Sunday, October 10, 2010

Why Self-Publish?

A quiet day in Indian Valley, Idaho—sunshine coming thru the matchstick blinds, but also silver clouds & the rhythm of the willow branches; the gray blue mountain to the east, the sage on the hill—sounds of a keyboard from upstairs, the computer’s hum. A day for introspection.

So I sit & wonder. The Spring Ghazals is again available. I could have put it in your hands, dear readers, in a number of ways. I could have been content with posting most of the content on Robert Frost’s Banjo—at this point, I believe only a few of the poems from the book aren’t there somewhere in the archives; I could have started a dedicated blog & posted the poems there on a regular basis, as I did with the poems from my San Francisco collection, The Days of Wine & Roses. In fact, I could have circulated the poems in either digital or paper versions simply amongst my “3-D” friends—after all, that was how the majority of my poems have been read looking back over a 30+ year writing career.

These would also be forms of “self-publishing.” But instead, I chose to make the poems available in a print-on-demand book. Why is that? When I was a young man & more directly involved in the poetry scene, self-publishing was considered the “kiss of death” for any kind of legitimate writing career. Of course, this was before print-on-demand—before the internet for that matter. At that time, the publishing market for “legitimate” poetry was closely controlled by a circle of presses & literary magazines. Although no one was making any real money from it (at least that’s my impression—the poets certainly weren’t), poets & to a large extent, fiction writers, were confined inside this circle. Staying within the circle—sending poems to the right journals & presses—afforded some promise of success. Any attempt to distribute one’s work outside that circle would automatically make the work “illegitimate.”

Things have changed since the 1980s. We now have not only the internet, but a proliferation of social media that encourages networking. As such, the digital age is a potential boon for all artists who want to make their own niche outside the traditional distribution channels that are controlled by institutions, be they academic or corporate. But do we ourselves still attach a stigma to self-publication? We may forget that William Blake, Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf, Walt Whitman, Djuna Barnes, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, e.e. cummings & James Joyce all followed this route at some point. Perhaps the most surprising book to come up on the list of self-published titles—not a literary work at all: The Joy of Cooking!

Abbie Hoffman aside, we certainly don’t expect to go to the bookstore & slip the latest bestseller (or the current edition of The Joy of Cooking) into our pocket & slide out the door; when we go to iTunes or Amazon, we don’t expect to find our favorite musical offerings for free. In fact, a number of bloggers offer artistic products for sale, whether these are calendars (or here) or t-shirts or artwork—& these links only point to four examples among many. Why should it be any different if the creation offered for sale is poetry or fiction writing?

I hope you take a few moments to listen to what Amanda Palmer has to say in the video embedded at the bottom of this post. Ms Palmer is a phenomenon, someone who’s been able to parlay a singular mix of talent & will & savvy into a solid musical & artistic career outside the corporate channels that have controlled music until very recently. Others are following her example: to name just a few whose work I know, these would include cellist Zoë Keating, guitarist Matt Stevens & “found” music whiz Sxip Shirey.

Is music somehow different than poetry? Is there presumption in asking for compensation for words? The French historian Braudel said something to the effect that money is a metaphor that conquered the world. If money is indeed fundamentally metaphorical, wouldn’t it be a good thing to put more “value” on the arts? & that goes for art beyond the mainstream, corporate-run distribution channels (which is what Amanda Palmer is attacking in her talk). If we don’t put our art out there as something of “value,” then, far from exploiting our art for profit, we are placing our candle under a bushel. The same is true if we allow ourselves to put our arts' distribution (or lack of same) into the hands of instituions. The internet & social media have created ways for artists—all artists—to establish an audience. The ability to create an audience & market to that audience, is no longer solely the prerogative of corporations, whether record labels, publishing houses or mainstream art galleries.

So yes, I’m placing my poetry before you in this way. Without being presumptuous, I’m confident in saying The Spring Ghazals is a good book of poetry that deserves a readership. I hope you’ll agree.

Pic: Gertrude Stein, Mina Loy & Ezra Pound: all published outside the mainstream, all now canonized. Stein & Loy are personal favorites, btw.

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