Last winter, Nicole Santalucia, published her first book, Driving Yourself to Jail in July, a delightful chapbook full of the spunk and spirit and incredible life stories. After its arrival, Nicole wrote and asked me, How do I get my book out there? Do I have to become a little prick?
No, I wrote back. You have to become a big prick. A big self-promoting prick.
Since then, I have thought a lot about the pressure poets feel to promote their books. To tweet them, to Facebook them, to blog them, to Tumblr them in order to get them reviewed somewhere somehow, and to find that illusive key to success. You have to build your social platform, a media-savvy poet informed me. But how? And does it work? Especially if we are all doing it at once? And aren’t we all a little tired of the endless selfies and narcissistic posts about our latest moment in the sun? Am I the only one who feels nauseated by it all?
It’s as if we are supposed to become our own personal advertising agencies, selling books as if they were common household goods. But really, who, but a handful of other poets, are our interested buyers? This isn’t Avon we’re selling. Or Tupperware. I had one editor suggest I join a church or the Y in order to find more people to buy my poetry. I am not sure whom among the reverent would purchase books like Why God Is a Woman, Spontaneous Breasts, or The Book of Orgasms, but I suppose anything is possible. I had another editor suggest I move to New York City because, well, who buys poetry books in Poland, Ohio? In New York, he said, I would meet the right people who would give me the right readings, write glowing reviews, and invite me onto the stages where real success happens. (If only such success were as simple as a move! If only I could move with a snap of my fingers!) I had another editor insist I retake my photo for the book jacket because my photograph wasn’t pretty. Should I go to Glamour Shots? I asked. He answered simply, Books by pretty women sell better.
Clearly the presses are as desperate as the poets. I’ve had fellow poets show me contracts from publishers in which they have had to agree to review other poetry books by their publisher—as well as provide readings and audiences for poets published by their publisher. I have had friends tell me that that their editors have asked if they could guarantee book sales. And I, like most of my fellow poets, have filled out pages of information for my presses that might, just might help them sell my books. And afterwards, I have felt pathetic. Like a lost cause. Or an ugly teenage girl at a high school dance. I am not, alas, a social-media personality. I try from time to time, but I stink at it. I am naturally introverted. I feel overwhelmed by the prospect of selling myself. I don’t like being my own cheerleader, pompoms and megaphone in hand, leaping and shouting to an imaginary audience—Look at me here! Look at me there! Look at me everywhere!
And I am not alone. Even the most accomplished poets have emailed me about their distaste for this aspect of poetry publishing. Recently, I blurbed the forthcoming book, Evening Train, by the well-known poet, Tom Clarke, a former editor of The Paris Review whose work has been widely published and anthologized and is included in The Oxford Book of American Poetry. I wondered why such an accomplished poet would even need my blurb. Tom commented that he is too ill to promote his books, so no one reads them. To give you a taste of Tom’s work, here’s an apropos poem from Evening Train:
Blank (Don't Be Late)
will always have
its own image
to remember itself
But even the most outgoing and media-savvy poets sometimes surprise me by asking for help. The effervescent and outgoing poet, January Gill O’Neil, recently emailed to ask if I might consider reviewing her forthcoming book, Misery Islands. Her press, also one of my presses, CavanKerry, asked her to find reviewers. A friend of January’s and of the CavanKerry Press editors, I would like to say, Yes! I would happily tell the world to seek out her work. I recently nominated her poem for a Pushcart. Here’s a poem from Misery Islands that will give you an idea of January’s gift.
WHAT THE BODY KNOWS
The body knows it is part of a whole, its parts believed to be in good working order. It knows it’s getting older, years ticking off like pages on a desk calendar, your doctor’s appointment circled in red. Try not to picture the body sitting alone in the waiting room. The body creaks up and down like a hardwood floor, you tell your doctor this; he says your breast is a snow globe. He says, Inside there’s a snowstorm—my job is to decipher a bear from a moose in the snow. He flattens the breast with a low radiation sandwich press. The body wonders if its parts will turn into Brie cheese, if its fingers will fuse and become asparagus stalks. He says it’s possible, but don’t give it a second thought. He says insulate your body with spinach. He says true understanding of the body will enable it to live long and live well. But the body knows when its leg is being pulled. The body is a container of incidental materials. If it listens carefully, it can hear its own voice making the wrong sound.
But I am anxious about reviewing friends’ poetry books, simply because they are my friends. I don’t know if I could be completely honest or objective. Poetry is such a small world, and I know most of the poets I would consider reviewing. But I have often wondered if many bad reviews have been written out of pettiness, jealousy, and bad blood, while many good reviews have not been written for the very reasons that I state. Am I only imagining this, or is it true that the more successful and high-profile a writer becomes, the more hostile the reviewers can become?
But at least the high-profile poets occasionally get reviewed. And sometimes they are actually read as well. The rest of the poets, the legions that fill the AWP conference every year, all desperately trying to connect and sell their slender volumes of poetry, go mostly unnoticed, unread, and certainly un-reviewed. Though the more extraverted the poet, the more attractive, the more willing to post daily photos and ads for their beautiful selves, the more successful they become. Or do they? I guess that’s a question of how one defines success.
I sometimes wonder what the social-media craze says about the state of American poetry. I wonder who in the literary canon would have thrived in an era of social media. Which poets would have never seen the light of day? Of course, our beloved Dickinson would have nothing to do with the admiring bog—in her own day or this one. Whitman, I imagine, might have lived on Facebook. I could see him posting new variations of his Leaves of Grass weekly, notifying his hundreds of “friends” of each revision, annoying every one of them. What about Frost? Would the nature poet shun it all, or would he surf the web by on snowy evenings? Whose face this is I think I know. Her house is in a Midwest town. She will not see me stopping now/ To see she’s fat as a dairy cow. What about Bishop? Would she say, about the loss of privacy, This loss is a disaster. All the hours badly spent . . .. And Moore? I think she might confide, I, too, dislike it. And then point out the real toadies among us. And Eliot? Would he have written, Let us go now, you and I, to our Facebook pages? Would he define his relationship status, It’s complicated? I don’t know, but I, for one, feel etherised by it all.