"what was still, surprisingly, the primary material medium of poetic texts in the late twentieth century: 'The figment of a book.' " - Craig Dworkin
Stacey Lynn Brown began/continued/reopened a debate about contemporary poetry publishing and the contest system with her disturbing account of her experience not just at Cider Review Press but also as a finalist or first runner up at several other presses. At the heart of the issue, aside from specifics relating to an individual poet and individual press, lies questions as to how and why poetry gets selected for publication, what happens to it during the publication process, and where it goes afterwards. As Stacey Lynn Brown most recently writes "Given what I now know about that press, I'm relieved that my manuscript is out from under them and that it won't be associated with them when it gets released."
Before we continue, it's important to note that many of Stacey Lynn Brown's poems are up at the wonderful "From the Fishouse"; there is a risk that in this sad narrative of publishing, the poetry itself gets lost.
There have been many interesting and thoughtful (and, it must be said, emotional and passionate!) responses to the situation: Reb Livingston points out the difficulty of "a compatible working match" where random press and random author are combined; Barbara Jane Reyes asks "How do we subvert this poetry contest system when so many poets (literally) buy into it so completely?"; and Collin Kelley answers that 'Poets need to stop buying into the contest cycle of abuse, let go of the notion that self-publishing makes you less of a poet and that working with a small or micro-press won't bring you any "prestige." Basically, get over yourself. There are many ways to get your poetry to readers besides the ones pounded into your head at MFA programs.'
Rather than attempting to analyze how contests and open reading periods do and do not work for poets, publishers, and poems, I want to pay attention to an issue mentioned earlier: "where it [poetry?] goes afterwards [after what?]"? The word that isn't often mentioned by those of us who identify as writers and publishers before or as much as we identify as readers (at least in these posts - the word only occurs three times in the posts quoted above, and only once does it refer to actual or potential readers of poets' poetry).
One reading of such articulations is that readership has become subordinate to publishing, even where the articulator is a publisher. Firstly, narratives of poetry publishing as it supposedly is, should be, or might be hide the work in question (whether Stacey Lynn Brown's or another poet's). Secondly, the focus of our discussions becomes how to get the work into the world (i.e., Livingston argues, usefully, that magazine publication should not be less prestigious than book publication; indeed, prestige should not perhaps be the issue) instead of how the work works in the world. The "many ways to get your poetry to readers" mentioned in the discussion tend to include micro presses, poetry collaboratives, etc - methods which, however useful they are, continue a narrative in which a poet writes poems until such a point as they take shape in some form of (chap)book (and I include journal within this). The narrative (accidentally) ends at this point, with a book or book equivalent, self-published or not.
All of this brings me back to the epigraph for this post, from Craig Dworkin's 2003 study Reading the Illegible. Lyn Hejinian, in her "notes towards a poetics" for American Women Poets in the 21st Century discusses poetry as a "happening," and the question I think we need most to ask, both before and in light of Stacey Lynn Brown's experience as it stands in for many other poets' experiences, is, What is the happening of poetry as it intersects with publishing as the first decade of the 21st century draws to a close?
Given that much of the poetry written in America at this moment is either not narrative or even nonnarrative, it is especially important that this question include reconsiderations of why the book is the end-goal of publication. What other forms are available to us? Here I do not mean that we need to find a digital equivalent of the book, such as the online journal or the flash poem, but that we might reconsider how books are books and why they are books. In doing so, we might learn to value them as unique and separate objects from one another: Craig Dworkin's latest book, Parse feels and acts, appropriately, like a grammar handbook, in contrast to an earlier volume like Strand . In other words, an intervention in the narrative of book publishing is not, per se, a disruption or rejection of it, but an awareness of it: an alienation in order to re-renter the book as a foreigner (a distinction made by Hejinian, ibid).
The quotation torn from Dworkin and used as an epigraph itself quotes Susan Howe from her book Singularities. "The figment of a book" is contained within and disrupts a (fragmentary) book, which has, as part of its poetics, the disruption and fragmentation of a book or set of books Howe has found from "wilderness" America - Thoreau, for instance, becomes Thorow (or does it/he?). Add to this Ann Lauterbach suggestion, also in American Women Poets of the 21st Century that we might consider fragmentation as a whole, and one begins to see the ways in which we do not need to dispense with the book.
In that last sentence, it is the "do not need to" which I want to hold stress. Where we do not need to, we might choose to. Where we choose alternatives to the book, or choose the book as an alternative to something else, I think we come closer than we currently are to not only thinking about how the work gets into the world, but how the work works in the world - especially where the world doesn't itself work.
Maybe, then, at the heart of this issue isn't the question of how publishers should receive and select manuscripts, how poets should select and/or become publishers, or even how the financial aspects of poetry should be managed. Qua Debord and the Situationists, I'm not sure we can avoid capitalism in thinking about poetry, but we can arrive at "freely chosen variations in the rules of the game" (Debord, Guy, The Society of the Spectacle , 24). Questions about publishers and poets matter, but questions about how the work's publication relates to the work it seeks to do matter, I suggest, a little more. The form of the book is not inevitable. Or: the book is not an inevitable form.