What I Think About When I Think About BlazeVOX

Looking back on my last few blog posts, I see a running theme of aggregation. I was very tempted to write a post with the title of "BlazeVOX, DBF, and PSSC." That is the nature of my life right now: one thing piled on top of the other. I came into September and October knowing they would be about worktravelworktravelwork, and that is the case. The purity is satisfying. But I kinda miss having the time to go see a movie. 

So. Back to the subject at hand. There was a recent wave of controversy over the publication practices of BlazeVox, an independent publisher that has put out books by many poets I respect, including Aaron Belz, Christine Hamm, and Steven D. Schroeder. For a primer, here are the posts that got people talking:

Brett Ortler,  "The Half-Hearted Acceptance Letter"
HTMLGiant, "Has BlazeVOX Gone Vanity Press?"

Here are two posts that offered thoughtful concerns:

Mike Meginnis, managing editor of Puerto del Sol
Roxane Gay, HTMLGiant contributor & co-editor of PANK

Here are two posts that offered thoughtful defenses:

Reb Livingston, editor of No Tell Books
Shanna Compton, editor of Bloof Books

(In addition, I really liked Bruce Covey's notes on the comparative economic model of Coconut Books, but I'm not sure I can link to them if you're not his friend on Facebook.)

My instinct is to champion BlazeVOX, and not just because I like what they (or at least their authors) do. No one celebrates the implosion of a press and the consequences for its authors. People kept making references to the Tupelo Press controversy of a few years back, but what it really made me think about was when Zoo Press shuttered a year before. So I was very glad to hear that Geoffrey Gatza had reversed his initial decision to close BlazeVOX's doors at the end of the year, with this open letter explaining their practices (and a commitment, one hopes, to communicate better in the future). 

What do I have to add to the conversation? Well, a lot of the hubbub has assumed that DIY/indie presses operate within some sort of bubble--for better or worse--and that the editors and authors moving within have motivations and financial considerations apart from the rest of the book world. Hmmm. I've experienced all levels of publishing. I've collected friends' handmade editions in runs of 50. I've served on the Board and as editor at a nonprofit collaborative press. I've published poetry with a university press. I've published poetry with a New York house. I've published nonfiction with a New York house. All within the space of six years or so, which means you can't tell me that the publishing era isn't somewhat contiguous, even with recent technologies. 

Fostering the isolation of poetry from the rest of publishing is terribly misleading. 

Here is what I'd like to affirm, interject, and propose:

-Affirmation: All poetry book presses receive financial collaboration from their writers. Or if not, they should. 

To object to providing $250 support because it is in hard money is to get distracted from the overall point. $250 = cost of travel for two events (traveling cheap) + postage for 5 potential reviews + postage for 5 reading opportunities + a box of promotional cards. If you're not prepared to pitch in this amount three times over in the first year of publication, then ask yourself what your goals are with publishing a book with a press.

Are you looking for the validation of seeing your words in print? Then self-publish. Are you looking for the validation of being associated with a certain editorial imprint? Then respect the thousands of dollars of man-hours, comparatively, someone has sunk into building that reputation. Are you looking to sell some books and maybe even make money back? Again: be prepared to invest three times over, and then some. 

This start-up financial burden, however imposed, is not something the author is forced to take on alone. Ask your community to support you. For years, Finishing Line Press has had people whose chapbooks they accept for publication pre-sell copies, explaining that their final print run would depend on pre-sales. Or go on Kickstarter; one poet supported her trip to Bread Loaf this year with a Kickstarter campaign, which will help sell her book of poetry by association (and I contributed, happily). 

I have been fortunate enough to have successful books, and to be a full-time writer for this blink of a year or two. But there are no free rides. I've invested hundreds of dollars in buying my own stock so that I could handsell when on the road. Even when I got a generous advance, it was only because I agreed to a project timeline that meant I would have to quit my job. I am happier than I was five years ago. But I am poorer, too.

-Interjection: "Poets spend more money on their desire to be published than they do on poetry itself"...unless you count the poetry they buy in pursuit of being published.

The first part quotes Reb Livingston, who made a cutting & true point about the many people who will come to hear her speak (or hear her poets read), opt not to buy a single book, but then have the audacity to ask about their submissions policy. The second part of the italicized phrase is mine, an interjection. It's not pretty, but here it is~

How many of us are guilty of buying a book for the sake of interacting with the 
author? Editor? Publisher? Then never getting around to actually looking at the book?

When I see a camp championing a press because of its authors....and then a subset of those authors complaining/admitting shoddy production values...I think Uh oh. 

In some ways, I think buying-without-reading is just as damning a trend as not buying books at all. That's why something like VOUCHED's Guerilla Book Stores, which I witnessed in action firsthand at the Decatur Book Festival, is awesome. And yet so...disturbingly rare. This goes back to what Roxane Gay observed about the "Kingdom of Kings," a.k.a. the over-saturation of the market. Maybe we'd all be better off if we stopped buying books to network, and only bought books to read. 

I apologize to publishers in advance if my sales take a nosedive after this. 

-Proposal: We need better, more innovative models of promoting poetry to new audiences. (Here I am echoing Jeannine Hall Gailey). 

If the epicenter of your annual sales model is the AWP conference, you gotta shake it up. That's right, even if you plan to have really cool swag (shot glasses!) at your table, and an offsite reading at the grubbiest hipster bar in town. We have got to stop thinking that credibility in our own community is enough. 

Even if your nod to the outside world is just to leave one copy in a print run of 50 on a bench in your local public library...do it. One reason I loved Ugly Duckling Presse in early years, and now projects such as isreads, is that they "trick" people into receiving poetry who might otherwise have never seen it. I love oddball distribution tactics. Tucking poems into a free newspaper, or taping them up outside an aviary? Hell yeah. That is the spirit, even if the monetization doesn't immediately follow. 

Think about posting to social media venues (Facebook, Twitter, blogs) based on content and themes, rather than author identity. As a woman who stumbled into a whole cult of capybara fandom after "Unit of Measure" was published, trust me: people will come to poetry if they realize the poetry addresses something they care about. 

Think high schools, maybe with some talking points to make kids comfortable. Even if the work is experimental. Especially if the work is experimental. Remember how much e.e. cummings blew your mind in the 10th grade, even if you didn't totally get it?

Think of going into elderly communities. Sure, they might not prize your shot glasses. But they are educated, they knew their Modernism back in the day, and they buy books

If this sounds like a bunch of advice-from-on-high, keep in mind: if I had relied on the audience for literary memoir to be the primary support of Don't Kill the Birthday Girl, I'd feel like a failure right now. Right. Now. Two months after the book came out. I'm speaking from deep in the trenches of working my ass off to support my writing. 

In the case of this book, my best readers may be people who don't regularly make it out to bookstores or universities. My publisher and I have to hustle to reach them--through social media posts, through speeches in unconventional venues, though School Library Journal, through editors in mainstream media who just happen to have lives affected by food allergy. But once we do find those readers, they are smart, enthusiastic, and highly engaged. They are worth the work. I don't think this is that dissimilar to finding people who could love poetry...in the world beyond self-appointed poetry lovers.


So, yeah. I hope that's helpful. I spent about five hours on this--which, if only I were a paid "poetry consultant" for a big corporate firm, would have easily netted me $250 in billable hours. Sigh. 


I'll have to wait and gather my thoughts & snapshots from DBF and PSSC in one place, on the flipside of this weekend's travels. Long story short: I love Decatur. Also, I'd love for you to join me this weekend in Charleston, South Carolina. Here are the details of my Friday night reading & my Saturday morning seminar on sestinas....

Join Sandra Beasley for an evening of poetry, including a reading
from I Was the Jukebox and new work
Friday, September 9 ~ 7 PM
The Charleston Library Society
164 King Street (just before Queen)  
Free & open to the public

Seminar with Sandra Beasley on “The Gyroscope of Form:
Sestinas Past, Present, and Future”
Saturday, September 10 ~ 10 AM
The Charleston Library Society
164 King Street (just before Queen)  
Members $10, College of Charleston students free, all others $15

Oh! For that matter, if you live in Virginia please consider dropping in at Chop Suey Books on Sunday afternoon in Richmond, VA:

Join Sandra Beasley for a reading from her memoir,
Don't Kill the Birthday Girl: Tale from an Allergic Life
Sunday, September 11 ~ 4 PM
Chop Suey Books
2913 West Cary Street
Free & open to the public

I will be roadtripping with my dad. I am pretty excited about that, since 1) I won't have to drive, and 2) my dad is awesome. Kevin Wilson, author of the The Family Fang, also roadtrips with his dad for book tour. So there.