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National Poetry Month: Show Me the Money

Clearly money has something to do with life.--Philip Larkin, "Money"

Money is a most useful metaphor, enhancing poems as well as paying the rent. For some reason, money seems to have evolved into my theme for National Poetry Month 2010. I'm not sure how this happened. Perhaps I was influenced by Katy Lederer's The Heaven-Sent Leaf, one of several collections I bought recently to celebrate Poetry Month. Reading selected pages while in the bookstore had sold me on the book, but only later did I learn from her bio that she had "worked for many years for a hedge fund." You don't need that bio, however, to see the weaving of money and verse in poems like "A Nietzschean Revival":

In the morning, when I manufacture lyrics on these listless keys,
When the money and its happy apparatus do call and lure,
Do call and lure...
These poets speak of capital as if they had the least idea.
I ask you: what do poets know of capital?
Across this harp, their fingers play a Nietzschean revival.
I envy them their will to power.

I mentioned recently that I'm not a poet, but I am a reader of poetry (and buyer of poetry collections, which is a truly endangered lit-species). I'm a writer, so I think about words all the time, but I'm also deeply intrigued by and engaged in the book trade, so I think about money, too.

It's complicated.

I know many poets. I consider that a privilege. When our conversations turn to the publishing industry, however, a certain fatalistic refrain inevitably creeps in: "No money in poetry; never was, never will be," they will say, or, "I write poetry, therefore I teach."

I know, I know. It's not just about the money, whether you're a poet, a bookseller, a small press editor or any other toiler in the word fields. It is, however, a little bit about the money. For example, have you ever met anyone in the book world who didn't say, at some point, "I could have made more money doing (fill in the occupation), but I had to do this"?

Poets know more than most of us about that vocational monkey wrench tossed into the earning-a-living machine. David Budbill considered the challenge in "After Reading Meng Chiao's 'Seeing Off Master T'an' ":

There's never any money! All we do is worry and fight.
I wish I could be like Master T'an and go from place to place
begging for someone to pay my

health-insurance premiums, property taxes, and car-repair bills,
but I can't. I have to keep pretending there is nothing wrong.
I know that since ancient times

poets have never gotten fat.

There are small, practical solutions. I heard about one at the AWP Conference and Bookfair in Denver, Colo., recently, where Todd Boss spoke of poetry and money in the same breath and the walls did not crumble around us, nor did the gods rise up in fury and smite him.

I found it refreshing. He said that his website features a call for commissions: "By working for hire, and by putting a price tag on your work, you create a new market for your poems--a market based on emotional necessity, urgency, and deep personal commitment. This is a vital, and artistically rewarding way to give the world the poetry it craves."

Boss also wrote about commission work in a Squad365 blog post this week, observing: "Each commission expands, in profoundly personal ways, my influence as an artist, and results in compelling word-of-mouth among people whom I wouldn’t otherwise reach. And the artistic risk and rivet of it--creating a work of art that speaks to another person’s deepest desires for art’s healing questions--makes for the greatest benefit of all."

Poetry and money.

In Henry's Fate, John Berryman considered the money dilemma:

Glistening, Henry freed himself from money
By making enough.
Not much, enough.
His bills in Hell will be easy to pay,
No laundry there,
No long-distance telephone.

And Charles Bukowski grumbled about it in "so you want to be a writer?":        

if you're doing it for money or
don't do it.

Except for the Bukowski, these selections are all from books that live in my house even when it isn't National Poetry Month. Maybe they know something about poets and money that I don't. Maybe not. I'll just have to keep reading, and buying, poetry books to find out. At least some poets will make a little money.

--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1170.


AWP 2010 & the Book as Sacred Object

Last Friday night in Denver, sometime between 9 and 10 p.m. Mountain time, I watched literary legend--or at least one of my literary legends--Gary Snyder walk slowly to a podium and gaze out at an audience of at least 600 people in the cavernous Four Seasons Ballroom of the Colorado Convention Center.

"This is one big hall," Snyder remarked. "I came by earlier to see the room and couldn't see the end of it."

He might have been scanning California's Great Central Valley, thinking once again, as he wrote in Mountains and Rivers Without End, "us and our stuff just covering the ground."

But he wasn't. Instead, he saw row upon row of writers, writing instructors, writing students and writing program administrators on his first visit to the conference and said, "I can't believe how big this is. Go for it, kids. America needs more good writers."

Snyder's reading was one of the highlights of a three-day literary extravaganza known as the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference and Bookfair. About 8,000 people were in Denver for meetings, panels, readings and socializing (okay, maybe a little networking, too). Writers, writers, everywhere.

Unlike my trips to BEA or regional bookseller shows, I always feel a bit like a fringe player at AWP even though I have my credentials handy--an MFA in writing from Bennington College--just in case someone asks to see my papers.

A lot of my work in Denver was decidedly offsite, including a nice reception Thursday night with the good folks from Unbridled Books and author Masha Hamilton, as well as a great conversation with MPIBA director Lisa Knudsen Saturday.

On Friday, while wandering through the book fair, I stopped by the Tattered Cover's display table, where Marti Stewart told me sales had been brisk. Even as I stood there, people were buying books, especially poetry collections. As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, poetry matters at AWP.

At a panel titled "Shameless Book Promotion: Squad 365 Rides Again," which was presented to an overflow crowd at the Hyatt Regency, poet Todd Boss talked about creatively promoting his work, including his self-appointment as poet laureate of Nina's Café in St. Paul, Minn., and his acceptance of commissioned work.

"I want my poetry to reach a popular audience," he observed. "I find it troublesome that I should be forced to admit such a thing as if it were shameful." Boss also rejects the notion that poetry is an elite art form reserved for a certain class of reader: "In other countries around the world, contemporary poets are populist heroes, household names. This is not because those country’s populations are more educated nor because their poetry is less sophisticated. Rather, it is because in those cultures poetry is perceived as belonging to all audiences. It is viewed as a public resource."

Which brings me back to Gary Snyder. In 1970, I bought Riprap, & Cold Mountain Poems for $1.50, and have had that book within reach for nearly four decades. Snyder was 40 years old when I got my copy. Now he's 80.

This book has become an object that transcends its modest packaging. Maybe not a sacred object; I'm not that sentimental. But if I open to page one, I see lines I bracketed when I was 20 years old:

I cannot remember things I once read
A few friends, but they are in cities.
Drinking cold snow-water from a tin cup
Looking down for miles
Through high still air.

In a couple of weeks I'll be 60, and if I picked up this book for the first time now, I'd probably still highlight those lines. And these, on page six:

All the junk that goes with being human
Drops away, hard rock wavers
Even the heavy present sems to fail
This bubble of a heart.
Words and books
Like a small creek off a high ledge
Gone in dry air.

What does it mean? You already know what it means.

"Fortunately, my poetry is not that complicated," Snyder said in Denver as he made a case for demystifying his art. "You don't need to be an architect to walk into a building."

I'm glad I crossed the continent last week to hear him read. I resist the deification of paper for its own sake, have e-books on my iPod and read newspapers on my laptop, but maybe my copy of Riprap is a sacred object after all.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1164.


Avid Bookshop: The Art of Building an Indie 

Janet Geddis plans to open Avid Bookshop later this year in Athens, Ga.

That, my friends, is a simple declarative sentence that encompasses almost unimaginable layers of vision and revision, planning and adaptation. I first wrote about Janet last fall after meeting her at the SIBA trade show (Shelf Awareness, October 2, 2009) and thought it would be fun to see how the quest is evolving.

"Since I first met you at SIBA, things have definitely been on the upswing," Janet said in a recent interview. "It's funny to think I considered myself as someone super-involved with the community then--now I am so much more active."

She has ramped up her involvement with community-based events and a Buy Local Athens initiative, for which she serves as secretary. Janet also created an Avid Bookshop Facebook fan page that has already attracted nearly 600 fans, and "in mid-March, I hosted my first-ever Avid-related book club: launched by way of the We Are Athens Facebook page."

There is a threefold purpose to hosting book groups pre-opening, she explained: "I am too impatient to wait, I want to meet more folks interested in community and reading, and I want to get all of these 'firsts' out of the way so that I'll be a slightly seasoned veteran by the time the storefront opens. Once we have a fully functioning bookstore, I'll have plenty to be nervous about." This pre-opening strategy also includes bookselling online through Biblio.com.

Janet credits assistance from numerous colleagues in the book trade for her progress thus far and noted in particular her gratitude for being awarded an Emerging Leaders scholarship to this year's ABA Winter Institute. "I connected with many booksellers and industry professionals, including Mitchell Kaplan of Books & Books and Richard Howorth of Square Books, both of whom were kind enough to sit down and chat with me for a couple of minutes we managed to steal between sessions. For the last couple of years, I've heard seasoned booksellers say that Winter Institute is especially helpful for making personal connections. This was certainly true for me. I got to spend more time with some folks I'd met at previous book events."

Among these colleagues are Anne and Laura DeVault, who will soon open Over the Moon Bookstore and Artisan Gallery, Crozet, Va. "I'd made an immediate connection with the sisters when we met in September," Janet recalled, "but it was at Wi5 that we hatched some grand plans for working together. Just last week I cashed in some SkyMiles so that I can fly to Virginia to help them open their store in May."

Janet said the biggest lesson she has learned thus far "is to follow my gut. There are some people I've met who immediately strike me as genuine, thoughtful, and helpful--I've trusted my instincts and have ended up getting to know some of the most well-connected, kind people in Georgia and the book world. On the other hand, I've met a limited number of people with whom I just don't connect; I've been approached with business ideas that don't quite mesh with my vision, no matter how tempting the proposal. I've learned to really listen to myself and, following this rule, I haven't had any major regrets."

It will come as no surprise that money has proven to be the biggest challenge, but Janet said she has found numerous "creative, strange ways to make some money and spread the word about Avid Bookshop." In February, she held her "first-ever photography show with the mission to raise funds for the store's website--we reached our goal during the opening-night reception." She has also launched a fundraising campaign and established an IndieGoGo.com fundraising page.

"Local businesses, artists and writers have contributed things to act as part of the 'VIP perks' packages I'm offering for various donation levels," Janet added. "And indie publishing company Two Dollar Radio is donating a dedicated percentage of their website book sales directly to Avid this month."

She is also contending for a $50,000 grant from the Pepsi Refresh Project. "I've reached out to several bookstores, friends, and community organizations to ask them to vote each and every day. We're steadily climbing in the rankings, too."

Avid Bookshop is "still on target for opening in late 2010, and I'm really pleased with the way I've taken my time to get to know the business since hatching this idea a couple of years ago," Janet said. "For a while there, I was growing quite impatient, but now I have a more Zen-like approach. I'll keep plowing ahead, working hours each day on my plans. This way I'll stay on target and am confident that good things will continue to happen."--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1158.


Opening Days

April 1: National Poetry Month

To celebrate, I decided to buy some poetry at my local indie bookstore this week. For the record, I'm not one of those readers who only notices poetry 30 days a year. In fact, I've probably said some bad and cynical things in the past about NPM and April-only poetry readers. I'm not a poet, so I can get away with it.

I've also said some cynical things about poets who ask friends and colleagues for complimentary copies instead of buying poetry books. I may have even suggested once or twice that poetry sales in this country would skyrocket if there were a decline in this retail six-degrees-of-poetic-separation, ever-downward non-sales trend. Maybe I'm sorry about saying that. Maybe not.
In my office, I have shelves and shelves of poetry books. Quite often I open and read them, even in months that do not begin with A. But this week I thought it would be good karma to perform a ritual poetry buy. In the bookshop, I spent more than an hour scanning narrow spines, occasionally pulling a title and reading a few poems.

I don't know how your National Poetry Month is going thus far, but mine started with the acquisition of three books I just met and am getting to know better. That will take time, but I'm looking forward to it.

One collection I chose was The Heaven-Sent Leaf by Katy Lederer (BOA Editions, $16, 9781934414156/1934414158), and I can tell you the primary reason why it now belongs to me. I picked it after reading four lines in a poem titled "Brainworker" on page 37:

An echo, she sits upright, straight.
As if to play the lettered keys.
But these are typist's hands, her hands.
To play her heart, to play her brain, to play her silvery eyes.

I also bought The Ecco Anthology of International Poetry (Ecco, $19.99, 9780061583247/0061583243) because I read about it on the Words Without Borders website and have known for a while that it would be mine someday. Now it is. I can open this volume at random and explore. It is not a book I would ever read cover to cover. It's not made for that. I retain the option of surprise. This happened when the book fell open to Wislawa Szymborska's "The Joy of Writing," which ends:

The joy of writing.
A chance to make things stay.
A revenge of a mortal hand.

April 4: Baseball

This Sunday night the Major League baseball season opens with a Yankees-Red Sox game. Charles North's Complete Lineups (Hanging Loose Press, $18, 9781934909034/1934909033) was the third poetry collection I found and I couldn't resist its charms. This is a collection lineup cards--the names of starters for imaginary teams, listed by position and in their batting order. Many date back to 1972. Some are newer.

The lineups North assembles, taking into account variables like speed for a lead-off hitter and power in the number four spot, make this baseball/poetry hybrid entertaining and surprisingly provocative. For example, here's the starting lineup poem for movies:

1. A Day at the Races rf
2. The Maltese Falcon lf
3. Rules of the Game 3b
4. Children of Paradise cf
5. On the Waterfront 1b
6. The Lady Vanishes ss
7. The Baker's Wife 2b
8. Odd Man Out c
9. Masculine Feminine p

Play ball!

April 7: AWP Annual Conference & Bookfair

Next Wednesday, I'll be in Denver for Opening Day of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference and bookfair. This is an event quite unlike most of the trade shows I attend during the year. I have mixed emotions about it, but generally enjoy myself.

Although there will be headliners like keynote speaker Michael Chabon, one of the fascinating things about the AWP conference is the prominent role played by poets. Among this year's featured readers are Rita Dove, Kimiko Hahn, Marie Ponsot, Kevin Young, Robert Hass and many, many more. Poets matter here.

Known and unknown poets will congregate in hotel lobbies, bars and conference rooms during AWP 2010. At the bookfair, poets and small indie presses will be noticed by attendees in ways unimaginable at BEA. Poetry books sell at AWP, and the fact that it's National Poetry Month is coincidental to the transactions rather than a catalyst.

I'll probably buy more poetry in Denver next week. And the Colorado Rockies open their home season Friday--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1153.


When We Talk About Books

I recently discovered buried book treasure in the vaults of Hulu.com. The Book Group, a dark comedy that ran on Britain's Channel 4 from 2002 to 2003, is a strange and compelling series about a Glasgow book group initially formed because Claire, a lonely American expat, thinks "it's a really good way to meet people, you know, who can... read."

The Book Group is funny and sad and often absurd. I've watched seven of the 12 episodes thus far, trying like hell to focus an objective, critical eye on the show. After all, I have a couple decades of bookseller experience leading, participating in and observing reading group behavior. Suspending disbelief should be impossible. Is there anything worse than watching a TV show about a topic you know too well? I'm sure doctors cringe at ER and cops wince at Law & Order.

But The Book Group has somehow cracked through my defenses. The unlikely band of readers (and non-readers) that Claire assembles includes Kenny, an injured climber and would-be writer who is "on, not in" his wheelchair; Rab, a gay football (I'll only translate that as soccer this once) groupie and virtual non-reader; Barney, a drug-addicted graduate student; as well as an international trio of footballers' wives: Janice from Scotland, Dirka from Sweden and Fist from Holland.

It's a set-up, I thought during the first episode. It can't work. Initially, everything about the show seems consciously designed for failure. This particular combination of people is beyond unlikely, and they can often be squirm-inducingly hard to sympathize or identify with. But just when I began to feel an air of superiority about something as simple as "identifying with a character," The Book Group called my bluff.

"Claire," Kenny cautions at one point, "Do you think you have to like a character to get something out of a story? Because I think it's a good thing if your author isn't trying to get you to be sympathetic to the main guy."

Bang! What book group isn't formed of an unlikely conglomeration of readers with differing backgrounds, sensibilities, tastes and obsessions? What book group isn't prone to venturing off topic when distractions like food or drink or sex intrude upon the conversation? So I stopped trying to sympathize or identify and simply went along for the ride.

The real gift of this offbeat and apparently long-forgotten series is that somehow, in the midst of all their self-absorption and misbehavior, the group does find a way to make the books matter. And often their meetings are not where this occurs.

A path that begins with their first stilted discussion about On the Road leads through The Alchemist, Love in the Time of Cholera, The Little Engine That Could (a surprisingly evocative choice) and The Diving Bell & the Butterfly. Tossed in for good measure is a fictional work of fiction, Dark Alley by Martin Logan, a bestselling thriller writer with whom Janice has a brief fling. When she chooses his book for the group, Martin agrees to attend but declines the pleasure of meeting anyone face to face.

"No, no, no. I can't sit and talk to a group of readers. No way," he protests, then points to a landing on the second floor of the house. "I'll be up there. I just want to listen."

Big mistake. What follows is a sendup of every author's fears about what their readers might be saying behind their back.

"I liked it," Kenny says of the book. "Nothing special, but it kept you turning the pages."
"Nothing special?" asks Janice. "What did you mean by that, Kenny?"
He digresses: "Did you make this cake, Janice?"

The conversation then turns to poppy seeds and "properly prepared food" while the author suffers in silence upstairs, emerging furiously from hiding only after a late-arriving Claire prefaces her withering analysis of Dark Alley with, "So, did anybody actually like the book?" Martin weakly concludes his self-defense by saying, "You've misunderstood everything."

Also among the more priceless scenes is one of the simplest. Rab, the non-reader, explains to a surprisingly rapt group of professional footballers precisely what happens at these mysterious book group gatherings. 
"It's brilliant," he says. "We get a book, right? And in the weeks leading up to the meeting, we read the book, right? And then we go to the meeting and we talk about the book." It's so bloody simple, but you really do have to be there.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1148.