Friday, December 08, 2017

I sometimes can't believe this is still a thing...

I've always had the incredibly naive idea that the world is always in some sort of progression, always assumed that time made things better, kinder, more compassionate and liberal.  That the America of my 80's childhood could only improve during the 90's and amazingly did..that Americans actually were smarter, more cultured, on the verge of this great rise of the internet, the rise of a new century.   So, of course, imagine my surprise when Bush Jr. was elected, when many of the people younger than me were actually more conservative. More..well, dumb--as evidenced by things like reality tv and the SAW movies. .  This conception of the world righted itself when Obama was president, but pretty much fell flat on it's face last year.   Maybe there is no progression, only swings to and fro.  Action and reaction. And people never really move forward, but hopefully the general trend is in that direction more than the other.

Likewise, in the poetry world, I assumed the new century made us more aware of different paths in this whole writing thing.  Different options and ways of "being a poet" in the world. When I first started publishing in online journals in the very early aughts, it was sort of poo-pood by the more established print-pubbing crowd.  These same poets are now hilariously publishing in those very same online journals, mostly because a whole lotta print pubs have either bitten the dust entirely ( a casualty of a world where no one outside the lit community really reads, well anything, let alone a 500 copy print run of a small indie journal. ) or, horror of horrors, become strictly online magazines themselves.  I have lost count of the authors who once said to me something to the tune of  "oh, I save my A-game poems for print pubs, not online publishers."  my response more recently is that my biggest literary hit EVER--more than any chapbook, any single poem (maybe even the one that hit the American Academy of Poets Poem of the Day feature and landed in a whole bunch of inboxes), or any other publication was my James Franco e-chap..I don't remember what the end tally of downloads was but it was quite impressive.  Granted the James Franco subject matter may have played into that more than the actual poetry, but still it was HUGE audience for a small and tiny press poet.  Far more than if I'd placed even in one of the higher circulating and esteemed print mags (those two don't always equate).

Probably long before even that I stopped submitting to print journals at all, probably for those very reasons..  I did send work when asked by editors and wound up in some gorgeous print journals that I was honored to be a part of and satisfied my love of solid paper and ink, but also it felt like very few people would ever see those poems. And since I very rarely had time to spend sending out work, those submissions kind of had to be places I felt could reach a larger audience. (or at least I could direct people toward in a linkable way. )  I'm not even sure it was a conscious decision, just something I sort of did.  Slowly the world came round, whether by choice or force, to respecting work published online.

I came up as a baby poet in a world very different world than the one I somehow wound up in--the open mic scene in Chicago in those same years.  We read in bars, cafes, random weird places.. We signed up to read and waited patiently through open mic sets, where the quality was sometimes uninspring, but sometimes really good. Sometimes, we even got to feature and read for longer.  In that scene, and in many other more performance oriented ones like slams, there were less rules--spoken and unspoken.  About where to publish, what to publish, their DIY ethos, where putting together a chapbook or cd of poems was totally what you did to sell or give away at readings, to trade with other poets.  It was about connecting with readers in a tangible take-homeable way.

In late 2003, I somehow wound up in an MFA program..and it was useful creatively no doubt, but I failed to warm to all those rules of academia regarding where to send work, self-publishing etc.  I had serious issues with many of the things that were passed off as career advice--the tiers of journals and presses and contests. And maybe it's just those things weren't geared for the type of poet I wanted to be. I wanted a fist book, badly, but I wasn't wiling to pay to play all that much in terms of contests. Luckily, I found a small press willing to give it a go.  But I realized even then, that though I love publishing work and writing books and reaching an audience, I'm not on the track that academic programs push you toward--the prizes, the residencies, the contests, the tenure (or lack of tenure) track that feeds itself like a snake.  It doesn't interest me mostly and doesn't align with my goals, which are sort of simple--write some books, make some books,  make some worlds, spread some poems around and invite people into them. And in fact, the very moment I turned my back on what I learned in my MFA years, I got my passion for it back.  It was then I determined I would pretty much do whatever the fuck I wanted in terms of putting myself and my work into the world   , whether that was self-issuing or publishing work ot publishing books or chaps with other presses I loved or respected and wanted to be a part of.

Shortly after I graduated from the program,  I put out what is one of the things I am still most proud of, and really one of the coolest things I've made -at the hotel andromeda, the Cornell poems (a collab with Lauren Levato Coyne.)  It was about a year after my first full-length came out. A year that brought a couple of chaps--one from New Michigan Press, another part of the Dusie Kollectiv. But the Cornell things felt awesome in a different , more profound way.  It took awhile to write it, longer to conceptualize what it turned out to be. So when the department sent out a questionairre for publicity purposes, for us to shout our successes that fall after graduation, I was psyched to share news of this amazing thing we'd made.  But of wait, nothing self-published.  Well,,,,damn..I guess not.  A couple years later, I got into a pretty animated  discussion with a faculty member from my former program on a panel at a conference about the uses of self-publishing and legitimacy.  A poet in the audience whose background was in slam poetry had raised her hand to ask for advice on issuing a book of her own to sell at readings and competitions.  I of course was ready to offer some practical tips on cultivating and building an audience and marketing to them successfully, and was shut down by not only the faculty member, but also the other panelist (another academic male.) who were majorly anti-self publishing.

I've always been against vanity publishers who take your money in exchange for something you could do yourself. (I'm actually against paying money to get people to read your work in contests and such as well.) But the chief danger of self-publishing is the peril of operating outside of established communities that presses sort of offer by, you are published by x press, who has fans and other authors and you are joining a community by placing work with them. On your own, you're just, well, on your own.  So the work falls to you, and if your willing to work it, it can be very satisfying. Of course, there will be those who object that the quality of your work needs a gatekeeper.  But seriously, the only thing being a gatekeeper has taught me is not to trust gatekeepers. There are other ways to vet your work--other writers, collectives, critique services other publications if you're uncertain and feel unsure of your readiness to put something out there. Truth is, a lot of shitty, boring work gets vetted and still winds up being published, like oh, say in the New Yorker. 

So it always gives me a bit of whiplash when a writer, even innocuously,  says the word "self-published" like it's dog poop on someone's shoe. And maybe it's just my DIY world that makes me oblivious to what writers apparently really still think, especially when you work mostly in the realms of book arts and zines and such, where it's just accepted as a valid way of putting work in the world.  And admittedly a world I feel far more at home in than the poetry system, where I've never really fit in----mostly uninterested in the games and heirarchies and unspoken rules.  Maybe it's the economy of scarcity--of publication spots, book contests, reading audiences-- it makes us kind of ridiculous.  Reading audiences ultimately have the final say, so I guess all you can do is get it done and get it out there, however that happens.

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