Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Poetry And The Future

I was reading Don Share’s new blog article, The Future of American Poetry on how the relationship between poet and audience has changed and is still in the process of changing, mainly due to technological advance. Of course, it’s not only American poetry at stake. The “chapbook publisher with a Blogspot page and PayPal account can sell directly to readers worldwide,” as Ron Silliman mentions, from just about anywhere.

Any poet can develop an international readership, which would have been unthinkable only 15 years ago for all except for the most lauded writers with international reputations, who were very few. That’s the theory and, for some, it works. However, it’s more complicated than that.

A decade or two ago, most poets writing now would have had no audience at all other than friends and family (if that). Some others may have become known in a local scene, but not beyond. Only a handful would have entered the public consciousness (or, at least, the poetry-reading public consciousness). These days, millions of poets compete for readerships through the Internet and there is no quality-control. Poetry boards abound where people ‘share’ their poetry, and many of those people will never read poetry books. They read only their ‘sharing’ peers online, partly because they expect their community to reciprocate. I suspect they don't really constitute a significant potential base of readers (perhaps I'm wrong about that?). Some poets who would never have got a publishing contract from a traditional page publisher are getting read on the Net and are selling a decent amount of their pamphlets and books. These include poets who write 'traditional' verse and those who lean towards experimental work. Because there are so many, however, those with a gift for marketing themselves with an online presence are most likely to succeed in gaining an Internet audience. The rest will fail.

I’ve noticed that most of the bigger UK independent presses like Bloodaxe, Carcanet, Salt, Seren etc are all developing a significant Web presence and are embracing new media such as e-books, video, audio etc. The same isn’t true of the trade presses like Faber, Picador and Cape. They perhaps feel that their books will set the agenda for future anthologies, that posterity will belong to them, and that the deafening racket from today’s Internet won’t cement any reputations. They may be right. I know their books sell well (for poetry books), but they must be losing out on a vast potential audience by not engaging with Net readers. At the moment, they are fine and get plenty of publicity on the Web through newspapers (the traditional outlets online), prize shortlists, and the sense among UK readers (it still exists, I think) that a new Faber book is an important event. They are trading off their reputations, which is a fair enough strategy. But is it adequate to ensure a readership for poetry in the future? It’s hard to believe it is. As Ron Silliman says, “everything is up for grabs.”

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