Posted by: birdmaddgirl | 26 July 2013

the audience for poetry

it seems like ever since the invention of the printing press, folks have been announcing the death of poetry. among the latest is mark edmundson’s article in july’s harper’s magazine (which i won’t link to, but it’s readily accessible if you care to read it online). the ever-delightful stephen burt has a thoughtful reply on boston review (that has added to my to-read list). my writer-friends and i talk about audience all the time – my poet-friends perhaps even more of the time. it seems, too, that we can’t talk about poets or poetry anymore without bringing up the mfa elephant. so there’s that. here’s a smattering of my thoughts:

re: edmundson – the most striking thing to me about his piece is that he relies on a handful of mid- to late-career very well-known poets. this is all fine and well, i suppose, but doesn’t indicate to me that he is particularly well-read in contemporary poetry. i would not profess to be myself, but i am at the very early learning-based stages of my own development as a poet and thinker, and i’m not writing an article for a national magazine. it seems irresponsible to me to say that contemporary poetry isn’t up to snuff by surveying such a small sample size (and selectively even then). there are all kinds of responses that could be made to this article, so i’m just going to leave it at that.

re: audience – i have gone through my poet despair troughs wherein i lament the paucity of readers and dearth of attention given by the teeming masses to the exertions and verbal acrobatics of good poetry. woe is we. i’ve struggled with this in a bunch of different ways, especially regarding how to submit for publication. print or online? it’s a fraught question for writers just starting out.

the print lit journals are much more established and continue to carry a cache that seems to still be necessary to be taken very seriously in a number of circles. their circulations, even the best and most-established of them, are not large. (and as a subscriber to and veteran intern of a handful of literary journals myself, i admit that rarely do i have enough time to read them cover to cover.) so even if you win the lottery, dear writer, and get that golden acceptance ticket, how many eyes will truly fall upon your words? precious few, but you get that extra zip in your bio.

online journals are a mixed and exciting grab bag. their circulation numbers (or hit rates, i guess) aren’t widely advertised – but in my experience, editors will usually share estimates if asked politely. there’s the possibility for a lot of instant-reader-gratification, though. social media makes it infinitely easier to nudge everyone you know into reading a piece published online. and if one or two of your friends like it and share it in turn, then you can readily gain a handful of new readers beyond your loved ones. and people can comment directly to you – this is the coolest thing ever. there are two buts, though: one is that online journals can vanish without a trace, taking your glorious work with them into the great internet void, which is sad-making; two, often these publications are not taken as seriously – although mileage varies and this is changing. i’m not sure that it’s possible at this point to truly build a career out of online-only publication credits. i am not even aware of anyone who is trying (but if there is, i would love to know about it!).

re: the mfa & audience – so who is the audience for poetry? what exactly does all the teeth-gnashing gnash about? what someone like edmundson argues is that there’s no mass audience for poetry because contemporary american poets don’t resonate, don’t write well enough. the mfa machine is a common scapegoat. for a spell, i took the mfa-as-sneetch-factory sneering to heart. while i don’t want to entirely dismiss the notion that the workshop model does have its dangers and issues, my attitude towards it has undergone a big turnaround (and i’m throwing my nonexistant money down the mfa well, so, like many others before and after me, i’ve thought about this deeply).

in many ways the mfa crowd – and it is a crowd, with more and more full- and low-residency programs popping up not just in the states but spreading around the world – is the audience. and now that i’ve drunk the kool-aid, i realize that there is no better news for poetry. yes, a small but dedicated audience for poetry exists outside of the writer coterie. and i suspect that those numbers have remained proportionally pretty steady over the centuries (how one would figure that out, i’ve no idea, but given that mass english literacy is still quite new in historical terms, it seems a reasonable enough broad assumption). and in addition to that stable core, there is this ever-expanding set of writers-who-are-readers. these are people who are fiercely dedicated. who read websites and journals. who buy books. who voraciously seek out words. people who want to be inspired and moved and thrilled by poetry and who have invested the time and energy in having the tools to read it on multiple levels.

when i came back from chile last year, i felt a little burrowing mole of sadness. poetry is so integrated into the culture there, held up in such esteem in a way that it has never been in the states in my lifetime (possibly ever, i’m suspicious of golden age thinking). i believe deeply than poetry can speak to anyone, but i understand that not everyone will want to drown their time in it. we all have to make those choices. there’s a real joy in sharing a poem with someone whom i know isn’t ‘really into poetry.’ but i feel that i had lost sight of the readers out in the open field. now that i am immersing myself in the learning of being a poet, now that i am working away the fear of being a poet, i feel that this beast i love is indeed pulsing and thriving and plush.

what better audience could i ever want for a poem than my fellow writers?


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