A few years ago the Arts Councils of London commissioned Spread the Word Literature Development Agency, an organization devoted to training and nurturing new and emerging writers from diverse communities, to undertake a study to try and figure out why, in the UK where Black and Asian authors were topping bestseller lists, few poets of the same background were finding opportunities to get their works published. At best, their presence in bookstores has been minimal.
The research findings revealed, among other things, that 43% of the Black and Asian poets surveyed said they regarded publishing opportunities for them as ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’. Only 12% said they considered opportunities as good or very good.
In the country’s Black, Caribbean and Asian literary communities, many felt that the survey findings justified their suspicions that most editors, especially at the major publishing houses, were largely indifferent to works by non-white poets.
Neil Astley, the poetry editor at Bloodaxe Books feels that the exclusion is not limited to poets from Black and Asian cultures. “It’s part of a wider and more fundamental problem with the ethos of poetry publishing. I think the root cause is that most poetry editors don’t publish poetry for readers but for poets … Readers don’t have access to the diverse range of poetry being written, because much of the poetry establishment – including many publishers and reviewers – has become narrowly based, male-dominated, white Anglocentric and skewed by factions and vested interests. Too often, editors think of themselves and their poet friends as the only arbiters of taste, only publishing writers they think people ought to read and depriving readers of other kinds of poetry, which many would find more rewarding,” said Astley.
For what it’s worth, the UK poets can take comfort in the fact that they’re not alone in the struggle to gain access to poetry publishers. Getting into print is an uphill task for poets in the Caribbean. Over the years they’ve had to depend largely on a spattering of poetry journals and magazines (several of them published by academic institutions) and a handful of small presses to get their work out in the market. Those with book-length works mostly resort to self publishing.
Yet, in literary circles all over the region, there continues to be an undying love of poetry — and sterling displays of the bards’ courage and indomitable spirit, and their stubborn refusal to give in to despair. This unquenchable fire is being stoked by all manner of poetic forms and expressions – open mic, spoken word performances, solo recitations and group poems, readings, workshops, and the occasional book launches.
Increasingly, spoken word performances are becoming the medium of choice for new and emerging poets seeking validation and an appreciative audience.
Although he is a declared admirer of the art form, Peepal Tree Press’ managing editor Jeremy Poynting, in an interview with Poetry News, expressed concerns about poets becoming dependent on spoken word to gain exposure for their work.
“There’s a tendency to see Caribbean poetry as predominantly oral, particularly in the UK, because a good deal of the most visible contemporary Black British poetry has been performance-oriented. Clearly that’s an important element, but whatever we publish must repay attention on the page. We also publish people whose work is best read in quiet repose and I’m into both kinds of writing. I can see lots of positive things about performance poetry but I can see some negatives too, in that people tend to read to a familiar audience, and their work sometimes doesn’t develop.”
By the same token, Poynting acknowledged that getting publishing opportunities and recognition outside of the Caribbean is one of the biggest challenges for Caribbean poets and novelists. And, as he confirmed, it’s no different in the UK, as far as Black and Asian writers are concerned.
“One of the problems is that the usual route for poets seeking publication — building up a CV through publishing in poetry magazines — isn’t something that Black and Asian poets feel able to do. When they look at those magazines, they see publications which appear very white in cultural focus.”
Faced with the same limitations for decades, diasporic writers are now finding new opportunities via online journals, writing-community websites and through electronic publishing. Increasingly poetry-dedicated websites are emerging and providing poets with varied and innovative ways of promoting and marketing their work.
One of the most intriguing sites that have sprung up so far is Poetryspeaks.com. The site allows poets to post their work and manage virtually their own mini-website, which can include video of their performances, readings, a blog and schedules of events.
It has three different sections—PS Voices, SpokenWord and YourMic. The aim of it is to create an online community that allows poets to log on, create a profile and upload their poetry – both written and audio – and sell print and digital copies of their works.
You can use the site’s ‘YourMic’ section to upload your poems to be read, heard and seen by the PS poetry community. Also, if you have poetry videos on other video sharing sites like YouTube, you can post them on YourMic once you’ve signed up and set up your account.
Poetryspeaks.com has a fully-accessible poetry archive with poems available for purchase in both text and audio format, as well as a poetry book store and a forum to post and view video of poetry readings and performances.
Registered members can rate their favorite poems and videos, leave comments, and, best of all, support their favourite poets by purchasing their works.
The PS•Voices and SpokenWord sections cater to popular contemporary, slam, and spoken word poets and allows users to sample their work before purchasing it. You can buy a poem in text or MP3 audio format for US$0.99 cents each, or a bundle of both the text and MP3 for $1.50. You can also purchase books in print and e-books, as well as CDs, DVDs and even tickets for poetry performances. The site is already being touted as the “iTunes of poetry” in US literary circles.
According to the website’s founders, “PoetrySpeaks.com believe poetry should be paid for and that poets should be recompensed for their work. We’ve created this site as a marketing tool for poets and as an avenue for poetry lovers to support the poets they love.”
To date PoetrySpeaks.com has approximately 1,500 registered users and 166 poets display their work on the site.
The site was launched in November 2009 by the independent Chicago-based publisher Sourcebooks. Sourcebooks publishes 300 new titles annually and reportedly has a backlist of some 1,750 titles. They published the highly successful Poetry Speaks anthologies, including the first volume “Poetry Speaks: Hear Great Poets Read Their Work from Tennyson to Plath,” which has sold 190,000 copies in various editions since it was published in 2001. It also featured introductions and analyses of works by famous contemporary poets and audio CDs of poets reading their work.
This was followed up with “Poetry Speaks to Children,” which was published in 2005 and chalked up sales of some 170,000 copies. A third volume, “Hip Hop Speaks to Children,” edited by Nikki Giovanni, has sold 55,000 copies since its release in 2008.
Poetryspeaks.com, is essentially an online offshoot of the Poetry Speaks series.
Sourcebooks founder and CEO, Dominique Raccah is, by all accounts, the driving force behind the website. After the Poetry Speaks titles generated some $6 million in sales, Raccah became convinced that poetry could be profitable if marketed creatively. Sourcebooks subsequently went to work building the PoetrySpeaks.com website. Raccah said it had been in development for five years and up to November when it was launched, a quarter million dollars had been invested in it.
“We wanted a site that helps connect poetry readers, potential poetry readers, and poets. And we wanted to begin developing a new business model for poetry … We want to bring poetry to as broad a group of consumers as possible” said Raccah.
She believes that what made the Poetry Speaks print series so successful is that they made poetry more accessible and less daunting to readers by incorporating the audio components. Likewise, she thins people will find it easier to connect with poets and their work online because of the wide variety of formats and presentations available.
To prove her theory, Raccah is reported to have tracked book sales for some poets who had joined the site, and compared their book sales before and after joining the site. Using Bookscan data, she looked at their sales over a 6-week period before joining up and for 6 weeks after signing up. According to Raccah, the poets had a 55% increase in Bookscan sales after joining the site.
The Poetryspeaks.com advisory board boasts a number of literary luminaries. They include former Poet Laureate of the United States, Robert Pinsky, board member of the Poetry Foundation, Anne Halsey and poet and co-founder of Def Poetry Jam (HBO), Bruce George.
In addition to poets, the site has opened its doors to poetry publishers — large and small. Along with Sourcebook, Marick Press, Tupleo Press and Naxos Audiobooks have signed on, and Raccah expects to close deals with other publishers in the near future. Poets and publishers get a 40% cut on sales made through the website.
For Caribbean poets, PoetrySpeaks.com is a resource worth exploring, at the very least because of its relatively open access and the developers’ declared commitment to promoting a diversity of voices. Who knows, it could well provide them with a unique opportunity to claim a dedicated space and use it to win greater visibility for themselves and their work.
Check out some more poetry websites: