Poetry Community Questions All Over the Map

Something Susan Schultz wrote in her response to my indie publishing questions has me thinking.

My frustration at the moment comes of the fact that no publisher can demand her customers read the press as well as its authors. So the conversations we mean to get going are sometimes overlooked when people buy only work by Pacific writers, or Buddhist writers, or Asian American writers or Bay Area writers (for example). But the publisher may have died (Roland Barthes style) with her authors.

Outside of this world of authors promoting other authors, and authors wanting to insert themselves into communities or even legacies that independent publishers (actively) create (how many times have we as authors said “I want to be published by the same press that published so-and-so,” or my thing: “I want some things that Li-Young Lee has”), I think book buyers and educators buy books because of who’s authored them, and/or because of the communities the authors are perceived as representing. I think book buyers take for granted the kinds of conversations in formation to which Susan refers, and I think educators already have their pre-set or preexisting beliefs or ideas about literary conversations, and I think educators uphold or reinforce or justify these pre-set or preexisting beliefs.

I am wondering then if it’s the independent publishers, or if it’s the authors, or if it’s both together somehow, who are responsible for confronting and challenging these conventions. Certainly, this is something I am finding my indie publisher respondents saying: certain things in the literary establishment (and academic literature departments, and other departments which use literature in their studies of culture and history are included here) need to change.

I am thinking about my syllabus for next semester’s Filipino American Arts course at USF. I am trying to figure out how to integrate new literature into this course. In Filipino American Literature, there are always the old standbys. Manong literature, post-1965 and “postmodern” literature. There is a bias against text that is not based in conventional narrative, unless you are teaching the requisite one postmodern text. Experimental poetry is objectified if it is tolerated at all. Recent Filipino American literary criticism is at least a decade old, written about work that is older than at least a decade old. New work is ignored or dismissed until literary criticism is written about it, but no one steps up to write this new literary criticism.

I have been invited to contribute an essay to the inaugural issue of the Akron Series in Contemporary Poetics. I don’t know how to narrow down what I mean to say about any current trends in Filipino American poetry, particularly the poetry that’s subversive and political, unabashedly and on multiple levels that defy subtlety. Maybe because I am overwhelmed with work and other literary commitments, but I can’t see straight right now. I wish I could find more of this kind of poetry published. I wish more poets in our community would take the risk, not just to write books and seek publication for these, but to risk not writing for the establishment in the establishment’s voice/to meet its expectations.

Finally, this morning, I am missing my Pinoy mentors, the ones most poetically and politically snarky, bombastic, and slick. I miss them in a big way.

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19 thoughts on “Poetry Community Questions All Over the Map

  1. Your mentors were most probably mentors because they invented their own way. Why don’t you publish the poetry you want to see published? That is how it has been done for centuries. Artists work in informal collectives. The ‘literary establishment’ is as irrelevant now as it has always been. Fossils or living creatures? Take your pick.

  2. “Why don’t you publish the poetry you want to see published?”

    Well, I am working on that, Paul. That’s a matter of time. Also, mind your tone on my blog.

    And this is also why I am asking all kinds of interesting indie publishers what they are doing and why.

    I don’t agree with you that literary establishment is irrelevant if you mean as a concept. I do agree with you if you mean in its current state it’s irrelevant. This is what I am seeing indie publishers working to change, and this is what I as an author, educator, and community arts organizer am working to change.

  3. Sorry, I didn’t mean to imply a tone there at all. It was a genuine question, or suggestion. It seems to me, having read your blog for a long time now, that part of what you are trying to do is to get your community and the art it creates accepted into the establishment. That is what I gather from our discussions on self-publishing and other topics. And you are trying to get the establishment to change in order to allow your community and its art to be a part of it. So it is a form of integration, merging your culture into the mainstream? Would that be fair to say?

  4. Thanks Paul, yes to your questions, except that I don’t believe our community must write in the voice of the establishment or in a voice acceptable to them in order to be read by the establishment. This is why it’s so important to change it. [Addendum: I say this because one alternative is to continue being marginalized and rendered invisible, or written about and misrepresented.]

    My work is both in that establishment and in the local grassroots community, and I think it’s important to do both if only to start bridging the distance.

    As for my going into publishing the poetry I want to see published, it’s really more a matter of money than of time. I have so much on my plate, though this is so important that I gladly add it to my plate. I wish more people thought and took action this way.

  5. a tough subject. i think authors need to be diligent about continuing to promote their publishers’ other efforts. additionally, i think educators need to focus and highlight publishers. too often educators simply excerpt poems into a reader and students never hold the book, never see who the publisher is. whenever i visit classes or do readings and the question of publishing comes up i always tell folks to pay attention to publishers…to buy/read multiple books by the same publisher.


    • Thanks C, I agree that educators and students need to pay attention to who the publisher of a certain work is. This is generally taken for granted, not only by non-academic readers. It seems like publishers are thought of as simply this thing that provides service or churns out product, rather than as dynamic, deliberate, and (even) politicized (groups of) people. I believe that publishing as community activism and community building is an important discussion. But to whom? Again, if it makes no difference to the reader because what matters to them is that there’s a book available for them to use/consume (however it came to be and whoever was responsible) then … ?

  6. totally agree. in that sense, i think susan is right that the publisher is dead…or at least dead to many. one thing i’ve been thinking about is when some publishers list other books in their catalogue at the end of every book…i’ve always liked this as it extends the reader’s attention towards these other books. what if that idea was extended…as in the end of a certain book could have a few pages about other books from the same publisher that speak to the book in hand. or, if the author of the book in hand recommends other books the publisher has published…whadya think?

    • Hi C, BOA does this, lists its titles in the back of their books, or at least they do this for the American Poets Continuum Series. So in a case like this, there is a dialogue in process, no? Or at least a visible or active effort at redefining/discussing/expanding what American Poetry is conventionally perceived as.

      I always thought that was important to me only because I am author invested in expanding “American Poetry,” you know?

      New Directions (and I think City Lights) does this too, and it usually puts me in a state of awe about ND and City Lights, but more so about literary legacy and how we can access that/be a part of that, not in a “I am so self-important” kind of way, but because I think we as authors contribute to/are a part of something larger, certainly our work builds upon work that’s come before ours.

      I think Tinfish should do this! Or in the very least, include its mission statement. Some presses do this; I’ve recently taken notice of it in Raul Salinas’s book on Wings Press, so again with the history/legacy, and what the publisher means to do which lets us think about the work we are reading within that context.

  7. of course, we should say that not all publishers seek to create dialogue but that some really do only churn out product :)


  8. I think all publishers function also as curators, whether they state so explicitly or let the array of their titles speak for themselves. Reading all the titles by a particular publisher is not unlike subscribing to a particular journal or magazine–you are following the selections, suggestions, and contextual framings of a particular editor or group of editors. And in fact many presses do offer titles on a subscription (and sometimes discounted) basis, which encourages reading towards this larger curatorial vision.

    I like it when a list of other titles by the publisher is printed at the back of the book. I take this list seriously, as seriously as I take the list of the individual author’s other published books.

    Susan Schultz’s vision of publishing is actually quite a bit more ambitious than the usual. There is not only the curatorial function here of assembling different hybrid genres, styles, and aesthetics, but also a desire to bring together communities and geographies that might not otherwise talk to or be interested in one another. In some ways this is going beyond the literary; in other ways it is trying to re-ground communities *in* the literary, using the literary as the basis for building an intentional community of readers and writers.

    • Thanks Pam, I like what you say about publisher as curator. In fact, Susan has responded to my question at Harriet by talking about the importance of the live poetry performance, in which the participants are from various different communities. If we can see/hear/witness the dialogue, however unlikely it may seem at the onset, then perhaps those connections can become more apparent.

  9. Another idea that Rusty Morrison helped me come up with was this: slip notes into publications that says things like, “did you enjoy reading this book by Lisa Kanae? Then you’d also enjoy reading Daniel Tiffany’s _The Dandelion Clock_ (forthcoming). In other words, suggest that the conversations exist (picking the ones least to be expected) and then use that as advertising copy of a kind. The lists of titles are good, too, though they’re usually so static looking, locked in straight-jacketed alphabetical or chronological order. I want something more active that than, though it’s a start.
    Maybe round tables. That aren’t just more talk, yeah?

    • Hi Susan, yes I like your and Rusty’s idea. You get these kinds of e-notices from Amazon, or iTunes, based upon previous purchases and downloads. As for the Xeroxed excerpt, you always hope that’ll lead to interest in the book from which the copied excerpt came, but I see how this, like over-reliance upon the anthology, can lead to laziness in finding resources for teaching.

  10. i def agree with pam’s great comment.

    in my earlier comment, i mentioned adding something more substantial in addition to the list…maybe a more specific curatorial statement linking book in hand to another/other books in catalog. or maybe even the author writing a statement linking their work to another same press author. but this info can also be included in a slip note or slip flier–and maybe even have some kind of 25% discount code or password if the reader actually goes to buy the recommended text. that would make me feel special.


  11. good ideas, Craig, about “statements” by authors. Or maybe mini-collaborative conversations? Of course all this involves more work and production for everyone, but why not (well, because it’s the drizzly November of the soul, that’s why). I did renovate the opening page to the Tinfish Press website (http://tinfishpress.com) under the pressure of these recent conversations, and hope that is of some help to us and our readers.

    On xeroxes: I think yes it’s good to pique interest, but the xeroxes present things so out of context . . . (little girl calls).

  12. barb, just a little comment on a small part of your post. you write: “Recent Filipino American literary criticism is at least a decade old, written about work that is older than at least a decade old. New work is ignored or dismissed until literary criticism is written about it, but no one steps up to write this new literary criticism.”

    just wanted to say that there are indeed folks out there writing this lit crit, but there are problems with getting them published in a “timely” manner, especially if one goes the peer-reviewed journal route. and outside this system, i can’t at the moment think of any venues that will publish lit crit regularly except for maybe college zines that don’t get a lot of circulation.

    • Thanks Gladys, yes I imagine it’s a much longer process than placing creative writing in publication. Still, it’s pretty frustrating work on my end, as an author and as an educator, searching for current critical writing.

      Then I see something like the contemporary poetics series to which I have been asked to contribute, and this confirms for me that the work can indeed be placed and in a timely enough manner, and at least made available to educators via university library collections. This is not “the masses” but then at least I’d potentially have something to teach alongside the text itself.

      • yeah, it’s pretty frustrating for me, too, actually. as i write my dissertation, i’m having a hard time finding any lit crit for some of the recent fil/am texts that i am working on. first of all, it’s disheartening, and second, to be honest, it is really difficult for me to write when i feel like mine might be the first piece of lit crit of a certain work to get published. (i did it once before (on virginia cerenio’s 1989 poetry collection), but i was a naive undergrad then, and i don’t know if i made sense at all.)

        anyway, i am glad that there are definitely venues out there for lit crit to get published (is this right? your piece for the contemp poetics series is lit crit?). i hope such opportunities continue and that more of our fellow scholarly/writerly folks find such opportunities to publish their work. i personally think that the academy should move in the direction of peer-reviewed but timely online publishing of scholarly work.

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