Like a toddler being tossed into the shallow end of the pool for his first swim, I was tossed into the shallow end of the poetry pool four years ago, when I joined my first online poetry group on Facebook. One group led to another, and before I knew it, I had joined a half-dozen poetry groups, pretty evenly divided between the East and West Coasts, spanning myriad schools of thought about what poetry is or isn’t, how (and how not) to get published, and rules—especially rules for posting in the groups. But in addition to learning how not to offend the hosts of these groups or, worse, to be thrown out of a group for breaking the rules (usually clearly spelled out in the “About” section), I’ve managed to build my own network of writers at all levels of expertise, success, and “fame,” with whom I can kvetch about rejections, celebrate publications, and learn the nuances of, as well as question the existence of, “The Poetry Biz.”
Four weeks ago, I connected with poet and novelist John Guzlowski about the current hot topic of poetry as business. In response to his Facebook post titled “Poetry Is Not a Business,” I wrote the following:
Your post (which I read on a poetry group page last night) struck so many nerves that I’ve been apoplectic ever since. Today’s “poetry business” is like a pay-to-play situation, or maybe a snake oil salesman: “You, too, can be successful if you… buy my book, take my exorbitantly priced course, learn to write like [fill in the blank], pay $500 for me to critique one piece of your work,” etc. And many of these folks were still in diapers when I was studying poetry in college, 50 years ago!
But then, I remember that the classic writers we’ve all studied faced this same conundrum. It’s not enough to want your writing to be read. There are societal hoops you have to jump through. How many of the greats (like E.A. Poe) had to write for newspapers and journals, or create their own, in order to get their work read by others? So, I guess the tension between art and commerce has always been part of the writer’s journey. But in today’s Internet-driven world, commercialism is the name of the game. And I’m beginning to see the value of self-promotion via social media, although it’s not really in my nature to do so.
Over the last 50+ years, I’ve had 15 poems published, starting with two in my high school poetry magazine, two in a mental health newsletter in the ’80s, and 11 in online poetry magazines over the last two years.
I have a B.A. in English Literature but no MFA. I don’t seek fame and fortune or a Nobel prize. And though I have submitted poems to contests, I don’t even seek literary prizes.
I do, however want my work to touch other people. And if it only touches a few people or a hundred, then I’ve done my job.
Thanks for your thought-provoking post.
Dr. Guzlowski replied:
Thanks for your response. I’ve been writing for 55 years and the way submitting has changed troubles me. I used to think that acceptance was based on the quality of a poem or story. Now I think it has more to do with whether you can afford the submission fee. I’ve pretty much stopped submitting. What I do is post on social media. People read my stuff, they respond, I make friends with other writers and artists, we share our work.
What can we learn about poetry as business from this brief exchange?
1. Pay-to-Play and Self-Publishing
“Ownership and other rights” of artists, in general, have always been a bone of contention. For musicians/songwriters, the “pay-to-play” schemes of record companies and radio disc jockeys have led numerous artists to buy back the rights to their music. In film and television, screenwriters and directors have pulled projects from production to maintain their rights.
I do continue to seek publication in established poetry journals and magazines, even, those with submission fees, though, as Dr. Guzlowski noted, submission fees are not affordable—especially for those of us on a fixed income. I do so in order to gain some modicum of respectability in the world of poetry and, in the long run (in my dreams, at least) increase my chances of having a chapbook or full-length book published. In fact, I did self-publish a chapbook in 2012! I wrote it, illustrated it with photos, had a dozen or so copies printed, and gave the copies to family and friends. I’m also exploring self-publishing, though that option, too, could be out of reach for me.
2. Acceptance Based on the Quality of a Poem or Story
“Quality,” to me, is the Pandora’s Box of art in general and poetry in particular. We humans make and break rules for everything. One person’s prized jewel is another’s lump of coal. It all depends on our personal and collective experience, perspective, learning, judgment, values, and so on. As a “new” poet, my “success rate” for poems published in journals, in two years, no less, appears to be an anomaly—and a stroke of luck, according to some poets I’ve talked to. I do find myself feeling a tad jealous of other poets who daily have one or more newly published poems to brag about, and I waste minutes to hours wondering what they’ve got that I have not. Yet, some of my most popular or well received poems are ones I wrote on the fly! So, was “quality” the deciding factor, or was it the reader connecting to it in some unmeasurable way?
3. Social Media Publishing and/or Poetry “For Free”
Like everyone else who “lives to write and writes to live,” I have innumerable reasons for setting pen to paper (or keyboard to screen). Some ideas come to me in a flash and must be shared immediately. Many of these, I write as “Insta-Poems” directly on my Facebook or Instagram feed. Sometimes, I actually remember to save them to my tablet for posterity. Other poems, and some articles, are written for specific occasions and must be completed by a certain date. “Calls for Submission” and contest entries have deadlines as well. Then, there are the poems or stories that I want to write but need more time and revisions to get right.
One of my memoir pieces was rejected twice in the last 6 months. The first rejection came from a journal I’d never submitted to before, I truly believed it would be a good fit, based on what I’d read in a previous issue. The editor cited a large volume of other great works as a factor in the rejection and encouraged me to submit other pieces in the future. The second rejection came from a journal I’d had success with on my first submission. This editor set a sour tone in their opening sentence: “I know this is not what you want to hear, but….” My first reaction was to cringe at the condescending tone I perceived. A few days later, I reread my story and knew right away that it needs more work.
I have no solutions for the Pandora’s Box of poetry as business. I do hope that this article adds to the discussion.
Warmest regards and thanks to John Guzlowski for our conversation, for inspiring this article, and for previewing it before today’s publication.
2 thoughts on “My Take on “The Poetry Biz””
I liked this exchange very much, particularly since I don’t know anything about the poetry “biz.”
Would love to talk to you about it when we get back.
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Thanks, Betty! Looking forward to talking with you.