Monday, December 1, 2008

What does this flea have in common with a new book of poems?

I recently status-lined a question at Facebook asking why small presses abandon their backlists. I'd have thought that the backlist is the treasure trove of any good press. And wide and deep reading, the lifeblood of poetry, depends upon backlists - does it not?

Chris Hamilton-Emery, from Salt Publishing, wrote me in rapid response, saying: "Most poetry backlists are dead from the research we've seen. Up to 75% of lifetime sales can be made in the first six months of a new title."


Just as an example, I was recently elated to be able to buy the new Lost Roads reprints of Frank Stanford's incredible books You and The Singing Knives, recently revived from that noble press's backlist; I really wouldn't want to be without them. Even though these books got some nice attention in Publishers Weekly, they're apparently facing tough competition. Sales of poetry books are down, Spicermania notwithstanding, according to my various sources; between that and what Chris says about lifetime sales, excellent books like Stanford's must inexorably be doomed - over and over again. (N.B. The wonderful anthology of New York poets I recently mentioned is also out of print. As they used to say in The Whole Earth Catalog, BRING BACK THIS BOOK!)

When I look at my bookshelves, I'm forced to guess that 85% or more of what I find there is out of print, possibly forever. It would seem that the lifespan of a new book of poems (not the same as that of the poetry within, of course) isn't even as long as the lifespan of a flea. This might explain how poets in our day can be so narrow-minded (and with such apparent impunity).

They're "making it new" without access to the "it."

More heartening is the publication of Poems for the Millennium, Volume 3, the University of California book of Romantic and Post-Romantic poetry, edited by Jerome Rothenberg and Jeffrey C. Robinson. Fascinatingly, the book acknowledges Romanticism as both experimental and visionary - a fascinating illumination and skewing of the "canon" that demonstrates how modernism and the avant-garde have roots in the very orthodoxies those movements challenged. (The other side of that coin, of course, is that much of what passes for experimental today is really just a version of 19th-century aestheticism: language for language's sake.) I hope this book, like its superb companion volumes (to which it's a kind of prequel), stays in print for years to come...

Reading (almost finished!) Ron Silliman's the Alphabet simultaneously with Angela Leighton's fascinating On Form, I have to ask: Do non-"SoQ" poets not feel that their work - like that of the "quietists" - can be exposed to be what Leighton calls (she's not refering to either camp) a kind of artistic expression that is "a lucky privilege of quiet (however disquieting) in the face of the world's pain?"

Speaking of the world's pain, rhetorical questions, and the need for broader perspectives... check out this recent interview with Jürgen Habermas, in which he says, among many other things, that "modernity rests upon the decentralised universalism of equal respect for everyone." Guess modernity's in a spot of trouble, eh? I wonder how far the Macbeth effect can also be held responsible?


michael robbins said...

I've put in my order for a free desk copy of the new Pomes for the Mill antho. I hated the second volume, & am really put off by the editorial tone in general (the first volume's entry for Stevens reads like a parody of groupthink). But it's nice to have all these strands collected in one place.

I'd never heard of Stanford before; now that I've read a bit about him, I'm too depressed to investigate further. Check out the price tags his first editions carry on Amazon - $700, $350. Another reason to keep poetry in print: it keeps speculators at bay.

I'm waiting for Wesleyan to send my review copy of the new Spicer. In the meantime, I shall not be reading the Alphabet - you are a stronger man than I.

I'm listening to yr voice on the podcast right now -- spooky. This stuff about Howe & Beckett reminds me of the persistent (false) rumor among graduate students that Beckett was actually Susan Howe's father.

Don Share said...

Michael, you're an acute and good critic. What you say about the P. for the M. bks. is true and succinctly put. I dispersed my copies of the 1st two vols. a long time ago, feeling about them as you do. BUT. They did stake out a territory which (for me, anyhow) is useful to know. I had the occasional misgiving. The new vol. will bug you, too, perhaps less if you get it gratis... yet it's extremely interesting, and caps off the earlier tomes well. I mean, you get a really swell selections of Romantic gunk, stuff by Asian poets including the now-notorious Ho Xuan Huong (Balaban, for those who care), outlier stuff like me beloved Beddoes, even a dash of Baudelaire by Tate. Anyone who cares will have most of this stuff already, and in less contextualized form, it's true. But as a book to flip through (I'd never teach from an anthology myself, including this one - so there's a caveat, I guess) and feed on, it's fine, sorta like the big old Huntington Cairns book, The Limits of Art.

Stanford is swell and school-less; don't be depressed - else you can't read Chatterton, Plath, Berryman, Schwartz, and lord knows whoall else.

Punters note that I ain't saying a thing bad about Spicer.

Oh, and Fanny's father wasn't Beckett, but her lover was one of the Clancy Brothers - close enough, maybe?

Lemon Hound said...

The rumour is regarding Susan Howe, not Fanny Howe.

Jordan said...

The Whole Earth Catalogue has a posse

Don Share said...

Lemon, that would only mean that Beckett is both Susan and Fanny's dad!!

Jordon: I wish they did. Maybe there's a reality series in... book bounty hunters?

michael robbins said...

Ha! No, I think the implication of the rumor was that Susan & Fanny are only half-sisters. (Susan looks more like Beckett anyway, in my view.)

Lemon Hound said...

Yes, that's my take as well. It's quite startling actually.

As for the flea analogy, I'll play my part and suggest that what surprises me is that people think poetry should live longer than that. Print culture has given us abundance. No comment about quality. What makes a book of poetry linger? That's the question.

If I can describe it, I would suggest that is precisely what it can't be...

AM said...

Call me confused, but I don't see anything wrong with an economy of scarcity -- at least to a point. There are many poetry books I would sell my blood to own if they only existed in hardcover, and as for the multitudes of paperback-only volumes published every year, who's to say they wouldn't be more tantalizing if they were hard-to-find chapbooks? (Maybe the Year of Bolano is bringing out the optimistic romantic in me.)

But that stat on the poetry backlist is shocking if only because the multitude of mfa programs alone should guarantee brisk circulation. No? No??

Don Share said...

I think economy of scarcity suck with regard to poetry, which isn't in any meaningful sense a commodity. It's commodification is, in fact, a problem. If poems are worth publishing, then the published books of them shouldn't be doomed to the dustbin willy-nilly. Sure lots of bad books are around. Whitman and Dickinson weren't seen to have written "good poetry" in the 19th century. It's good that we can read them in plentiful editions now. Re MFA programs, well, I have no dog in the endless fight about 'em - are they book buyers or not, I wonder. Dunno. I just wish books - of all kinds, really - could be accessible. Maybe Google et al. will help solve this, content-wise, at least. In short: yes, MORE books. MORE of them.

Jordan said...

Unless they're getting a free ride and most aren't, I don't see how MFAers can afford to buy poetry books.

Don Share said...

Jordan, I think that's right for the most part, although if one can afford grad school tuition, one might have a least a few bucks handy. Secondly, I've bought books in my very poorest days, e.g., when I was a busboy at an internet cafe in my thirties. If MFAers or anyone else can afford iPhones, storebought coffee, smokes, and decent haircuts, I refuse to accept that they can't afford books.

That said... the publishing industry is deeply perverse, and the pricing of slim volumes of poetry is crazy. If they don't sell anyway, why not price them reasonably and see if sales increase a little? Though discounting is killing publishers, and is therefore part of the problem, one can find great deals even on huge books like the collected Lowell at Amazon. I'd like to add that the Lost Roads books, not discounted, were only 15 bucks a piece. What's that, a couple of beers or trips to the movie theater?

I hate that poets (present co. excluded, of course) make so many excuses for not buying books. UGH. Now Keats - he was poor. Few of us are as impoverished as he, or say John Clare... This is why Keats had only a chance to "look into" Chapman's Homer: he could not afford a copy himself, and the book was so valuable he could not borrow it - living, as he did, in a shitty neighborhood - without the risk of its loss. He stayed up all night to have the chance to read it.... went home at dawn... wrote his famous poem about the experience under such exhaustion that he mixed up Balboa and Cortez. 'Nuff said?

Buy books, every last one of you.

AM said...

Look, I hear you, but I'm someone who just bought myself two R.F. Langley books from Carcanet while supposedly book shopping for others' xmas gifts -- and that G. Hill $50 collected prose is calling my name -- seriously, I hope this doesn't end up being where my kids' college tuition went. Then again, if it did, they'd get a decent education at home.

Of course I think books should be read; I just don't think accessibility is necessarily the issue. I think *conditions* for reading and thinking and desiring are certainly part of the issue. Or Jordan wouldn't be telling me that economic downturns are *good* for poetry: more people having more TIME to think and read and desire. Poets need to be desired, which is why scarcity (e.g. cults) have been good things for authors. (Not that I'm insisting on obscurity or inaccessability, just making an observation.)

Don Share said...

A., that's extremely well put, and I guess I'm blowing off steam as well as actual hot air, as you can tell.

I bought the Hill book, which is why I don't have boots again this winter, and I quit going to a doctor for a chronic thing, which is all foolish. But I've gotta have some books. Also bought, by the way, some other exp. books from the UK, the new ones by Paul Durcan and Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill, & speaking of Carcanet, the collected Austin Clarke... oh, I'll stop with my lists. Yet these are among the poets I've desired lately; might we also say that readers ought to be... promiscuous?

the unreliable narrator said...

Welp, I got no iPhone and don't smoke or drink coffee...BUT I was surveying my mop in the mirror the other day and thinking that maybe at 39 I should start getting Proper Haircuts instead of doing it myself with the paper scissors! Not really in the budget, hèlas.

There's a collected prose now?! And it's fifty smackeroos?! What is the man THINKING?! I guess that's one way to ensure a select readership....can we get a samizdat reprint going? Because I really wanted to replace my dead fountain pen, and buy some clothes for the Brujo, and now I see with dismay that I have higher priorities....

On the other penurious hand, I had been somehow ignorant of the "looking into Homer" story and now feel completely abashed about my lavish late-capitalist wealth. I have a desk, paper, books out the wazoo, library a 20-minute walk away—even an electric heater at my feet right now. In *Phoenix* no less.

"Year of Bolaño" bwahahahaha!

Don, ferchrissakes, GO TO THE DOCTOR. I need you around for a long while yet, enabling me with your truly fiendish book lists.

Don Share said...

Here's how I financed the Hill tome: I cut my own hair until I messed up enough to make things awkward for me at work. Then I got a cheapo haircut (which will last me another 8 months), 'cos let's face it, poets, editors, and guys my age in general can get by with cruddy 'dos and bad shoes.

david lumsden said...

I have to cling to the belief that I'm not statistically insignificant - surely there are others like me (that's after all the premise underlying amazon recommendations) - when I find a poet I'm interested in I'll try to buy the backlist - and it doesn't matter if it's someone who has just started publishing, or someone from 100 years ago. Your figures relating to backlists explain why a good proportion of my spending goes to secondhanders (or those rare bookshops whose dusty stock acts as cached backlists for publishers).