Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Let's all aspire to be awesome and have fun.

I visited Juliet Cook in Ohio this weekend, went out for delicious Chinese food and sushi, went to a lovely farmer's market (there was goat milk fudge! Oh, the decadence!), played with her dog Sockeye, and, oh yes, picked up the copies of my chapbook, Letters From Room 27 of the Grand Midway Hotel.

I know that since they are my chapbooks you will probably take this with a grain of salt, but oh my goodness they are incredibly lovely! Juliet has gone above and beyond with the design and construction of them, and everything about them is just beauty. Our dear friend Kevin Ross has contributed photos that get tucked inside each copy, and that, plus the artsy extras that Juliet is including make me wish that more presses were like Blood Pudding Press for the sake of poets and writers everywhere.

The first 18 or so copies are already making their way out into the world, and I can't wait to do my first reading post-chapbook release. On September 24th I will be reading at Bite Bistro (565 Lincoln Ave) in Pittsburgh for the poetry organization Girls With Glasses. Deena, the organizer, is a lovely person and great poet and I can't wait - it's also a beer tasting for a new local brewery and there will be music. If you are in the area, you should definitely come by because I can promise awesomeness.

I am sure everyone is sick of hearing about it, but I'm going to weigh in on the BlazeVOX controversy. If you've been under a rock all weekend and my blog is for some absurd reason the first you are hearing of it, it recently came to light that the publisher BlazeVOX sometimes (often?) asks authors to contribute $250.00 toward the publication of their book, but has not until post-controversy, made this information public, and in fact, seemed to be trying to make it not public.

I don't think the practice of asking the writer to contribute monetarily or otherwise to their book's publication is a problem as long as that information is offered readily to anyone who might be considering submitting to that press. It is expensive to publish perfect-bound books. Hell, it's not free to publish saddle-stapled books either. In my opinion, the only problem here is the lack of transparency. But that is not really what I want to talk about. All of this has been talked to death. Many people have said everything I am thinking in that vein and much more eloquently than I could hope to.

The thing that we are all skirting around now, and that Roxane Gay touched on, perhaps most directly out of the posts I've seen, is the future of poetry and of publishing on honest-to-goodness dead trees, and more specifically, the "traditional" publishing model for poetry. It's just not working. People don't read poetry unless they are poets or the odd weird-ass literary fiction writer, or unless that poetry has a specific appeal to them that transcends its scary line breaks. At some point in a comment on her post, Roxane mentions that Gatza's comment that he only sells 25-30 copies of a new poet's book indicates that their relatives aren't even all buying the book. Honestly? I can count on one hand the number of my relatives who have purchased one of my two chapbooks, and my second chapbook is so full of sex and demons and... um... monkeys, that I am pretty sure if any of my relatives (other than my dad, who is cool) read it, our next holiday gathering would be a special one. I mean, I certainly wouldn't stop them from purchasing or reading, but my grandmother is getting old. Her heart can only take so much. With fiction, it is presumed that it is, well, fiction.

Gatza publishes experimental, avant-garde poetry. Often the kind of poetry that our relatives just wouldn't get. My parents are crazy-supportive of The TypewriterGirls, which is pretty experimental and often downright offensive to them, but not all of my family feels for me like my mom and dad do. And I still don't think it's the best idea if my mom reads this chapbook. I let her read my senior thesis in creative writing, and her response was that I was clearly having too much sex. Possibly true, but still. So if every single one of a poet's family members aren't running out and buying their book, it doesn't surprise me, and for some poets it is probably a tiny relief.

That said, another comment was made on Roxane's post saying that if a book sells only 30 copies it doesn't need to be a book, and I do disagree with that. I think that my responsibility as an editor is to get writing out there that I think is beautiful and strange and unsettling and important. Yes, Juliet can publish each of her Designer Vagina poems individually in journals (and has for most if not all of them), but collecting them together gives them more power in my opinion. To be fair I've sold about twice the number of copies of Juliet's chapbook that Gatza is quoting, (the same is true for my Star Trek: TNG collection, Make it So). Perhaps this is because I've only taken on 4 poets for the first year of Hyacinth Girl Press. Perhaps it is because my books are crazy-affordable ($5), but I also wouldn't mind at all if I sold more, and not because I want to make money (honestly, they're priced for me to basically break even), but because I genuinely want to get this poetry out into the world.

In spite of its reputation, I think poetry can be an extremely powerful medium. Honestly, I equate writing a poem to writing a prayer or a spell. For me, good poetry says that which cannot be said in any other way, and the collaborative experience of poetry, I believe, can be truly transformative. That is a large part of what Crystal and I did with the TypewriterGirls. We engaged, and beyond that, we did our best to make poetry fun for an audience that may not have ever been to a poetry reading before. And we succeeded.

I think people who claim that poetry is not a viable medium are not looking at poetry from all angles. While Crystal and I were often accused of over sexualizing our shows (which almost always include burlesque and lots of herpes jokes) and I am sure the same accusations are lobbed at groups like The Poetry Brothel, we never once held a show where, at the end, someone didn't come to us and say something to the effect of "I had never been to a poetry reading before and was convinced they all sucked, but this was amazing," and then proceed to talk, not about the mostly-nude ladies (though the Bridge City Bombshells are amazing mostly-nude ladies), but the readers we invited to perform with us. Those readers would also almost invariably tell us that they sold more books at our readings than at any other. Partly, if not mostly, because Crystal would work her butt off to sell them post-show.

I'm not saying this to toot my own horn, Crystal's, or that of the TypewriterGirls. I'm saying these things because I don't think that we have to be the exception. It should be the rule, not a surprise, that poetry readings are fun and engaging and involve the audience actively and don't suck. It should be the rule that the organizers of an event pimp the books of their readers. Hard. Particularly if they are not helping that writer financially. In return, poets need to learn to read and perform in an engaging way that does not involve their noses being in a paper the whole time, or their front never truly facing the audience. For an amazing example of a poet who writes and reads oh-so well, I give you Renee Alberts (skip to 2:30 if you don't want to watch me chase people around in a gorilla costume - there's also some typewriter background noise, sadly, due to the position of the camera). This girl will blow your face off. And I have to read next to her on the 24th. Haha.

If you are a poet who doesn't know how to read well in front of an audience, ask poets who do know. I'm not saying I am the best reader ever, or that I am even the right person to ask, but there are poets out there who are very very very good readers. Or you can just watch every Youtube video of Huang Xiang that you can find. That would help, too.

But perhaps I digress. This was to be a response to issues in publishing, but the problem is, in large part (everyone keeps saying it), that poetry is not popular. I think fun, skilled readings that challenge and engage the audience would go a really long way toward helping with that. I know it is disheartening when you do a reading for 50 people and no one buys your book. I know it is upsetting when no one seems to care, but as they say, isn't the very definition of insanity doing the exact same thing over and over again and expecting a different result? In my opinion, the root of the problem is not that people are putting out bad books, is not that writers today are not as good as they used to be, but perhaps that we have begun to forget that there is more to getting you poetry out there than tweeting about it. I don't mean to be dismissive or reductive or to say that it is 100% up to the poet - this applies to editors and curators of readings, too.

We can't do anything that will be the finger snap to make poetry popular again. Though I do suggest flyting very strongly. I'm hoping to run a Flyting Series at some point. Oh god, that would be amazing... Hit me up if you would be interested in flyting (either with me or someone else) myhyacinthgirl (at) gmail.com - seriously.

I agree with the people who have said that smaller press run books (or POD) that are handmade art pieces may very well be the way of the future for non-electronic publication of poetry, and I say bring it on. If this discussion/blow up/controversy has done one positive thing for me personally, it's been to let me know that it's okay that I'm dragging my feet on finishing my full-length manuscript, and it is perhaps even a good thing that I'm really into chapbook-length collections, handmade books, and putting physical beauty into the poetry collection. I'm not someone who is worried about tenure, so that may be coloring my opinions pretty strongly, but I love what I am doing. I love editing Hyacinth Girl Press. I love Blood Pudding Press, Flying Guillotine, Dancing Girl Press, and Greying Ghost Press. I aspire to be as awesome as any of them.

Really, let's all aspire to be awesome and have fun.


Jenny Dreadful said...

I loved your post - and it brought up SUCH a valid point.

I know at one point I was lambasted by one of our local 'darlings' who runs a press and publishes because I did not hand make my chapbook (I harbored a childlike hopefulness of acceptance. Bad move.) - and from one who doesn't live off a trust fund and is of the working poor class - I had to politely reply that I simply can't afford to self-pub/make my own chap because I work two jobs and struggle to feed myself and feed my bills (who can't walk away hungry - unless I'd like to live in my car).

I think you've touched on SO MANY great points - but one that is missing is the income/class as guiding the way one publishes.
Should I not publish because I can't afford to make my own chaps? Of course not. I don't have the time to make a chap working and writing when I can. And the local scene here . . . well . . . I don't hang around a coffee shop all day in my hipster get-up. Thus, my work is judged by me - without a reading. I'm not so much angry as puzzled and slightly grossed out. When did writing turn into this?

I hate to post loads and loads - I just love that you brought this up - so many relevant issues you've touched upon.

I can't wait until you post a review of my work if you're still interested - I hope! (I hope you judge my words by merit also, not by lulu.com. Thank you for such a great post. Will be checking out those awesome examples of poetry reads.)

Thanks again,

Margaret Bashaar said...

Jenny - you are completely correct that I did not touch on socioeconomic issues in this post, in part because I am not sure I am terribly qualified to talk about them. I grew up middle class and while my husband and I often live paycheck to paycheck, right now I am at a writing retreat (free other than the gas to get here, but still, on a retreat) rather than working a second job. I have struggled with money (particularly when my son was first born) but at that point, I was honestly not in a place where I was thinking about publishing a chapbook. I do work 40+ hours a week and spend most of the remainder of my time caring for my son during the week, but I guess I just write more slowly as a result.

The woman who gave you shit for not hand making your chapbooks really needs to be slapped upside the head. I try to be a compassionate person, but really...

I think the hipsters who sit in coffee shops all day are not writing the kind of poetry I want to read anyway. I guess I also do not tend to engage with those people terribly often. Or Pittsburgh does not have many of them outside of the college kids, who seem to be in a world of their own half the time.

I have nothing against non-handmade chapbooks. I prefer to design and make the chapbooks for Hyacinth Girl Press, and I prefer the aesthetic of chapbooks with a handmade touch, but what is at the heart of it is the writing. What Juliet Cook does with Blood Pudding Press is that she prints and designs books as they are ordered, which is much more viable monetarily. I don't know your financial situation, though, and it may be such that even that is a stretch (purchasing paper, binding, etc.).

I can't remember what city you live in off the top of my head, but I do know that Pittsburgh is a pretty supportive place for writers who are not "full time" and we really don't have too many trust fund babies. I hear what you are saying from a decent number of people and it always confuses me. I think I have been extraordinarily lucky in terms of the people I have met, the community I have been allowed to become a part of. I need to be more thankful more of the time.

Margaret Bashaar said...

Also! I am absolutely planning to write a review of your chapbook. It's been an absurd summer/start to the school year for my family and me, and I do apologize for the delay!

Jenny Dreadful said...

I suppose your writing community is the grown-up version of mine. I'm reading your post and feeling more than a little envious.

I simply adore how you stated your opinion - handmade chaps have that 'extra special' something to them, no denying. I'm also glad you don't carry a grudge for the e-version or Lulu made copy either.

I find myself wishing more people in the writing scene where I live (in Burlington, VT) to have the same philosophy as you. There is one well known indie press, Honeybee Press/The Salon - and their aesthetic happens to be in revolt with the nature of my chapbook.

I'm embittered that people who can live well off family money and create art slam me for selling my soul to publisher that would uses Lulu.com.

What can you do though? I find solace in you and other writers who share your opinion though, and I thank you very much for it.

(Re: Chap review - no worries! I know life can get in the way, and look forward to whatever your thoughts/critiques are on my work!)

All the best,