Kona’s column 10: The Unbearable Lightness Of Being Published

July 29, 2010

Have you ever set out to obtain something, dear readers, only to wonder afterwards what on earth you were thinking of?  Right from the beginning, life has a sneaky way of turning hard-won prizes into tongue-curling disappointments:  just ask the toddler who’s finally managed to grab that tasty-looking, strawberry-smelling bar of soap while Mum wasn’t looking and stuff it gleefully into his mouth.  I’ve had my own share of these forehead-smacking disillusionary moments, but perhaps the most bittersweet has been the experience of publishing books of poetry.

For every happy soul for whom writing poems is an enjoyable end in itself, there are legions more who write in the grip of the canonical Unpublished Poet’s Dream – to achieve reputable publication of that first slim volume of poems.  Now, you might hope that holding a pristine copy of your own lovely book in your hands might be an adequate fulfillment of that dream – and for another subset of lucky individuals, it probably is.  However, for many more, the first collection is not so much a physical artefact as a massively overloaded psychological symbol – a cipher for some tangled farrago of nebulous underlying wishes, reflecting varying degrees of outrageous over-optimism, which might include a craving for material success, runaway fame or the slavish adoration of one’s poetic peers, the unacknowledged need to be loved, the desire to give all those doubters and naysayers a metaphorical slap in the face, the fantasy of having something to be quietly smug about at future high school reunions, or the heartfelt wish that your slightly desperate google ego-surfing might produce more than just those three links to reader comments at icanhascheezburger.com made in 2008 by your obscure namesake in deepest Iowa.

When you consider the raft of unspoken expectations freighted on the slim support of 64pp and a paperback cover, it’s hardly surprising that publishing a poetry collection can be a disheartening experience;  you’ve achieved the symbol itself, but not all the other things it has come to represent.  (Fame?  Pfft.  Wealth?  You’re joking, right?)  In acquiring the surface manifestation of your dream, you may have irrevocably trampled the other hopes and aspirations hidden in its dark and half-acknowledged depths.

It’s also easy for a newly-published poet to underestimate just how little the average poetry publisher will be able to do in support of that shiny new book.  The publisher will put out a press release, and maybe send some review copies to the usual suspects, but they likely won’t (a) throw a glamourous launch party at some venue currently favoured by the literati, (b) pay for such a launch party should you choose, go-getting soul that you are, to organise it yourself, (c) ensure that your book is prominently advertised on large posters in all London railway stations, (d) get you featured on Oprah, or even GMTV, (e) get any bricks-and-mortar bookshop actually to stock your book, let alone put it on one of those deliciously prominent impulse-buyer display tables at the front of the store, or (f) suddenly come up with a radical new solution to the teensy mercantile problemette that few punters these days are willing to stump up hard cash for individual poetry collections, particularly first collections.

As Don Marquis once said, and distinguished Scottish poet Stewart Conn quoted at his recent SPL book launch, “Writing a book of poetry is like dropping a rose petal down the Grand Canyon and waiting for the echo” (substitute “publishing” for “writing” and you’ll get my petally drift.)  When proto-writers say “I want to publish a book”, there’s almost always an implicit “and have people read it” attached – and yet the former is no guarantee of the latter.  When considering the problem of poetry, the literary world strokes its chin dubiously and then advises aspirant poets to remember that “it’s very difficult to get published”, as if getting published were the only significant hurdle in finding a readership, rather than simply the first of many (most of which have been set in place facing the wrong way, and thus trip you right over, or at least give you a very nasty crack on the shins, when you crash into them).

Of course, there are consolations in attaining the tenuous status of published poethood.  Chief amongst these is the outcome of the following, all-too typical artsy party conversation:

New acquaintance:  “What do you do?”

Poet:  “I’m a poet.”

New acquaintance (warily, with a glint of fear in the eyes):  “Are you published?”

If you answer “Yes”, the conversation probably continues (or at least runs to an “Oh – who by?” if your new acquaintance is a Literary Type),  whereas in pre-publication days, when you answered “No” (or, even worse, “Not yet”), the new acquaintance generally plastered on a nervous smile and began to back away, muttering something about getting another drink.  [Aside: What is it about subjects beginning with P – Poetry, Physics, Philosophy – that generates the assumption that anyone pursuing them is an utter crank until officially verified otherwise?]

There is one other great benefit though, which is that every now and then, on one of those rarest of occasions when the wind is right and the moon is full, a day so out of the ordinary that the Tories might announce a boost to Arts funding and Polly Toynbee might loquaciously applaud them for it, on such an uncommon flower of a day, some magnificent, noble-hearted, unutterably precious (oh for adequate superlatives!) complete stranger will spontaneously get in touch to say (a) that they, alone amongst uncounted millions, have gone so far as to read your book and (b) that they actually liked it. O rapture!  Even JK Rowling could have no sweeter moment than this! (Do I hyperbolise?  I swear not!)

My point, dear readers, is that poets expecting to make a splash (or even just an audible drip) are likely to be thoroughly disheartened by the poetry-publishing experience.  However, with a little bit of luck, a published poet just might get to make a fleeting connection with a real live reader or two.  That, in my experience, is something that makes a generally dis-spiriting enterprise briefly but profoundly worthwhile.  Is it worth it then, overall?  Yes, I think so.  But you might want to ask me again tomorrow, just in case.

Kona Macphee is a UK-born, Australian-bred poet now living and working in Scotland. This column is a monthly feature. Kona also facilitates the Poetry Society Poetry Surgeries. There will be further batch of surgeries here in the library on Saturday 30 October . You can also hear Kona on the SPL podcast ‘Witching Hour’and  follow her on Twitter.

3 Responses to “Kona’s column 10: The Unbearable Lightness Of Being Published”

  1. John Says:

    Very nicely put, Kona. I think some will say, “but ah, there are those who do do well in poetry”. Of course, but just having a general awareness of those few being such a tiny tiny proportion of what passes into the publishing houses, is a good thing. Plus, none of the above should be taken negatively, or as a discouragement (as clearly, it isn’t). It’s just a thing that happens, often; it’s just how it is, most of the time. And those who write may still have their dreams of publication, only perhaps now more grounded in the reality of what that entails and means. Or else, equally good, some may see that publishing really isn’t the be-all and end-all, and that there are other ways to do things. More interesting ways. Unique ways. Which can be far more interesting. To be a poet is to make things, after all.

  2. well money aside (and I haven’t even recouped my costs on my author’s copies yet) I’ve found it a wonderful experience, I’ve had people email me from around the world to say how much they’ve enjoyed my book, I’ve had strangers approach me to tell me they’ve enjoyed my book, I’ve worked with film-makers and musicians to record versions of my poems and my parents are briefly for once almost proud of me. And being published by a very small press and so under the radar for a lot of people there’s no huge amount of pressure on me for the next collection.

    I love your collection by the way Kona, some wonderful poems in there.

  3. I stand in your shadow as ever… and can only reiterate that your prose is very saleable; it is certainly readable, connectable with, enjoyable and endearing and a lot of other things too.

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