Skip to content

How Poetry Survives


In our period, they say there is free speech.
They say there is no penalty for poets,
There is no penalty for writing poems.
They say this. This is the penalty.

—Muriel Rukeyser, “In Our Time,” The Speed of Darkness

Imagine that all the nationally circulated magazines and all the trade presses and all the university presses in the United States stopped publishing or reviewing poetry. New poetry in the United States would hardly feel the blow. But not because contemporary poetry is marginal to the culture. Quite the contrary, it is these publishing institutions that have made themselves marginal to our cultural life in poetry. As it is, the poetry publishing and reviewing practices of these major media institutions do a disservice to new poetry by their sins of commission as much as omission—that is, pretending to cover what they actually cover up; as if you could bury poetry alive.

In consistently acknowledging only the blandest of contemporary verse practices, these institutions provide the perfect alibi for their evasion of poetry. If what is published and reviewed by these institutions is the best that poetry has to offer, then, indeed, there would be little reason to attend to poetry, except for those looking for a last remnant of a genteel society verse, where, for example, Rebecca Pepper Sinkler, the editor of The New York Times Book Review, can swoon over watered-down Dante on her way to late-night suppers with wealthy lovers of the idea of verse, as she recently gushed in an article in the Book Review. “For some” (“We lucky few” is the last sentences of the article) “there was to be a post-poetry spread laid on by Edwin Cohen (a businessman and patron of literature) back at his apartment at the Dakota, a Danteesque menu announced in advance: roast suckling pig stuffed with fruit, nuts, and cheese; Tuscan salami; prosciotto and polenta, white beans with fennel.”

Poetry, reduced to a souvenir of what was once supposed to be prestige goods, quickly gets sliced for overaccessorizing, at least if the stuff actually talks back in ways we haven’t heard before. If poetry has largely disappeared from the national media, nostalgia for poetry, and the lives of troubled poets, has a secure place.

Could I possibly be saying that the crisis of American culture is that there is inadequate support and distribution of difficult and challenging new art?

One of the cliches of the intellectual- and artist-bashing so fashionable in our leading journals of opinion is that there are no more “public intellectuals.” The truth of the matter is that writing of great breadth and depth, and of enormous significance for the public, flourishes, but the dominant media institutions—commercial television and radio, the trade presses, and the nationally circulated magazines (including the culturally upscale periodicals)—have blacklisted this material. Intellectuals and artists committed to the public interest exist in substantial numbers. Their crime is not a lack of accessibility but a refusal to submit to marketplace agendas: the reductive simplifications of conventional forms of representation; the avoidance of formal and thematic complexity; and the fashion ethos of measuring success by sales and value by celebrity. The public sphere is constantly degraded by its conflation with mass scale since public space is accessible principally through particular and discrete locations.

Any college teacher will have ample proof of the frightening lack of cultural information, both historical and contemporary, of even the most searching of our new students. These individuals have been subjected to cultural asphyxiation administered not only by the barrage of network television and MTV, but also, more poignantly, by the self-appointed keepers of the cultural flame, who are unwilling to provide powerful alternative programming and prefer to promote, as a habit and a rule, a sanitized and denatured version of contemporary art, pushing the pat and trim as cutting edge while debunking at every turn the untried and complex, the edgy or the odd or unnerving—that is those works of contemporary culture that give it life. Could I possibly be saying that the crisis of American culture is that there is inadequate support and distribution of difficult and challenging new art? Does a tire tire without air, an elephant blow its horn in the dark, a baby sigh when the glass door shatters its face?

At the community (“free”) clinic I worked for in the early 1970s we sold T-shirts that said, “Healthcare is for people not profit.” Not that we were ahead of our time. Times are just behind where they could be. Whenever I go into a Barnes & Ignoble Superstore or Waldaltonsbooks (If we don’t have it it must be literature!), I’m reminded that our slogan for healthcare applies to poetry too.

Does anybody wonder any more what the effects will be of the consolidation of publishing and book distribution companies into large conglomerates? Let them read cake. As I write this, the current bestseller list contains the perfect symbol for the current state of affairs as the two top slots are occupied, in effect, by the publicity machines designed to promote “cultural product”: Rush Limbaugh’s See I Told You So and Howard Stern’s Private Parts. What sells, in this purest form of hype-omancy is the apparatus of publicity itself: for here we have self-consuming artifacts par excellence—no external referent need apply. And if we say that the public “wants” these products we are only succumbing to the equation of consumption with desire. For these books/machines/shows are the QVN of ideas, inexorably selling themselves in a vicious circle of publicity chasing its own tale: these books mark not merely the tabloidization of ideas—that happened long ago—but the tabloidization of tabloidization. Meanwhile, in the upscale journals that condescend to the truth bared by Stern and Limbaugh, no book has been more attended to than a memoir by one of the originators of this phenomenon, Willie Morris, formerly editor of Harper’s: for what better subject for promotion than promotion?

There is a world outside this semblance of culture. In poetry, its institutions go by the name of the small press and the reading series.

Along with small press magazines and books, poetry reading series are the most vital site of poetic activity in North America. Readings provide a crucial place for poets not only to read their new work, but also to meet with each other and exchange ideas. Readings provide an intimately local grounding for poetry and are commonly the basis for the many regional scenes and groups and constellations that mark the vitality of the artform.

Despite the striking vitality of poetry readings, readings are never reviewed in any of the nation’s daily or weekly newspapers, even though these papers routinely review theater and dance and art events whose scale is comparable.

Despite the fundamental importance of readings in the creation of North American poetry over the past forty years, very little attention has been given to this medium either by the press or by critics, except in the case where readings deform themselves to most resemble media events, as in the cross of MTV and poetry slams, where the alternative explorations of sense and meaning and sound are too often reduced to alt.culture.101, or retro-Beat-chic, opening acts for the bigger budget spectacle of the band to come. While reading series that represent the range and innovation of contemporary poetry are more concentrated in New York and the Bay area, many American cities have long-running local reading series. The best source of information about readings in New York City area is The New York City Poetry Calendar, which has been publishing a monthly broadside of poetry events since 1977 (60 E. 4th St #21, New York, NY 10003). The calendar lists about three hundred different readings each month, has a printrun of 7,500 and a readership of well over 10,000.

Despite the striking vitality of poetry readings, readings are never reviewed in any of the nation’s daily or weekly newspapers, even though these papers routinely review theater and dance and art events whose scale is comparable. I suspect the reason is that cultural editors, like most literary critics and scholars, wrongly assume that the book is the only significant site of a poet’s work. Yet contemporary North American poetry is realized as significantly in its performances in live readings as it is in its printed forms. Critical response to contemporary poetry that fails to account for its performance is, for the most part, inadequate.

The past thirty years have been a time of enormous growth of small press publishers. According to a Loss Pequeno Glazier’s statistics in Small Press: An Annotated Guide, the number of magazines listed in Len Fulton’s International Directory of Little Magazines & Small Presses has gone from 250 mostly poetry magazines in 1965 to seven hundred in 1966 to 2,000 magazines in 140 categories in 1976 to 4,800 magazines in 1990, of which about 40 percent were literary. The importance of the small press for poetry is not restricted to any aesthetic or indeed to any segment of poets. According to a recent study by Mary Briggs, independent noncommercial presses are the major source of exposure for all poets, young and old, prize winning or not.

The staple of the independent literary press is the single-author poetry collection. Douglas Messerli, publisher of Sun & Moon Press, a high-end small press comparable to Black Sparrow, New Directions, and Dalkey Archives, provided me with representative publication information for a one hundred-page poetry collection:

Print-runs at Sun & Moon go from 1,000 to 2,000, depending, of course, on likely sales. Messerli notes that print-runs of less than 1,000 drive the unit cost up too high and he encourages other literary presses to print a minimum of 1000 copies if at all possible.

Sun & Moon titles are well-produced, perfectbound, and offset with full color covers. The printing bill for this runs from $2,600 to $4,000 as you go from 1,000 to 2,000 copies. Messerli estimates the cost of editing a one hundred-page poetry book at $300: this covers all the work between the press receiving a manuscript and sending it to a designer (including any copyediting and proofreading that may be necessary as well as preparation of front and back matter and cover copy). Typesetting is already a rarity for presses like Sun & Moon, with authors expected to provide computer disks wherever possible. Formatting these disks (converting them into type following specifications of the book designer) can cost anywhere from $300 to $1,000, one of those variable labor costs typical of small press operations. The book designer will charge about $500. The cover will cost an additional $100 for photographic reproduction or permission fees or both. Publicity costs must also be accounted for, even if, as at Sun & Moon, no advertising is involved. Messerli estimates publicity costs at $1,500, which covers the cost of something like one hundred free copies distributed to reviewers, postage and packing, mailings and catalog pages, etc. The total cash outlay here, then, for 2,000 copies, is around $6,800. (For the sake of this discussion, overhead costs—rent, salaries, office equipment, phone bills, etc—are not included; such costs typically are estimated at about 30 percent more than the cost of production).

If all goes well, Sun & Moon will sell out of its print run in two years. Let’s say Sun & Moon prints 2,000 copies of the book and charges $10 retail; let’s also say all the books were sold. That makes a gross of $20,000. Subtract from this a 50 percent wholesale discount (that is, most bookstores will pay $5 for the book) and that leaves $10,000. Subtract from this the 24 percent that Sun & Moon’s distributor takes (and remember that most small presses are too small to secure a distributor with a professional sales force). That leaves $7,600. Now last, but not to be totally forgotten, especially since I am a Sun & Moon author, the poet’s royalty; typically no advance would be paid and the author would receive 10 percent of this last figure, or $760. That leaves $6,840 return to the publisher on a cash cost of about $7,000.

As James Sherry noted years ago in L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, a piece of paper with nothing on it has a definite economic value. If you print a poem on it, this value is lost. Here we have a vivid example of what George Bataille has called general economy, an economy of loss rather than accumulation. Poetry is a negative—or let’s just say poetic—economy.

But of course I’ve stacked the decks a bit. Many small presses will eat a number of costs I’ve listed. Copyediting, proofreading and design costs may be absorbed in the overhead if they are done by the editor-cum-publisher, proofreader, publicity department, and shipper. Formatting and production are commonly done on in-house computers. But these costs cannot be absorbed away—600 dpi laser printers and late-night “proofreading” can cause some serious malabsorption problems for which your gastroenterologist has no cure. Then again, if a book generates enough of an audience to require reprinting, modest profits are possible, allowing the publication of other, possibly less popular, works.

The heart of the small press movement is the supercheap magazine or chapbook, allowing just about anyone to be a publisher or editor.

The situation for the independent literary magazines is similar to presses, and indeed many small presses started as little magazines, o. blek, a beautifully produced magazine edited by Peter Gizzi and Connel McGrath, was started on borrowed money in 1987. One thousand copies of the first 148-page issue cost $1,000 for typesetting, $2,700 for the printing, and $400 for postage. That cost has remained relatively consistent, although a switch to desktop halved the typesetting cost. That first issue, with a cover price of $5.50 (and with the distributor taking 55 percent), sold out in a year and a half. After one year, o. blek had about seventy-five subscribers; after six years, that number is 275 (a figure that does not include libraries, who mostly subscribe through jobbers), o. blek’s most ambitious publication (edited by Juliana Spahr and Gizzi) is just out: 1,500 copies of a two-volume set, six hundred pages in all, collecting poems and statements of poetics from mostly younger poets, many of whom participated in the Writing from the New Coast Festival held at the University at Buffalo last spring. Compare this to Sulfur, edited by Clayton Eshleman, who reports that there were 1,000 copies printed of the first issue in 1981—“maybe 50 subscribers at the time the issue was published, with perhaps 300 to 400 going out to stores. Now, 2,000 copies per issue; around 700 subscribers, with 800 to 900 copies going to stores.”

Of course, many small presses and magazines produce more modest publications than Sun & Moon, Sulfur or o. blek. Indeed, the heart of the small press movement is the supercheap magazine or chapbook, allowing just about anyone to be a publisher or editor. In this world, marketplace values are truly turned upsidedown, since many readers of the poetry small press feel the more modest the production, the greater the integrity of the content. There is no question that many of the best poetry magazines of the postwar period have been produced by the cheapest available methods. In the 1950s, the “mimeo revolution” showed up the stuffy pretensions of the established, letterpress literary quarterlies, not only with its greater literary imagination, but also with innovative designs and graphics. In 1965, 23 percent of little presses were mimeo, 31 percent offset, 46 percent letterpress, according to Fulton’s Directory. By 1973, offset had jumped to 69 percent, with letterpress at 18 percent, and mimeo only 13 percent. As Loss Glazier notes, the mimeo in “the mimeo revolution” is more a metaphor for inexpensive means of reproduction than a commitment to any one technology. Indeed, poetry’s use of technology often has a wryly aversive quality. For example, as offset began to dominate the printing industry in the early 1970s, letterpresses became very cheap to acquire, so that presses like Lyn Hejinian’s Tuumba and Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop’s Burning Deck could produce books with little other cash expense than paper costs and mailing, given the editors willingness to spend hundreds of hours to handset every letter and often enough handfeed each page.

In the metaphoric sense, then, the mimeo revolution is very much alive in the 1990s, with some of the best poetry magazines today—such as Abacus, Witz, Mirage #4, The Impercipient, Interruptions, lower limit speech, Letterbox, Situation, lyric&, and Object—consisting of little more than a staple or two holding together from sixteen to sixty sheets of paper that have been xeroxed in editions of fifty or one hundred or 150. Yet the new mimeo revolution for poetry is surely electronic. Because the critical audience of poets, mostly unaffiliated with academic institutions, does not yet have access to the internet, attempts to create on-line poetry magazines remain preliminary. Technical problems abound; computers actually make reading and writing harder than previous technologies. But these are just the difficulties that make for poetic interest. Still, the potential is there and a few editors have started to propose some basic formats for creating virtual uncommunities. In 1993, the first electronic poetry magazines were founded, including Grist, edited by John Fowler ([email protected]) and Rift, edited by Ken Sherwood and Loss Glazier (e-poetry@ubvm). Also online is Luigi-Bob Drake’s and friends’ Taproot Reviews ([email protected]), an heroic effort to review hundreds of small magazines and chapbooks committed to “experimental language art & poetry.” Experiments with poetry and poetics “listserve” discussion groups have also begun, but as yet the intriguing mix of newsletter, group letter, and bulletin board has not yet found its place. It seems certain, however, that the net will be a crucial site for the distribution of works of poetry, especially out-of-print works, as well as for information on obtaining books and magazines, and, I suspect, for long-term local, national and international exchanges of ideas and work in progress.

The power of our alternative institutions of poetry lies in their commitment to scales that allow for the flourishing of the artform, not the maximizing of the audience; to production and presentation, not publicity; to exploring the known not manufacturing renown. These institutions continue, against all odds, to find value in the local, the particular, the partisan, the committed, the tiny, the peripheral, the unpopular, the eccentric, the difficult, the complex, the homely; and in the formation and reformation, dissolution and questioning, of imaginary or virtual or partial or unavowable communities and/or uncommunities.

Such alternative institutions benefit not just from the support of their readers and writers, but also from contributions by government, individuals, and foundations. Recently, such large foundations as the Lila Wallace-Readers Digest Fund have committed substantial funds to independent literary presses, but they have done so in ways that are often destructive of the culture of the institutions they propose to support. Rather than providing funds to directly support the production of books and magazines, or, indeed, editors or authors, such institutions insist on primarily funding organizational expansion, for example, by providing money to hire new staff for development, publicity, and management. While any money is welcome, the infrastructural expansion mandated by these foundations—defended in the name of stabilizing designated organizations—makes the small press increasingly dependent on ever larger infusions of money, in the process destroying the financial flexibility that is the alternative press’s greatest resource. By pushing the presses they fund to emulate the structures of large non-profit and for-profit institutions to which they stand in honorable structural opposition, these foundations reveal all too nakedly their commitment to the administration of culture rather than to the support of poetry.

Ironically, the negative economy of poetry is what makes it such a great asset for our culture in that it provides an alternative system of valuation to the bureaucratic professionalism of the academy and to the commercialism of the book industry and art world, not to mention the TV and movie industries. But the value of the alternative institutions of poetry is not just that they do not seek, or make, a profit. In that respect, they are no match for such mainstream magazines as The New Yorker, which, despite a circulation that has recently surged to 750,000, appears to be losing as much as $10 million a year (that’s something like $13 per subscriber)—an amount that could finance a good part of the annual cost of the alternative poetry presses and readings and magazines (see Elizabeth Kolbert’s “How Tina Brown Moves Magazines,” in The New York Times Magazine, Dec. 5, 1993.) The New Yorker’s parent company, S. I. Newhouse, is apparently less concerned with profit than with cultural dominance—legitimating the cultural product that forms the basis of its media empire. This exercise in hegemony, circulation, and publicity is more important than profit.

It should be no surprise that it is neither the audience nor quality nor accessibility that creates official literary product, or that much of official “high” culture is a loss leader.

Publishing statistics are notoriously unreliable, especially when they concern the amount publishers are willing to lose—less to obtain cultural legitimacy, I would say, than to establish cultural values. According to the New York Times (3/2/94), Harold M. Evans, the publisher of Random House’s adult trade division, told an audience at the PEN American Center that “the 29 books he published that made it on to the New York Times’s 1993 list of Notable Books lost $680,000” and the eight books that “won awards from the American Library Association lost a total of $370,000.” Evans went on to say that three of these books had advertising budgets of $71,000 to $87,000 each and that these books lost from $60,000 to $300,000 each. Innovative works of literature or criticism or scholarship that challenge the dominant cultural values of institutions such as Random House are not the most likely candidates to receive this type of support; yet without such subventions they stand little chance of being reviewed or recommended in the New York Times, whose reviews are closely correlated to its advertisers. The point is not that official “high” culture, just as alternative-press poetry, requires subsidies; but that a system of selection and support favors certain works over others; it is this system of selection and promotion that allows the media conglomerates to control cultural sectors that they have written off as largely unprofitable. Note, however, that the content of the selections is less important for this system of dominance than is the system of selection and promotion itself, since the alternative presses can never afford to lose as much as these corporations.

It should be no surprise that it is neither the audience nor quality nor accessibility that creates official literary product, or that much of official “high” culture is a loss leader. Advertising and promotion of targeted “loss leaders” are evidently worth the price in influencing literary and critical taste, specifically because they foster a cultural climate in which genuinely profitable products may thrive.

The recent “fiction” issue of The New Yorker (June 27/July 4, 1994) is a perfect example of how that magazine goes about promoting the idea that “Only what sells has value and value is determined by the extent of the sales.” The issue included a “good cop” feature on a struggling “serious” fiction writer that, while seeming to question the value system of commercial publishing, actually reinforced its claim to exclusive value. Remarkably, the piece, and indeed the whole issue, systematically avoided any reference to alternative and independent presses so as to better foster the illusion (not to say comic notion) that the New York trade presses are the sole purveyors of literature. The story on the “struggling” writer emphasized that he had been praised by the Times (which, inevitably, is where the author of the profile had first heard about his work, since that’s where you hear about worthwhile fiction) and had five books with HarperCollins that are neither (Si forbid!) “inaccessible or highbrow.” The problem seemed to be that he was shifting from one New York trade press to another (a Disney affiliate) and that his projected advance would be only $10,000 (nonetheless, considerably more than most literary writers in this culture receive). The New Yorker‘s sell was so hard that the following “bad cop” article got right down to business. It was devoted exclusively to promoting the preeminent cultural value of the top ten books on the Times’s best seller list: “They have a better ear [than nonbestselling fiction] for what we say, or try to say, or don’t notice we’re saying—for the small ways in which the mind works and stumbles”; so eat your Wheaties, kids! “Wonder Bread helps build bodies 12 ways” (& that whole wheat stuff doesn’t taste as good either!) I don’t think “we” can say it any better than that.