There is a lot of talk about the loss of species, and the loss of indigenous languages, about the loss of old buildings, and the loss of manners. And there should be. But one of the most pressing cultural issues of our time is sadly overlooked by almost everyone - and it is the endangered status of the literary book as a physical object, especially, the poetry collection.
Poetry books have existed, in the English language, for several hundred years, but, until the time of Wordsworth and Coleridge, it was relatively rare for poets to write in a language most people could relate to, and to have their books published for sale in shops. Keats, famously, sold only a few hundred of his books - but what books! Anyone owning one of them now would be fiercely lucky.
Eyewear, the blog, and its editor, Todd Swift, have long been interested in, and supportive of, use of the Internet to promote and extend the reach of, poems, and poets. All to the good. But the digital expansion, and rise of the ebook, has lead to a societal norm where fewer young people, the future readers and buyers of books, acquire physical copies of the books they read. Arguably, for mass market fiction, this is less worrying.
However, for smaller presses, it is nothing short of a crisis. In Canada, almost 100% of active small and independent presses are government funded. Even in the UK, most of the poetry presses receive some Arts Council funding. It is literally impossible to run a long-term poetry-dedicated small press without some form of grant, subvention, patronage, or outside support. It is not possible to sustain a long-term business model relying only on market forces and sales, where poetry is concerned, because overheads (staff, editorial, accounting, design, printing, pr, postage, distribution, sales team marketing, launches, etc) will tend to be more than sales.
The reason for this is simple - and it is a fact I have been hammering on about because almost every poet I speak to is ignorant of this fact - poetry books do not sell.
"Sell" is a funny word. Of course, it is possible to sell 50 or 200 copies of a poetry book, via friends, family, local contacts, and a few interested critics, and poetry-friendly readers. But this is - though the average for all poets in America, Canada and the UK - pathetic and derisory, when compared to sales of non-fiction, and fiction titles.
As such, poetry publishing is almost always a subsidised act, done for a larger, wider, cultural good.
Now, before the digital age, that good could have been arguably described as elitist, modernist, or what have you. Noble for me, maybe not for all.
However, in 2014, the great war ahead of us is the fight to save, literally, the future of the poetry book qua poetry book. Not the ebook of poetry. Not the poetry website, or blog, or 3D hologram.
The book, tangible, printed, on paper, lovely paper, with ink, pages you can touch, and turn, and put a rose between, or a clipping of an obituary, that you can mark up, and hold while reading under a tree by the sea, or a lake...
That sort of book will be gone in 20 years. Hell, in 5.
Of course, Faber and Picador and a few other presses - big presses connected to multinational business - may survive, and publish poetry books.
But most poets are unlikely to be picked up and published by an ever-smaller number of major presses, and most are not rank amateurs who want to do vanity press stuff. Who will publish the 99% of poets who deserve a book?
Well, right now, who publishes them are university presses, and small presses, and indies, run by dedicated, decent, hard-working people. Unsung heroes. These presses are backed up by a few good bookshops and book-buyers, who know the heroic cultural role they play.
So - when Eyewear asks for people to buy its books, and for people to consider becoming a patron of a small press - ours or another - we are not asking for selfish motives alone.
I do what I do - publish poetry - because when I was a child, and a teenager, and a university student - lonely, off-kilter, often sad - poetry books were there for me - brilliant, inspiring, informing, difficult, maddening, provocative, mind-blowing books of imagination and music, power and lyricism, strange and uplifting, challenges to the everyday world of business and death, money and boredom - poetry books are one of the most radical items any prisoner, atheist, idealist, soldier, sailor, priest, worker, baker, teacher or dying patient can have - they are always tickets to ride, doors to enter, planes to escape - a weapon, a tool, a bed, a friend.
I love and loved poetry books, and felt loved in return. It is my true vocation, my life's destiny, to help create and promote poetry books. Not poetry, an idea in a vacuum - but books with poems in them. No house or home or flat or boat or cell is complete without at least one poetry book.
It is a good, in and of itself. There is no evil in a poetry book, and publishing poetry books is saintly, it is as heroic as fighting against oppression - it is fighting against oppression. Poetry publishing resists the coming great cultural wasteland, the illiterate age coming.
Which is why I ask you to share this post with all you know, and why I ask you to write a cheque to Eyewear, or another small press you know and admire, this month. Write it for one pound, one dollar, or fifty pounds, fifty dollars, or for a million dollars or pounds. Give what you can, give what you must.
Join the war to save poetry books.
Please share this post with everyone you know.
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