Sunday, October 18, 2020

thoughts on manuscripts, the bottleneck, and self-publishing

This week, I did the final proofing and design finishing for FEED, which I will be releasing at the end of this year.  It's a decision I've been mulling over--was mulling over, even pre-pandemic, and covid sealed the deal.  Part of me says maybe it's just a feeling that the world is going to fuck and if I get sick and die (or mauled by rabid nazi hoards of incels)  at least the book will be out in the world. To seize whatever opportunities come along because you could be gone tomorrow.   It's not all so dire as those thoughts, but one thing living in this world in these times has told me is that a lot of the arbitrary shit that used to matter seems to matter less and less., And you can apply this across everything, not just the literary world. (Might I remind you of Sabrina Orah Mark's essay in The Paris Review.)

I came into the poetry world as we know it in a strange way--a novice, which is not unusual, but I always felt like I slipped in some back door and didn't really belong in some po-biz spaces. And maybe I do, or maybe I don't.  I came to the academic poetry world kind of late, already nearing thirty, with a lot of publications under my belt and a familiarity with the open mic scene in Chicago (or I should say A open mic scene, as there are many?)  When I listened to the folks there--classmates, teachers, visiting artists talking about the insularity of certain journals, presses, awards, and tenure tracks, how certain things mattered more than others,  I called bullshit more than once, but I also bought into to a degree. That couple years when I was trying to place my first book, more often than once, I though about self-publishing it. The contest circuit seemed insurmountable, and it still is, a formidable bottleneck that has broken some of the best poets I know.  I wanted a book in the world.  I wanted a shiny spine on the shelf in the Barnes & Noble.   I wanted readers. I wanted to belong, to have a feeling that yes, I was legitimate poet, whatever that meant.  This need for legitimacy pushed me through an MFA program I only sometimes liked.  It had me sending that book out and paying up to $30 a pop. 

And I was lucky enough that a small press that no longer exists , but that I owe a great debt to, loved my manuscript and decided to publish it in the very old fashioned way of me having queried and then sent the manuscript at precisely the right time. And having a book of course was amazing, what I dreamed of, and while it felt really good, it didn't change much for me as a writer because outside of having a pretty bound volume of my work. I was still hustling--to do readings, to get people interested, to sell copies.  A book is a lot of labor, no matter how it comes into the world  And of course, more books followed, some via pure serendipity, others via open reading periods.  One press folded, then another.  Others continued to flourish and I still occasionally publish with them today. I am absolutely luckier than I probably should be, to have found such presses & editors who believed in my work, when it's very hard to publish that first book, and sometimes, even harder to publish the second or the third.   

I think over the years, I've refocused my mind not on presses and journals as a goal, but more on communities they reinforce.  Which of course, is bolstered by presses and journals and awards circuits, but also just by sharing work, being with other writers (in real-life or virtually) .  So much of my experience is rooted not only in my early poetry-related experiences, but also zine culture and visual arts, which seem a little less beholden to structures that don't really serve them well.  As such the stigma of releasing your own work has lost its power over the years, as I've released as many projects into the wild as small limited editions or e-chaps as I have via journals and traditional presses. I once had a lively (I say discussion, some may say argument) during a panel over the merits of self-publishing. I've watched a lot of writers, really good writers, give up because the path to publishing books of poetry via the sanctioned paths, gets narrower and narrower, more closed off as presses struggle economically, operations fold, and there are just a lot of poets vying for room. Every other minute, the attention shifts, and the person who may be the talk of the town, in a year or two, is completely forgotten. 

It gets harder to breathe sometimes, mid-career, so I can only imagine what it's like to be entering it as a newbie.I think we are all conscious as well of the space we take up--when it comes to younger writers, marginalized writers, or at least maybe we should be. I sometimes scoff at Rupi Kaur, and wonder why people like her work (which is also true of some established academic poets), but I see how she is doing very well so outside those structures, which make the structures seem even more arbitrary and small thinking. Whatever you think of her work, her end result is good and her business acumen sharp as hell. Most of the world may not even know people are writing poetry still, and those that do gravitate toward catch phrases and things that would fit on a mug, but it's still poetry. 

So then, what to do with all these books, all these poems, the structure that cannot hold them all.  I believe very much in small presses, obviously, to seize the means of production and make the art world, the lit world more interesting, more diverse than it might be otherwise.  But of course, small presses, particularly those that publish full-lengths struggle both in time and divided energies (because no one is getting rich off any of this--most editors have at least one, sometimes more than, other job.) People move on, money gets tight, people stop getting along with each other.  Presses fold and re-emerge in other configurations. 

What to do when you are a writer whose main goal is not necessarily to win prizes or teaching fellowships and really just build a community of readers, however small, who want to read what you put out there in the world?  And its' not all this great spirit of independence pushing me toward the endeavor. Some of it is resignation as well, or just tiredness with the status quo. FEED is a manuscript which I finished last year, but have only submitted a couple times, both met with a very kind and supportive "no".  I don't think there is anything wrong with the book that makes it unpublishable,  In fact. I would say it's tighter going in than a couple other books I have found other homes for. It's also a very personal book that I really want out there. I am not quite on board with submitting to a bunch of contests, spending hundreds of dollars, just to make that happen.  I have three other mss. in various stages of completion, another one out to a favorite press that may or may not want it in the end.  So what to do with book projects that just keep piling up and a desire to get them out there?   

It's not a perfect solution, but it's a better one.  No matter how much work it is to shoulder a self-published volume, it's certainly less expensive than sinking money forever into contests and open reading periods. The work alone of publicity and design is formidable, though as an editor myself, I'm thinking I can make a sound little book, both in content and appearance.  Still it seems far more fun and dynamic that attempting jam oneself into the bottleneck and hoping for the best. Or giving reverence to unspoken rules and structures that really don't benefit any but a select few. 


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