out Loud poetry recitation competition which has drawn millions of high school student participants since the program began in 2006, and Black Cake Records, an sort of online poetry album shop.  Many presses use public service and education as a way to reach out to the wider community. Sarabande Books launched Sarabande Writing Labs this past spring, a program that brings literary arts to traditionally underserved populations; most recently, editor Kristen Miller taught a six-week program to recovering addicts at a local women’s shelter. Copper Canyon recently ran a fund-raising campaign to put copies of one of their new titles inside college classrooms and Wave Books sponsors the Bagley Wright Lecture Series, a program that allows poets to present their ideas about poetry in public lectures. Wave also sponsors a biennial festival in Seattle that focuses poetry around other things—translation one year; film another. This seems in keeping with the advice offered by the poetry review magazine Coldfront's Managing Editor Melinda Wilson, who stresses the importance of making launch parties memorable events. Ugly Duckling’s Daniel Owen echoes this, saying “[w]e like to throw parties. Parties…tend to attract people within shouting distance of poetry circles, who might not otherwise be interested.” These social events are an effective way to attract active members of the poetry community, lure in those who like parties and might discover they like poetry, and also appeal to poetry-lovers who are not necessarily interested in published poetry—the wide swath of people mentioned by poet Juan Felipe Herrara while discussing the vibrant poetry scene he encounters in multiethnic neighborhoods and communities of color where “poetry is presented in fairs and festivals, dance parades and, of course, spoken word and slam competitions. Open-air assemblies.”  “[P]oetry is beyond the page,” he claims, and so the question is “how do we work with it, join it, bring it to our ‘pages’?” This is the question faced by any independent publisher: how do you bring readers to your pages—readers who already appreciate poetry but haven’t yet been exposed to an individual press’s catalog, readers whose experience of poetry is auditory or otherwise outside the bookstore, and those readers for whom, as Matthew Zapruder puts it, “would find human things in there and be connected to it if they found the right poem for them at the right time.” Although the audience for poetry is vast, despite the very hard and creative work being done by publishers, this wider audience hasn’t yet crossed the bridge from reading poetry into buying poetry books. This may be somehow tied to poetry’s long history as part of a collective oral tradition or it may be another manifestation of our modern tendency to listen to tracks on SoundCloud rather than buy albums and watch shows on Project Free TV instead of paying for HBO and cable. People’s love for poetry rather than poetry books may also be because of the nature of poetry itself: since each poem is its own complete aesthetic experience, maybe readers feel less inclined to engage with poetry books, no matter how much they’ve enjoyed individual poems. There isn’t a clear answer for presses about how to unlock this wider audience or even if it can be done—just a multiplicity of different approaches. Image via richiec/Flickr