As many folks already know, HTML Giant published a post about Geoffrey Gatza’s practice of asking potential authors to be published by his press, BlazeVox, to chip in 250 dollars to help publish the book. I don’t know all the details about the situation, but it seems OK to me to ask for contributions. It seems maybe Geoffrey has handled it not so smoothly, making people feel like they had to give money in order to be published.
More importantly, I have been interested (and sometimes dismayed) at the big discussion this has started all around Facebook and the Internet. But overall, I think the discussion has been very much worthwhile having, and I hope it will develop into a further debate about the situation of small-press publishing in terms of its finances, issues of “legitimacy” and perhaps even the idea of the Author/Poet (as promulgated in MFA programs, in the movies, at prom).
But I’m also busy so I’ll just make a few points:
* There has been a big explosion in small presses and chapbook presses etc over the past 15 years. The reasons are many: digital technology, institutional critiques etc. New technology has made it cheaper and easier. But it’s still not a money-making venture. Unless you’re really rich personally (and/or talented with book-making and grant-writing), it’s hard to run a small press.
* Joyelle and I obviously don’t get paid for Action Books and yet it takes up a whole lot of our time – translating, editing, sending stuff out etc. We don’t do it to become rich. We started the press because we felt there was no presses out there publishing books of our aesthetics, and we wanted to publish this stuff, get it out there, get involved in new, more interesting conversations about poetry. It’s part of what we do as writers.
* There’s nothing wrong about Geoffrey asking for money (though it may send the wrong vibe to the author). There’s in fact nothing wrong with self-publishing. Walt Whitman self-published; Stein I believe paid her press to help them publish Tender Buttons (correct me if I’m wrong about that). Etc Etc. The fact that subsidizing of the press calls into question the “legitimacy” of the press suggests to me that legitimacy is tied up in money. So Coffee House Press has more legitimacy than a small press because it has more money. OK, it’s more legitimate but most of the best books I’ve read from the past 20 yrs have been from very small presses.
* It’s true that small presses represent a new moment in poetry. No longer do we have the “Great Figures” (like Lowell) who comes with instant institutional clout. Though people like Tony Hoagland try hard to make certain people (including themselves) into such figures through award and grants and marquee readings at the AWP etc. I don’t like that.
* This doesn’t mean there aren’t people I think are great writers. But I don’t try to promote their work as “legitimate” or institutionally correct; I write reviews or, increasingly, posts on this blog talking about what I find interesting about their work. I argue that Joyelle or Alice Notley or Aase Berg or Hiromi Ito are “great”: and the readers can decide if they’re interested or not. And hopefully if they like these writers, what I write will make their readings more interesting (at least not less interesting); and hopefully they’ll write something in response that will make my reading more interesting. I feel like a hippie writing this, but basically this is how i like to think about poetry functioning. This is what I mean by “conversations.”
* Unfortunately a lof of poetry still functions according to “legitimacy.” Or longs for the old legitimacy and greatness. Is BlazeVox a “Vanity press”? I don’t know what that means. But based on the comments to the post, the fact that Geoffrey had to ask for financial help somehow delegitimized his enterprise. And money does still matter in poetry to a lot of people. A lot of folks won’t read books published by small presses; or review books by smaller presses; or will assume a book published by Coffee House is more legit than one published by Tarpaulin Sky. I get that vibe a lot. Maybe I’m wrong. But there seems to be a contradiction in our moment.
* One of the things the discussion really brings up is the idea of the Author. And here again I don’t have any hard evidence. But to me it seems people are still in love with the idea of being a Great Author. Which is a person who writes in solitude. Who just writes his or her poetry. Activities like reviewing or publishing are activities that taint the pure glamor of being a poet. This is one of the most frustrating and most pervasive ideas out there. And it’s an inherently conservative view: one based on the validation of the “Literary Authorities” (Tony Hoagland, university press etc). I really hate this.
* I’m generally opposed to lazy attacks on MFA programs but I do think this is an incredibly MFA-based idea of the author. Some may call it “Romantic” but the Romantic writers wrote a whole lot about other people’s writing and they certainly were published by “vanity presses” of sorts. No, I think this is a view definitely reflecting a common MFA pedagogy based on validation of the teacher, the institution.
* Lots of folks seem to blame small presses for why there are no more great poets. There is simply “too much” being published these days. How can we know what is good? How can we tell what is a good writer? My answer to this complaint is: You mean you always believed that which was published was great??? My answer is: You read the books (outrageous!) and you think about them. And you read what others write about books (because clearly you can’t read every book out there). You have to make your own way through the “plague ground” of poetry.
* “Plague Ground” is a reference to Joyelle’s notorious “Future of Poetry” talk:
Poetry’s present tense rejects the future in favour of an inflorating and decaying omnipresence, festive and overblown as a funeral garland, flimsy and odiforous, generating excess without the orderliness of generations. It rejects genre. It rejects “a” language. Rejects form for formlessness. It doesn’t exist in one state, but is always making corrupt copies of itself. “Too many books are being written, too many books are being published by ‘inconsequential’ presses, there’s no way to know what to read anymore, people are publishing too young, it’s immature, it’s unmemorable, the Internet is run amok with bad writing and half formed opinions, there’s no way to get a comprehensive picture”. Exactly. You just have to wade through the plague ground of the present, give up and lie down in it, as the floodwaters rise from the reversed drains, sewage-riven, bearing tissue and garbage, the present tense resembles you in all its spumey and spectacolor 3-D.
* But for this model to work, people need to write reviews and blog posts. People need to alert others to good things you’ve read or things that have interested you or whatever. Way too many people are still stuck in their “I want to be an Author, not a reviewer” MFA model of author (or maybe they just don’t think about it?). Most people who run presses will tell you how hard it is to get people to read one’s books, to write about them, to engage with them, much less buy them. (And if everyone who liked Blazevox’s books enough to want to be published by them bought a few of their books, Geoffrey wouldn’t have had to ask for contributions.)
* Also, before the current proliferation of small presses, I didn’t like any poetry published in book form. I knew of a lot of great poetry being written but barely any became books. So perhaps it’s harder to find the books you like, but at least some interesting stuff is being published!
OK, that’s all I’ve got to say for now. I hope this will develop into a good discussion (here and elsewhere). It’s a much needed discussion. I don’t know how much I’ve contributed.
The Angry Hippie