Let them address you.
The iron in irony rusts if I weep.
It's a matter of words and words matter. As NPM comes to an end, I wondered what poetry publishers and poets were thinking. Since I couldn't ask all of them, I opted for one of each.
"National Poetry Month is a great idea (thank you Academy of American Poets) and many good things are done to support it, but I can’t really say we’ve seen a significant growth in our sales of poetry books during April. We’ll sell more poetry books when more people are reading poetry books," observed Tom Lavoie, director of marketing and sales at the University of Arkansas Press, which was founded in 1980 and this year launched the Miller Williams Arkansas Poetry Prize, named for its first director.
Lavoie acknowledged that a relatively small group of poets--Billy Collins and Mary Oliver, for example--have a substantial readership, but "as we know, the 'general' audience for poetry is still small. Why don’t more people read poetry; why isn't the audience for poetry larger? Eternal questions and the same old answers. Poor teaching of poetry in schools really does impact future readership. Also, there are a number of poets whose work is just too difficult for 'general readers.' This is why poets like Collins and Oliver appeal to a wide audience; their work 'invites' any reader into the piece to share that poetic experience. And because of this, they also have the greater opportunities to continue to build upon this audience. Performance helps too. More poets who can 'touch' readers with a strong voice, enthusiasm for the poem, a presentation that engages, and poems that people can grasp, understand, and enjoy can help expand the audience. Where are today’s Vachel Lindsay, Carl Sandburg, and Edna St. Vincent Millay? And there is a cultural element. I’ve read about huge audiences for poets in foreign countries; go into almost any Irish pub and there will be a number of patrons who can recite a Yeats poem on the spot."
What can poets do to shift that momentum a bit more in their favor? "The most important things a poet can do to help get sales and publicity for their book are to do readings, contribute to blogs and websites and network," Lavoie suggested. "We can’t do everything, so we really appreciate a poet who is 'out there' connecting. We always see a clear distinction in sales between the poets who do this and those who tend to be reclusive and 'quiet.' The press has a very nice blog and we post all kinds of publicity material we get from our poets. Video trailers can also be a great way to publicize a collection and we’re seeing more authors doing this. Shelf Awareness put up Terese Svoboda’s trailer for her Weapons Grade collection, which we published last year. Publishing a book should be an active partnership between the press and the author, and we welcome their involvement."
Svoboda agreed, citing "a great editor, more input regarding the cover and big enthusiasm" as benefits of working with a small publisher. She also noted that to get the word out about their work, poets must do "everything possible. Big presses, small presses--it's all about publicity. A small press may have a devoted following which can be counted on to spread the word, something that is harder for a big press to cultivate. To some extent, the Internet has leveled the marketing for both sized presses, but there will always be hierarchies of blogs, twitters, reviews. A friend of mine offered to do a reading in the nude for his first book."
When asked about poetry readers, Svoboda replied, "Poetry audiences know to look for releases from small/university presses. It's a small group but passionate. I would say they're like the protectors of endangered species, but poetry will never be endangered. When I was a producer in a TV series about poetry and talking it up, I discovered that passion everywhere. The cabbie who picked me up kept a sheaf of poems in his glove box; the grandmother of the director owned a first edition of Whitman; my therapist revealed a whole bookshelf of poetry beside his textbooks. Poetry is natural to the condition of being human."
Among her audience she numbers "readers against war, pro-female readers, readers who don't mind exploring sex, death, and the stealthily placed pun."
I'm reading Weapons Grade now. I'll read it again this weekend. And I think I'll celebrate the end of National Poetry Month with a pledge to write about poetry later this year in a month that isn't April.--published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1175.