I figured I’d mark Independence Day by taking a break from my Pokey Mama narrative to talk about what’s more immediately on my mind: “self-publishing,” a hot topic in high-flying literary circles like mine.

The talk takes various forms, depending on whether you’re a writer, publisher, or simply an observer of things literary.  Some are for it, some against, but when I was a young writer and had to walk five miles through all kinds of weather for a high-speed internet connection (OK, to find spare parts for my word processor) self-publishing was definitely a no-no. Known as “vanity” publishing, the very mention of it caused “legitimate” writers to recoil in horror. 

Yes, Pokey Mama was one of those recoilers.

Never mind that plenty of our (now) esteemed poets self-published, over time the practice of taking your work in your own hands has become inextricably conjoined with images of ladies and gents traipsing about in tweeds, declaiming  rhyming couplets in praise of God, nature, or even worse, love.

Regardless, at a book fair I recently attended, there were a startling number of decidedly non-tweedy characters representing their newly minted presses. Some of these were of the handmade, artist-book type, some the more traditional small press type.  Many of the books were beautiful, some were especially interesting as art objects, some suffered a bit from amateurism, but nothing struck me as particularly vain.  What struck me was the ambition these folks exhibited, their ingenuity and energy.

Some would argue that these ventures don’t constitute self-publishing because the publishers don’t always or only publish their own work. The real vanity comes when authors go straight to a printer, on-demand operation or make little Xeroxed pamphlets with darling hand-drawn decorations.  Or they hand out broadsides of poems on a street corner. Or they publish their poems on… the World Wide Web.

Some (no, I’m not saying who!) would also say that those folks, the ones who are just going off willy-nilly publishing poems every which way, without anybody’s say-so, are messing up the poetry gene pool, driving down the stats, ruining it for the rest of us. Where will it end? What about quality control? There’s so much bad writing out there! How about me, and this blog, and all the other thousands upon thousands of word hacks posting, posting, posting, right this very minute about God and nature and love!?!

Yeah, there’s a lot of bad poetry around. Lots of bad writing of all kinds. Bad painters and paintings, bad music, TV shows, bad plumbers and teachers, bad lawyers, securities traders, politicians, car mechanics…

So what? Change the channel, fire the plumber, read something else. Exercise your aesthetic independence.  Make up your own mind.

When I read an amazing poem, or see an exhibit or a performance that knocks me out I want to BE that thing! As Tina Fey being Liz Lemon observing a pastrami sandwich would say: I want to go there.  On the other hand, there are certain artists whose work I know I’m supposed to admire that leave me cold, and I think we all could weigh in on the times we’ve been mystified by who is and who is not chosen for an award, fellowship, grant, etc.  

It’s not always about “quality.”

Susan Kan at Perugia Press has some interesting statistics posted on their web site:

  • Pulitzer Prize for Poetry: 68% male winners, 32% female winners
  • Nobel Prize in Literature: 87% male winners, 13% female winners
  • National Book Critics Circle Award: 62% male winners, 38% female winners
  • PEN/Faulkner Award: 86% male winners, 14% female winners
  • Booker Prize: 69% male winners, 31% female winners

Sadly I’m so not surprised by these numbers, but even if you set aside the issue of who gets published and why, the fat and the skinny of it is: not enough crumbs to go around.

I know you already know this but I’ll say it anyway because, well, I want to:

poetry doesn’t make money,

poetry is not widely read in our culture,

poets aren’t revered and, for most people,

poetry is a mystery.

They have no clue why we want to spend our time doing this. (Sometimes I wonder myself.)

Can you imagine a poetry reality show? Composing with the Stars! So You Think You Can Rhyme! Who Wants to Be a Language Poet?  Think of the ratings.

Nevertheless, for some reason, despite the lack of rewards for poets, monetary or otherwise, more and more of us are writing the damn stuff. Some people think that, too, is something to mourn—they rail about the proliferation of MFA programs, workshops, blah, blah, blah. 

It’s true, there’s less to go around, and that’s hard.  Recently I got an email with the results for a book contest I thankfully didn’t enter. I have no idea if the “winner’s” book was the “best” book, but I was stunned by the creds of the folks who didn’t win! These are fine poets, many with more than one book under their belts, and the list of runners up and honorable mentions was long.

Just how long are we losers supposed to wait?

Here’s how I see it. The more avenues available for poets to get their work out in the world the better. The more varied the tools at our disposal with which to invite people into poetry, to buy, read and learn and (gasp!) write poetry, the better.  A more engaged audience can only help poetry and poetry publishers; it’s not an either/or.

So, is it vanity to take the means of production into your own hands? Is it vain to think you are the best judge of when your work is ready to meet an audience? If you define vanity as misplaced confidence, at times, the answer may be yes. But is it any more or less true if you wait to be “selected” for publication?

I don’t know about you, dear reader, but Pokey Mama is tired of waiting, and you, my patient friend, deserve a free sample. Here’s a recent poem of mine.

We Go Out

We walk out from the dry fields of childhood

into the dark storm of late summer.

A walk of innocence and awkwardness

we’re not even conscious of owning.

Last dream, first idea. These are treasures.

Yes, I mean the stuff just beyond

the glass door we put in deliberately

to separate forest from trees. So we can sleep.

So we can be alone with our velvet losses, dark

questions, the place inside testimony

that makes us ask, why?

Troublemakers. Shape shifters. Awake.

The forest is for the trees, trees are for the forest,

and somewhere maybe a fox looking hard

at a woman walking her dog, a fox

that by disposition and genetics would bite and

bite again. The hand that feeds us. Our carefully

measured portion. And whatever we are

when we lock our mouths against

what we know is our hunger.

7 thoughts on “Vanity

  1. I don’t know why, because my brain is so hot it’s almost melted, but that poem reminded me of some of my favorite and mysterious Paul Simon lyrics, like the ones about “I drank a cup of herbal brew….I felt the forest breathe and move.” Or something like that; I’ll look it up when I not so hot. Thanks for writing and being you, dear Amy.

  2. I love dis poem and well, you know how I feel about the whole question of DIY publishing… another thought provoking post little Pokey.

  3. i am totally loving this post..and it’s making me reconsider my own previously less than kind rather judgmental thoughts about vanity publishing..but here’s my biggest question (for myself as well) how does one wade through the sheer amount of what is “out there”? how does art find an audience when sometimes it seems as likely as seeking and then finding a particular shell on a wide long stretch of beach?

    1. that’s a really good question and it would be great if other readers weighed in on it. I guess my feeling is that part of my job as an artist is to get the word out about my work by learning how to use all available tools. You have to figure out who your audience is, why, and how you can reach them. I’m still learning how to do that with this blog. But it was the same with my printed book–most presses don’t have the resources to do big marketing campaigns, so if you want to sell your book you really have to get behind it–use the web, do readings, etc. It’s a huge amount of work, and tough to do when you’re already trying to eke out time for writing.

  4. Wow. Your poem Just that. And so, yay for self-publishing – not enough publishers are publishing books, anyway.

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