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Poets have a hard sell in America

So, you've decided to become a poet.

Congratulations! Before you embark on your journey, there are a few things you should probably know.

First of all, economically speaking, becoming a poet is a terrible idea. Aside from perhaps Billy Collins, there is no such thing as an American poet who makes even a meager living directly from writing poems. That's because there is almost no market for poetry in America beyond poets themselves.

Second, the mass-marketing prospects of poetry publishing in the United States aren't what they used to be -- even though what they used to be was never all that great. Big publishers aren't interested in poetry books, while smaller presses increasingly require writers to be active participants in the editing, publishing, promotion and sometimes even funding of their own books.

Third, and maybe most importantly: If you're writing poetry in order to achieve the sort of mythical social status one might associate with, say, Allen Ginsberg, you're heading down a road that will ultimately lead to frustration and disappointment.

For these important lessons we have to thank Just Buffalo Literary Center Artistic Director Michael Kelleher, whose long blog entry on the subject of what it means to be a poet today should be required reading for anyone who remains in the dark about the glum workings of the poetry world.

Kelleher's piece grew out of an ongoing debate among a very active subset of the American literary community, which has been preoccupied for the last two weeks with a heated controversy over the Buffalo-based small press BlazeVOX Books.

A couple of weeks ago, after it came out that BlazeVOX publisher Geoffrey Gatza was asking certain authors to contribute $250 each to the estimated $2,000 cost of publishing their books, the slapdash BlazeVOX funding model quickly became a punching bag for aspiring poets and writers across the country.

Thankfully for Gatza's BlazeVOX, whose reputation as an indie press has grown considerably since its founding in 2004, the tide soon turned in favor of the press, with hundreds of writers and interested observers writing in support of Gatza and his successful but poorly executed and articulated approach.

Much as it may appear otherwise, what the writers who launched screeds against the publishing company were really railing against was not BlazeVOX, Geoffrey Gatza or even the supposedly unorthodox idea of his now defunct collaborative funding model. They were expressing a collective frustration at a world -- or at least a country -- that no longer values what they do in any meaningful way. To the extent that it ever did.

And, to an extent a hard-liner like Kelleher might disagree with, that's understandable.

Many of us who grew up reading poetry in high school were led to believe that it represented a viable vocation. Most college courses do little to dispel that notion, which in turn leads legions of English majors to enlist in graduate poetry programs, which pump out aspiring bards into a world that has no interest in reading their work, let alone paying them a cent for it.

The silver lining in all of this, perhaps, is that publishing a book of poetry has never been easier. With the availability of print-on-demand technology, of the sort BlazeVOX and other small presses increasingly favor, the barrier to entry into the realm of the "published poet" is lower than ever.

If the BlazeVOX controversy has done nothing else, as Kelleher has said, it has at the very least injected a bit of reality into an endeavor that has long labored under a collective delusion.

So, are you sure you still want to be a poet? If so, godspeed on your chosen path. If you have any hesitations, you might want to quit while you're ahead.

email: cdabkowski@buffnews.com