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?