Thursday, July 30, 2015

Outsider Poetry Forever

I remember, like thousands of other writers, I wrote Charles Bukowski a fan letter in 1991 after my first book, Concave Buddha, was published. I had a car and a girlfriend and a book and I was pretty high on myself. Over the past couple of years I had published about 100 poems in small press zines, and if poetry can be called a career I felt like mine was going somewhere. Bukowski even wrote back and said something vaguely encouraging like don't forget to wipe your ass, kid, or something like that. 

Charles Bukowski's grave

Like most of the small press poets of the era I had the honor of publishing my poetry in the same mags as Charles Bukowski on several occasions. I really loved that time in American poetry because there was no snobbishness, mostly because there were no stakes or egos involved. Pre internet you really didn't know who these other poets you were publishing alongside were, what they looked like, or what their politics and religious affiliation etc were. The advent of the internet was a real blow to poetry publishing in America in many ways, not the least of which is that it took the mystery and specialness out of it. In 1990 almost no one had a full length of their poetry published. Most poets just had chapbooks which were mostly just copies made at Kinkos, folded, and stapled together. The process of publishing a book was still expensive and time-consuming. 

There was no method of seeing your poetry in print only moments after the ink dried. Here's how it worked if you wanted to see your poetry in a zine. You bought The Poet's Market and highlighted a few zines you were interested, typed out five or six copies of each poem you felt might rate publication, put them in an envelope with a SASE stuffed inside, went to the post office and dropped it in a mailbox. Then waited.... And waited... Some editors might respond quickly, which at the best meant two weeks. Others waited months. When you got that SASE back you felt it to try and determine if it was thin enough that the editor might have taken one or two of your poems out for publication. The grand slam was the envelope with only one slip of paper in it, usually meaning they wanted to publish all five poems, but occasionally being the dreaded I threw your poems out for no good reason and only returned a rejection letter in this envelope you affixed fifty cents of postage to. Because it also costed something to submit your poems besides effort. A buck a submission in stamps. Doesn't sound like much, but for poets it can be a fortune.

Then when your poems were accepted you waited. Again. A long time. The longest I ever waited was two years before acceptance and seeing the publication in the mail. Meanwhile, the rejections piled up. Shoeboxes full of them. Since simultaneously carpet bombing a bunch of zines with the same poems was something that was frowned upon and could earn you a bad reputation, a single poem you believed in might be out for weeks or months, then come back in an envelope still folded tightly, and you realized the editor probably didn't even read it. This whole dance made getting one of your poems published something special. Doubly so if it was a zine you respected and you got to be in it with other poets you admired.

That was before the internet. I could write a poem right now, publish it here, Reddit it, Stumble it, and have maybe a few hundred people read it in the next two hours.

Then what?

I could assemble all the poems I have on this site, put them in a PDF, send them to a digital printer, and have a book back here withing two weeks.


And almost nothing. Because it's not the poets that make poetry work, it's the readers. Granted, almost all the readers of poetry are also poets, but I wonder how many poets even read poetry anymore. 

So, get off my lawn, get on my lawn, I wish I had a lawn, I don't know. Poetry lives. And dies. And lives again in ways we can't even imagine right now. Outsider Poetry forever.