Poetry isn’t like fiction, even in the world of snail publishing (if that’s the phrase I’m looking for). It’s a form of writing that in recent times has flourished mainly in small magazines, whose editors dream, usually in vain, of finding a few subscribers who don’t want their own poems published - for poetry is a commodity for which supply massively exceeds demand. New poetry in book form is published mainly by a small number of specialist publishers, such as Bloodaxe, Carcanet and Enitharmon, with one or two general publishers continuing to do their bit, notably Faber.
Few poets can have any realistic hope of being published by any of the big boys. Some years ago when I still had delusions I checked them out, and found that one - it may have been Bloodaxe - had announced that they would definitely not be taking on any new poets for at least three years. The others were little more encouraging. The number of living poets whose names are known to the public is tiny. Fifteen years ago an Arts Council study found that only four per cent of the total sales of the best-selling thousand poetry books were of contemporary poetry. Faber were responsible for 90 per cent of the sales, and Seamus Heaney for 67 per cent of those. Ted Hughes probably accounted for most of the rest.
Whereas publishers tend to feel that they are publishing too much poetry - because the public aren’t buying it - poetry readers (most of whom are also poetry writers) are inclined to believe, I think, that there is more good new poetry around than there has ever been. And these days most of it tries to make its mark on the world in electronic form. A lot of poetry magazines have mutated into websites or “e-zines”, many new websites have sprung up, and then, of course, there is e-publishing.
I didn’t set out to be a poet, and am still faintly embarrassed and amused by the idea that I might be one. (Friends feel the same way about me.) Back in the nineties, the company I worked for gave every employee a voucher for adult education. I wanted to spend mine on a course on music theory, but that was in the wrong borough, so I enrolled for creative writing instead. Teacher got me to write some poetry, then claimed to see some merit in it. I really liked a book called How to be well-versed in poetry, which dealt with verse forms - recipes for them, and entertaining examples. When it went out of print, I decided I would produce an internet substitute for it, and www.volecentral.co.uk/vf was born. It now covers 70 or 80 forms, with all the examples written by me, from the abhanga to the zejel, via well-known forms like the sonnet and villanelle and exotica such as the pathya vat from Cambodia and the magnificently-named cro cumaisc etir casbairdni ocus lethrannaigecht. The site has done pretty well, in an unspectacular, financially unrewarding, sort of way. It gets 200 to 300 visitors per day. Last week one of them was in East Timor, and I have one regular visitor from the Northern Mariana Islands, and another in the Vatican. I think the site is quite widely used as an educational resource. Several teachers and colleges have even asked permission to use it, which is nice. My favourite piece of fan-mail came from a contemplative nun in the USA, who said volecentral brought her some blessed relief from her daily round of hymn-writing.
When I realised that Kindle self-publishing ought to be cheap and easy, and perhaps bring in a few bob, I produced a selection from the website (with as much new content as I could muster), brazenly entitled it Fifty Shades of Verse, and submitted it to Amazon for publication.
But there was a problem. “Based on recent high risk publishing activity, we may need up to 7 business days to review your submission,” they said, and then took longer. A bit of research on discussion boards revealed that this wording meant they were worried about the amount of the book’s content that was freely available on the web already. This is a legitimate cause for concern, I suppose, but it’s going to be a problem for a lot of people self-publishing collections of their own poetry. For paper publication, prior publication of individual poems in paper magazines is a good thing, since it shows that an editor somewhere has decided they were worth the ink. But with e-publication, prior appearance on the web actually reduces the justification for including a poem in an e-book.
They relented eventually, and Fifty Shades is out there. I plan a sequel, Fifty More Shades of Verse, once I’ve dealt with another twenty or so, probably including a Russian thing called the chastushka, which is giving me a disproportionate amount of trouble. But I’ve learned my lesson, and no more forms are going onto the website until after they’ve been safely published in Kindle.
I’ve also produced Old Possum’s Book of Practical Pigs,
again exploiting the lack of copyright on titles. This is a book of light verse none of which had been published anywhere before, apart from some epigrams in the (paper) magazine Philosophy Now. This made it much easier to get published, and correspondingly harder to get anybody to buy - though there was a brief, glorious, period when it was outselling a competing book about cats, by some chap called Eliot.
|Old Possum's Practical Pigs by Bob Newman|
I’ve had a royalties payment from Amazon now, so I am a professional poet within the meaning of the act, and can therefore hold up my head in the company of the Electric Authors. But I won’t be giving up the day job yet.