I rarely talk about poetry on this blog, and given that I’m trying to persuade you to take me seriously as a poet (at least as seriously as you ever take me), I thought I should remedy that. Fortunately, I have plenty of ideas, following on from a discussion I had with a friend yesterday about poetry and the publishing industry.
After I’d said that one of my primary reasons for self-publishing my poetry collections was that it’s almost impossible to be published as a poet unless you’ve somehow made your name already, she asked me this:
If you had more time on your hands, would you go through competitions and magazines and get a list of your own accepted work and then try and go for a poetry publisher?
This post is about that question. It’s also a post about the far broader problems of poetry publication and how the industry is changing. It’s a pretty long post, because I feel strongly about poetry.
This is a fair question. I considered taking that very route, actually, way back in March last year when Charley told me I should publish my poems and I told her “That’s pretentious, like. Anyone can write poems.” Poetry competitions are an established thing. I used to have a subscription to Writing Magazine and I’d go through the competitions section with a biro and circle all the ones I thought I could enter and then I never entered any of them.
There are problems with poetry competitions. One of them is that a lot of the most prestigious competitions, and even some of the less highbrow ones, were only open to ages 18+. It’s understandable enough, because there are a lot of teenage poets on the internet, and no doubt they would be flooded by a highly mixed bag of entries that would be more trouble to go through than it’s worth. However, at the time that I was looking into it as an option, I was under eighteen, and therefore ineligible to enter.
The other major problem was not having time on my hands to enter them, since I was writing the poems anyway, but money.
I’m eighteen years old. I haven’t left school yet and I live at home with my parents. This means I don’t have to pay rent or buy food. I have a lot of health issues, but fortunately I live in the UK and the NHS means I get free prescriptions (just as well!), so I don’t really have a lot of costs. It’s only things I want to buy, like books or music or harps, that cause problems financially. Because I’m a dependent, but my parents aren’t going to supply me with an infinite amount of money.
And, due to the aforementioned health issues plus the infinite timesuck that is school, I don’t have a job. So I have no income. A poetry competition might only charge five pounds per entry … but if you want to submit even two poems, you’re paying a tenner. Then there’s postage, since a lot of them don’t accept online entries. On the face of it, it’s not a lot of money, but for the chances of any reward (very slim), it adds up to a lot of money potentially being wasted.
You might get lucky and win three grand for writing twenty lines, but the chances of that are small.
And it’s because poetry is a genre or style that almost requires having ‘experience’ before you can even think about trying to find a publisher, and requires you to win competitions and get printed in magazines and the like, that it’s so very exclusive. Younger poets, unemployed poets, poets from socially disadvantaged backgrounds … how are they meant to have a chance?
I think it’s because of this that spoken word poems are so popular. For a start, they have way fewer negative connotations. I’ve never studied slam poetry in school and I don’t associate it with having to analyse anything. It’s about your immediate response to the words and the tone of voice, not how you feel after reading it so many times you’ll see it behind your eyelids for the next three hours. Like TV or films compared to books, it takes less effort to absorb than reading poems. It can engage people who struggle with reading due to dyslexia or eyesight problems.
Of course, for some people slam poetry and spoken word poetry isn’t their thing. They prefer to take it at their own speed, they’re deaf, they don’t want the emotions and energy of the performer to impact on their own experience … there are all sorts of reasons why people react differently. But I think it’s a far more accessible format in this day and age for many people who wouldn’t go near a poetry collection with a ten-foot bargepole.
And for socially and financially disadvantaged poets, often young people and students, it’s also a lot easier. They can write these poems and get up there and say them in front of a friend’s camera or somebody’s phone, and it’ll be put up on YouTube for everyone to see. It’s diverse. It’s alive. It’s for everyone and anyone and nobody’s charging an entrance fee.
I mean, the publishing industry on the whole is shockingly exclusive. So many people who could be great are rejected or worse, discouraged so that they never even try to submit their work, because of these ideas about who a writer should be and what’s acceptable. But it’s magnified a thousand times with poetry when it’s such a tiny, niche branch of publishing and poetry presses are afraid of taking risks.
Why should you publish the eighteen-year-old with no experience, no competitions under her belt, when you could have somebody who’s been published in half a different magazines, with a degree in English Lit specialising in poetry? You wouldn’t, would you?
I’m lucky. I’m white and I come from a middle class family, even if I personally don’t have a lot of income because, you know, I’m young and have no job. However, I’m also not old enough for anyone to take me seriously as a poet. I’m disabled, even if I’m still trying to come to terms with the limitations of my body and what I can and cannot do. I’m queer, and I feel like I never get to see myself in books.
I’m trying to make a living through writing because the chances of me ever having a real job are tiny, but I chose to do it my way – through self-publishing, where I sometimes sell only one single book in an entire month, rather than through competitions and magazines where there’s an off-chance I’ll land a one-off reward of five hundred pounds but there’s a far, far greater chance that I spent the entrance fee for nothing – because it’s the only option for me.
I’ll be writing whether or not I’m making a penny from it (so it didn’t seem like a loss to try and capitalise on what I’d already written in the hope of earning a little). It’s the only way I can express my ideas, ideas I don’t often see in the world around me. It’s a way I can be heard, and it’s a way that I can build myself into the person I want to be, strengthening my understanding of my identity.
The world of poetry and the publishing industry isn’t a wide, inclusive place for everybody who ever wrote a poem that touched someone. The internet cares more about poems than bookshops do, and it gets more attention on YouTube than in libraries. But I think it’s wonderful that with things like Kindle Direct Publishing, I can release my poems at no cost to myself. I took the photo for the cover. I used PicMonkey to alter the focus and colouring and Amazon’s cover creator to add the title and my name. At no point did I pay at all for the construction of that collection.
And maybe I’ll earn no more than twenty pounds in royalties like I did the first time, which is less than the grand prize for many competitions, it’s true. But Amazon didn’t charge me three quid per poem, or I’d be bankrupt already.
The world of poetry has been changed far more by the internet than most people realise, probably because most people don’t pay attention to poetry much. And it won’t stop changing. It’s going to evolve, it’s going to change, and scholars might be worried that the imagery and careful literary construction of poems will be lost, but ultimately I believe that any change which gives a voice to poets who wouldn’t have spoken out before is a change for the better.
I’ll leave you with this, one of my all-time favourite pieces of slam poetry because of how, when I first heard it, he reached a certain line (it begins “what is a burning bush”) and I kind of felt like I needed to reevaluate my entire worldview because that line touched me so much.