Friday, June 23, 2006

My Life in Publishing i

My Philip K. Dick-writing grad student, who’s doing what I’m convinced is groundbreaking work untangling the various uses & misuses of the concept of entropy in 1960s science fiction (she has the advantage of actually being a scientist, & knowing what she’s talking about) gave me a copy of Thomas M. Disch’s Camp Concentration. Very good book – Disch writes well, and thickly seeds his work with literary references. (It helps that he’s himself a poet, & his narrator – “Louis Sacchetti,” a name that strikes me as a cross between LZ and Sacco & Vanzetti – is a poet as well.) The novel, to put it vulgarly, is a cross between Mann’s Dr. Faustus & Flowers for Algernon – but much better than that sounds. I will have to ruminate a while before I decide how I feel about the snatched-out-of-the-fire-in-the-last-3-pages “happy” ending.
Jessica has posted one of the most level-headed & straightforward defenses of self-publishing that I’ve read in ages. I hope it’s read by thousands of young poets, & taken to heart.

There’s one problem, however, which I think can be summed up in that single nasty word “professionalism.” (And here I speak only of the somewhat weird & self-contradictory professionalism of the academy, & its perhaps most zany wing the creative writing industry.) It is indisputable that almost every notable ground-breaking, innovative poet in the last 2 centuries at some point availed her- or himself of some combination of self-publication, paid publication, or coterie publication. And just to remind everyone, since we keep forgetting that very few poetic career paths resemble those of Elizabeth Bishop or Robert Lowell:
William Blake
Edgar A. Poe
Walt Whitman
Emily Dickinson (what were the fascicles but the ultimate in author-controlled self-publication?)
William Carlos Williams
Gertrude Stein
Ezra Pound
TS Eliot
Louis Zukofsky
Lorine Niedecker
George Oppen
Charles Reznikoff
Lyn Hejinian
Charles Bernstein
James Merrill
WH Auden
–need one go on? A list like this, however, carries precisely zero weight in the assesssment procedures – fellowships, grants, hirings, tenure – of the academic poetry industry. The implied logic goes something like this:
Sure, William Blake & Walt Whitman & Gertrude Stein published themselves, but that was back in the bad old days, before Poetry & Prairie Schooner & Fence arrived, journals which are so in touch with what is truly alive in contemporary letters that their editors are able – largely unerringly – to select the grain from the chaff, & thereby to confer professional legitimacy upon the poems they choose to publish. & the same goes for the small presses & university presses & trade publishers who collect said poems into new slim volumes of verse & publish them at their own expense.
It's hard not to see the holes in this logic – that "their own expense" these days often amounts to "the take from the thousands of $25-a-pop contest entries"; that for most of its history since Tottel's Miscellany, poetry book publication has been largely a matter of the poet's knowing the editor or underwriting her or his own book; that basing an assessment of poetry, even implicitly, by its success in a "marketplace" (of ideas, of aesthetics, of whatever) is to buy in wholesale to a market logic that poetry implicitly and explicitly rejects.

But the illogic doesn't matter: so far as I can see, this is still the majoritarian logic within the academic poetry industry, & it accounts for much of the hand-wringing about self-publication & its variations that I see among my own MFA students & in the poetry world in general. I'm tempted to say, as Jessica does in several thousand words, "get over it, girl/boyfriend!, get out there and put your stuff into the world!" But I know that the rewards of self-publishing depend on the work itself, & the self-assurance of the self-publishing poet; it won't get you a job, & it won't get you tenure. (This assuming, of course, that you've got your heart set on settling down in academia on the basis of your poetry, rather than something else. Student from a few years back, on learning that Geoffrey Hill didn't teach poetry writing: "But what else does a poet do in the university?")
But what I meant to write about was my own short-lived venture into being a publisher, something called Diaeresis Press. Some six or seven years ago, a non-academic friend & I decided to launch a chapbook series, which we called "diaeresis," what turned out to be a wonderfully suggestive name the my friend Bill picked up from a bunch of printer-output garbage one day.

This was total DIY, samizdat-style chapbook-making. We did our own desktop typesetting, our own xeroxing (which involved lots of cutting & taping & many trips to Kinko's), and our own mailing. Publicity consisted mostly of posts to the Buffalo poetics listserv & word of mouth.

Over the course of two years, we published 7 chapbooks. For your bibliographies:
1: Hank Lazer, As It Is (1999)
2: E.A. Miller, The Underbrush of Abundance (1999)
3: C.S. Giscombe, Two Sections from Practical Geography (1999)
4: Bill Burmeister, The Gunner’s Daughter (1999)
5: Norman Finkelstein, Hineni (TRACK, continued) (2001)
6: Eric Baus, The Space Between Magnets (2001)
7: Meredith Quartermain, Spatial Relations (2001)
In retrospect I'm very proud of the press's output. Norman's Hineni was later incorporated into Powers (Spuyten Duyvil) and Eric's Space Between Magnets turned up as half of his wonderful The To Sound (Verse).
[to be continued]


Jessica Smith said...

Hi Mark, thank you for saying that my post was "level-headed & straightforward." I'm glad that it was for you, since there seem to have been some misunderstandings among others. Lorraine Graham and I have been discussing this privately, and have arrived at your summation: "get over it, girl/boyfriend!, get out there and put your stuff into the world!" But we have also concluded that this is a hurdle that all poets must, at some stage of development, scale: that is, placing and understanding oneself vis-a-vis that which is named "legitimate," and coming to understand one's own work as "legitimate" (even without the publishing factors). I hope that my post helps some of my peers with this process because their anti-self-publishing comments annoy me.

Thank you, too, for the extended list of authors who have self-published. Looking fwd to the promised continuation.

Henry Gould said...

Our confidence or lack thereof (as writers) is our own; legitimacy - at least in the social world - is granted to us by others.

So, on the face of it, self-publishing is not automatically "legitimate", either officially, in Mark's terms, or otherwise.

But we want to be "legit", at least sometimes we do. We want to be accepted - fully - by others, for what we think we have actually accomplished. (I say "sometimes" - because I think there are also psychological or moral motives which actually inhibit some people, sometimes, from claiming their place in the sun. They *prefer* the shadows. They defeat themselves.)

Maybe there will be a blurring between publishing & self-publishing - an atmosphere in which reviewers and editors will find it more natural to read, consider & evaluate, self-published work.

I hope that happens. (I have a lot of self-published books out there, waiting!) I think Jessica's comments help promote that.

Ian Keenan said...

The decision to self-publish is a decision to self-publish ONE BOOK, not a decision to never publish anywhere else or necessarily a statement on the current condition of the publishing world.

shanna said...

that's a good point, ian. i've done both, and automatically prefer self-publishing for certain kinds of things, while still seeing the appeal (mostly logistic in re: to distribution and context) of going the other way.

henry's certainly right too about legitimacy being conferred, but i think what some of us are lamenting is that legitimacy/acceptability/professional status is often conferred for reasons other than *what we have actually written,* more so than with other arts (as jessica has noticed). there's not a whole of control a writer can exert over how she is rec'd, which is why it's best not to worry about that too much (as much as possible), but we can try to change the culture, via these conversations and simply by doing what we are doing.

shanna said...

sorry, my own shorthand. rec'd = received. and i omitted "lot" in "not a whole lot of control."

more coffee please.

Jessica Smith said...

Yes, an astute point, Ian.

Shanna, yes, and as I noted early on in my post, for me it's more about feeling that one's peers/friends respect what one is doing--that a self-published book is not automatically dismissed, but rather allowed to "speak for itself." Exactly. (I think "rec'd" is pretty standard by now.)

shanna said...

gd to knw. smtms i can't even decipher nts i wrt to me. ;) i was afraid it might be read as "recommended" or something. i try not to gibber in public (or talk to myself) but i frequently fail.