Poet Power
The Complete Guide to
Getting Your Poetry Published

Thomas A. Williams
"Complete?" Well, not exactly. Perhaps A Partial Guide to Getting Your Poetry Published would have been a more honest title.

Most of the facts are here: how to submit poems, where to submit them, how to publish your own, where to go for further information. But several major details are missing. For instance, Williams suggests that you might want to "set up a business" to publish your poetry.

    Don't forget that as a self-publisher, you are a businessperson. There will be significant financial benefits to you. Tax savings can be substantial.

Tell that to the IRS. In any five-year period, they will permit you to lose money for two years. The three others must show a profit. If not, you are probably in for a dreaded tax audit, which is scarcely worth, we would wager, your slim volume of verse.

There is something even more troubling about Williams' publishing advice. He is trying to make you forget that there are about 10,000,000 people in this country who consider themselves poets who are forever and a day sending their stuff out to magazines and newspapers. He doesn't tell us that those who send stuff coldcock to The New Yorker, Harpers, The Virginia Quarterly Review, The Sewanee Review are wasting their time. These magazines ship this stuff back by the cargo-container load. Some magazines like the Atlantic don't even bother to open submissions --- they stamp "refused" on the envelope.

Williams shows a table called

Where Submitted Date Result
Little Review 1/5/99 "Not right"
West Coast Poets 2/15/99 "No, but wants to see more"
New Yorker 3/4/99 Accepted "Staten Island Blues"

This last item, if it popped up in accounting, would be called "cooking the books," or perhaps, "Enronitus."

Ultimately Williams advises you to publish it yourself. He doesn't like the word "Vanity Press," though. He prefers "Cooperative in cooperative publishing." Well, OK --- but it's still vanity. He does not mention that if you print up 1000 copies of your love-child poems, you could probably spend the rest of you life wondering how to get rid of the 980 turkeys you'll still have under your bed or in the garage after giving 20 to your best friends, family, and fellow-workers.

In Chapter 12, "How to Sell Your Books in Bookstores and Other Retail Outlets," he tells us that B. Dalton and Waldenbooks, "are usually quite willing to display books by local and regional authors." Maybe he is thinking of the B. Dalton in 1895 Austria-Hungary. My local chain book store wouldn't be caught dead carrying a book of local poetry by a local author.

Why? Poetry just don't sell. Furthermore, bookstores claim that they don't have the shelf space. And the sheer burden of working out agreements with the author, keeping record of sales (if any), and dealing with what is essentially small change doesn't interested them at all.

You need proof? Call up some of the big bookstores in your city, ask them if they will please carry your privately printed book of poems. The only chance you have would be for you to change your name to Charles Simic or Edna St. Vincent Millay. With those monikers, you'll be in Hog Heaven. Otherwise, forget it.

Unless you have some secret poetic gene floating around in your blood --- something on the order of the peasant magic of John Clare --- I guarantee that you will spend your dotage looking at boxes of your unsold books, wondering what peabrain thought up this idea called "self-publishing." Or "Poet Power."

§     §     §

There is something else missing here. Something called Art. Writing poetry is like everything else worth doing. You need discipline and knowledge to put the words on paper. The late Jimmy Merrill was up every morning before five writing poetry, and he did it for at least five hours a day. Every morning. He won his spurs. But it was no piece of cake.

Poetry that is worth a shit must come from devilishly hard work, not from being "a businessperson." Stuff that is worth reading must grow out of aches and joy and hate and love, must be prepared and delivered with genius and discipline, must avoid all 5,000 of the all-too-common poetic clichés.

Yet when we look in the index to Poet Power, between "Directory of Poetry Publishers" and "Discount" the word "Discipline" doesn't appear. Not even a whisper of "Art" lies between "Aristotle" and the "Arts council." Between "Subsidy" and "Supersites" there is no "Suffering." Not even a Sigh.

The poetry world is up to here with badly trained amateurs who are going to publish whether the world wants them to or not. If you must, run off fifty Xeroxes of your best stuff, sell it in the public park, give it for free to those that want it, stand there next to the guy on the street-corner with a sign that says


And take that $1,500 - $2,500 you were going to spend on your book of poetry and invest it in something safe like frozen pork bellies. It's a helluva lot more fun, and at least gives you a 50/50 chance for return on invested dollar.

§     §     §

Finally: anyone who puts out a book on self-publishing should give us a handsome product, one that we would want on our own bookshelf. The messenger should be well-dressed on behalf of the message being delivered. Poet Power was done on cheap paper with diddley type and lousy graphics. Some of the sample illustrations of approved poetry books are so grey as to be practically illegible. The cover is one of those varnished numbers that will curl up within a day; will be impossible to shove into your bookshelf.

You might want to store it somewhere else.

Like in the recycling bin.

--- A. W. Allworthy
Send us e-mail


Go Up     Go Home

Go to the most recent RALPH