Friday, 23 January 2009

Promoting Poetry: Is it a Mug’s Game? by Magdalena Ball

Let me start by saying, right up front, that publishing poetry is generally not a road to riches. Most of us write poetry for reasons other than its hot selling power. Of all genres, poetry is probably the hardest to sell. I’m not entirely sure why this is the case, but I’ll hazard an educated guess that it’s because there’s a kind of misconception that poetry isn’t an engaging read (not suitable for the beach or an airplane), isn’t an easy read (the “highbrow fallacy”), and that it isn’t going to improve you in any way (unlike self-help books, which will cure your diseases, make you slimmer, and attract lots of good stuff to you). Don’t say I didn’t warn you. So why bother? Why not just write a diet book? Here are two reasons why poetry matters.

1. “it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.”

That is, as Auden said so beautifully in “In Memory of WB Yeats”, poetry connects us in ways that go deeper than any other words can. It endures, and continues to move us, in the writing and in the reading, regardless of literary trends, political activity, and its overall saleability.

2. Because “men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.”

That is, as William Carlos Williams said so beautifully in “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”, there’s an inherent power in poetry to move beyond the boundaries that divide us; to jump over the cliffs between us; and move beyond those lines of race, class, age, and above all, our innate fears, and reach a place of common humanity. Life is busy, and it’s so easy to forget to look into one another’s eyes; to talk in convenient syllables and soundbites rather than sincerely; to miss what matters under the big pile of what’s urgent. In other words, and let me say this very clearly, good poetry is important. It’s important to our inner life, and where it succeeds, it succeeds hugely, becoming lodged in our consciousnesses. Like the two poems above, which I’ve carried around in my head since I came across them as a young teen, good poetry sticks with the reader. It continues to be recited and cited and in its own beautifully viral way, changes who we are and how we see our lives and our world.

So poetry matters, and we need to keep reading and writing it, even if it isn’t an easy sell, because it will be with us long after the South Beach Diet has been forgotten. But how, as a poet, do you become “lodged?” How do you promote your poetry so others read it?

Firstly, remember that good poetry is as pleasurable to read as it is to write. If you write it, you have a responsibility to read the best work of others. You’ll be a better poet as a result and who knows, you might start a trend. If you don’t know where to start, try Dorothy Porter, Billy Collins, Charles Simic, Les Murray, or Luke Davies. Those are a few of my favourites, and writers whose work is consistently beautiful, passionate, modern, relevant and accessible. Or try the classics, Williams, Frost, Yeats, Auden, Plath, Brooks. Try purchasing an anthology. Black Inc do an annual anthology of Australian poetry (Best Australian Poems 2008 was edited by Peter Rose), Scribner does one for American poetry, (Best American Poetry 2008 was edited by Charles Wright) and there are similar books for Canada and England. Or try a literary journal – there are plenty to choose from. Great poetry will inspire great poetry, even if you write nothing but prose. The perfectly chosen word is always worth reading, and emulating.

Secondly, don’t limit yourself to the printed page. Poetry isn’t sacred. It began as our earliest oral tradition and continues to be most effective delivered orally. Sing, dance, recite, move about, use props. Think Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Patti Smith. You don’t even have to have a good voice– just confidence (easily feigned), and some performance acumen. Look your audience in the eye, remember they’re on your side, and connect. But just because you’re adding props, music, and chutzpah doesn’t mean you can use cliché, ineffective imagery, or be ridiculous. I once saw a poet perform his work while eating a banana. It wasn’t pretty. There’s a fine line between great work and a fun performance. Find it and walk it. Don’t forget to bring books to sell with you either, because you’ll sell more work at a live performance than anywhere else. Then you can capitalize on the buzz with websites, blogs (like this one), reviews of other poet’s work, and samples.

Finally, network. Poets should support one another. Writing poetry doesn’t need to be secretive, lonely, or tortured. We should buy, review, and talk up each others’ work (where deserved); and if you find something good, by all means, shout about it. Collaborate, coordinate, cross-promote, and above all, celebrate. Because great poetry, and by that I mean words that sear and sting and open every pore, are cause for celebration. You can take that to the bank.

Magdalena Ball runs The Compulsive Reader. Her short stories, editorials, poetry, reviews and articles have appeared in a wide number of printed anthologies and journals, and have won local and international awards for poetry (including this year's Roland Robinson literary award), and fiction. She is also the author of the critically acclaimed novel Sleep Before Evening, a nonfiction book The Art of Assessment: How to Review Anything and three other poetry chapbooks Quark Soup, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Cherished Pulse and She Wore Emerald Then. She runs a monthly radio program podcast


  1. Does poetry matter? Well, I think so - I publish it after all :-) Of course not all poetry matters, and actually most probably doesn't matter except to the poets who have penned it. Of the short stories submissions sent to my magazine Skive, 70% is okay, 10% is brilliant, 10% needs reworking, and the remaining 10% is awful. When I published a series of poetry books from 2000 to 2002, and published poetry with short stories in an online ezine and another, printed, magazine, 60% was self-indulgent and badly written, 20% okay, 20% pretty good. Poetry is shorter so it is more easily accessible to new writers who don't know the discipline of a novella or novel. They also tend to write more personal, and true poems that they show to friends & family who might say it's great, when they themselves are not writers. I'm ranting... Poetry is important because it teaches writers to be more careful, economical with their words, and this helps with longer pieces of writing including short stories and novels. It's also important because of ... John Donne, Seamus Heaney, Shakespeare, Richard Brautigan, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Sappho, Catullus, Ovid, Coleridge, Shelley, Wordsworth, Plath, Corso, Keats, Murray, Poe ...


  2. Poetry does matter, but some established means has to accept it as well, for it to sell. Such as an award.

  3. Posted on behalf of Sam Smith:

    "Does poetry matter? To poets mostly, it does. And to politicians looking for an apposite quote. But to the general public....? Nah. The great majority still think greeting card verses are poetry.

    And I suspect that poetry in the large doesn't matter that much to those who write poetry. The majority of poets certainly don't support it. How many subscribe to how many magazines? How many buy each other's collections? Most poets simply bombard publishers with their work. (And I disagree with Matt, 98% of those submissions are certainly not OK and get rejected from The Journal.)

    Nor are poets themselves the best adverts for their craft. Poetry readings are the most tedious affairs going. A few of the performers think they're supposed to be doing stand-up - ha-very-ha - and slam poets think that shouting is being dramatic, but most - and just look at that twit of a poet at Obama's inauguration - employ the dying-at-every-line's-end 'poetry voice'. Aaaaaargh!

    The practise of poetry should not be a form of self-advancement. It's certainly not a career. Most poets use it to polish their egos.... We really are an unattractive bunch. Look at Rimbaud. What a self-involved bastard. But just occasionally, like Rimbaud, one of us will produce a work that shines a light.... The rest of us are just foot soldiers. So get down from being up yourself and get on with the work. Put your hand in your pocket or purse and support your fellow poets."

  4. Thank you for this beautiful blog, Maggie. I shall be recommending it to poets in my Sharing with Writers newsletter.

    How about letting your readers know about our Cherished Pulse, an unsyrupy chapbook of poetry for lovers (or others) to give on Valentin's day--or to send via e-mail. (-:

    Carolyn Howard-Johnson

  5. Sometimes those of us who breathe poetry have to be creative in the way we work it in to both fiction and non-fiction. It's true that it's a hard sell -- literally -- but people appreciate it when it's made an integral part of books.

    I may never publish my own book of poetry with a major publisher -- but some very good publishers (Zondervan, Moody, Howard and others) have let me include poetry in my books. It's a start.

    And I do buy other people's poetry books and feed my soul with it.

    Latayne C Scott

  6. Poets need to support each other - if we don't, who else will?

    Does poetry matter - if it haunts us or changes us then it matters much.