Interview for "Bear"
written March 27, 1999 by Lyn Lifshin.
IF there is more interest in poetry, it is that more people would rather
write poetry than read it. Fewer people are buying poetry collections.
Twenty years ago a rather well known poet would have a collection printed
in editions of 40,000 copies by a major publisher, reviewed in many import
review venues like Library Journal and Publishers Weekly, would
find major archive collections much better funded to buy their papers
as well as significant funding for readings and workshops. When I began
publishing, and doing readings, I never was not paid, often well paid.
I was offered very substantial payment for my papers, my first often mimeographed,
stapled collections were reviewed in review magazines that now either
(I have heard) either ask for or expect expensive ads be placed
this according to someone who published one of my collections a few years
ago or simply do not touch poetry. As a result, many librarians
say it is impossible to know what work, what books are worth buying. Distribution
of poetry has always been hard ( for the one hundred plus books Ive
published, when I do readings, until my books from Black Sparrow, very
very few people had ever seen a book of mine they saw my poems only
because I published so widely) but if librarians have no idea what is
good a librarian told me that most reviews they see are pure puffs
Ill review you if you review me-- and Ill get you a reading
if you get me one, a prize, an audience then it is much harder for
a library to have any idea what to order.
When I began writing and publishing, I had the rather innocent belief
that writing well and seriously was what was most important. But now it
seems connections, publicity, networking have as much to do with the vague
chance that your book might actually be seen, if not bought. The mainstream
places that were available for me when I began to write, MS and ROLLING
STONE. People who never would think of reading poetry used to see my poems
there and it was great.
It was a shock to me, after doing readings for many years and ALWAYS
getting paid to do them, to come to the Virginia-Maryland-DC area and
find many writers (except maybe those connected to a university) jumped
to give readings in any bookstore, café, park for no pay. I couldnt
believe this and refused to do any or many of the ones I was invited to
do. Now, my main aim is to get people to see and buy my books so to promote
them, I have done what I never would have in the past. Of course, living
part time in New York means I have the incredible good fortune to be in
one of the places that POETS AND WRITERS is involved with and helps to
sponsor readings and workshops. I am eternally grateful for their help,
especially at a time I began to write and to get my work around.
Its not hard probably to connect the fact that so many more people
are interested in writing their own poetry than before: writing programs
have ballooned around the country and with so many people in them, of
course they are not only writing while in school but hoping to make that
their occupation. I heard poetry in the 90's described as "careerist"
rather than an act of creativity and joy and fun. Though other writers
have disagreed with me about this, I see poetry as much more splintered
and cliquish than ever before: the academics, the slam poets, performance
poets, ethnic poets etc. There are millions of readings all over. Except
for readings of extremely well known or prize winning writers, or writers
whose reputation has something to do with something other than their work,
many of the people who come only come to read their own poems, come for
an open reading. In this area, some writers go to many readings during
the week to hear the same writers they know read in order to insure they
will have an audience when they read. This is all new to me.
Not only is it harder to sell archives, get funded for every reading,
escape being labeled a slam poet, a renegade, an academic, but, though
I have been very very lucky (and have worked very hard for this) and have
had some wonderful publishers, and right now feel privileged and very
very happy to have Black Sparrow as a publisher, I think, without connections
(I began and still have no connections!) it must be very very very hard
to get a book published. And distributed. Believe me, I know how hard
and diligently some of my previous publishers have worked and how difficult
distribution and sales have been. And reviews that I think is the
most current tragedy and nightmare. Having edited four anthologies, I
know the frustrations, work, difficulty in editing and publishing and
promoting any collection. I have the utmost gratitude for the many small
press, unfunded, hard working, devoted small press editors of magazines
and publications. It is probably one of the very few areas of working
for love not profit.
For me, though I am known as an excellent reader, I find it work. I know
there are writers who find it fun and just a delight, to read anywhere,
on a street corner, in a bar, in a zoo.
It is very hard for me not to try to discourage talented writers from
taking and making writing their life, unless they want to teach. In a
recent NYTimes book review there was a comment about how almost no poets
can exist outside the universities. That may be true but I dont
think it was always like this, it didnt feel like this when I began
to publish. Also, I never saw the "personal promotion" that
I see now in every aspect of book selling and of course the chain bookstores
create their own dynamic. And the jeopardy that so many small bookstores
are in is horrific.
As far as the fans: it is hard to know if there are fans who are not
beginning poets, would be poets. I think that the few non poets who read
poetry in ROLLING STONE and MS etc probably now are not aware of or interested
Perhaps it is only my perspective but while I want to spend my time on
writing my poetry and reading others poetry, on ballet and Id love
to begin painting again, the "business" of poetry seems to have
grown. Its what I like least. What I find most difficult. I did
a series of poems kind of about the state of poetry as I see it, taking
typical interview questions and answering them in a poemprobably
sounds pretty bitter-sweet. Perhaps, I hope, the Internet with its wide
access may add something to a scene where I feel much has been taken away.
Otherwise I wonder if only scandal or worse will make anyone buy any poetry
And yet, as Im saying what probably sounds harsh, I am also extremely
thrilled and ecstatic about having COLD COMFORT from Black Sparrow, actually
out in bookstores and BEFORE ITS LIGHT scheduled for fall 1999 publication!
Ive worked very very very hard for many years and this is a wonderful
Last updated: December 27, 2000