Writing

The (not so) secret life of poets


A childhood friend of mine, who is in the process of writing a novel and is blogging about it, asked me to write a post about how I was able to get my poetry published. That’s a pretty interesting story, in and of itself.

In early spring of 1999, I went to a party at my friend Rebecca’s apartment, and struck up a conversation with several guys who said they were poets. References to Gertrude Stein and Charles Bernstein turned into a larger discussion of experimental/avant-garde/L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E work (whatever labels you need to slap on.) Up until then, no one else I knew in Atlanta was interested in anything other than more traditional narrative poetry. I was in the English – Creative Writing (Poetry) program at Georgia State University and found their approach to poetry very stifling. I’m not against narrative per se, but I strongly believe that “narrative” can function outside of traditional use of structure or language.

Founding members John Lowther, Mark Presjnar and Randy Prunty invited me to one of their weekly meetings. They called their collective the Atlanta Poets Group and in addition to sharing work they individually wrote and shared, they also held intense discussions/debates on poets and poetry/literary/philosophical theories and collaborated on poems. That’s right – they wrote poems together as a group. It was a completely different environment than I’d ever been in, and kind of intimidated me. But I kept going back. In time, my writing began to evolve into its own kind of voice. I wasn’t so much trying to be like other poets I admired as I was simply discovering myself.

There were a few things that differentiated the APG from traditional writers’ groups. There was very little emphasis on critiquing or encouraging revisions of work. We made comments and expressed likes/dislikes but there was no imperative on anyone’s part to go “fix” their poem. Sometimes we didn’t say much and just let the work stand (or fall) on its own. It was in many ways more about the process than creating something polished for consumption. The emphasis on collaboration also was unusual and when we delved into live performance pieces later, primarily at Eyedrum Art & Music Gallery, it really took on quite a life of its own.

Another thing that made the APG different was their collaborative approach to publishing work. Although individual members sought publishing of individual works or books on their own, the emphasis was on submitting a body of work as a group. In time, we had a few online poetry journals, such as Moria and Wire Sandwich, do special issues devoted to the APG. We were also all featured in the anthology, Another South: Experimental Writing in the South (University of Alabama Press.) The APG also published chapbooks individually and as a group via their imprint, 3rdness, including my chapbook, essential core. (See Thomas Bell’s 2005 feature on 3rdness in the Creative Loafing.)

So, back to this whole concept of “getting published.” The more well-known traditional poetry journals and imprints would likely have rejected our work outright. It’s tough getting published when you’re (as 3rdness asserts) “poets of the self-consciously symbolic, poets who reject any pretensions of writing “the Truth.” But just like our predecessors in the ’70s, we took matters into our own hands. They had mimeograph machines. We have the Internet and Photoshop. Our work did not need to be accepted by mainstream poets in order to be read or attract interest. And now there’s publishing on demand, which means that as long as you can invest money into your own book, you can get one published and marketed through any number of distribution channels. Once people get to know your work, they may sometimes request (as did happen in my case) to submit work for their journal or publication.

I had no interest in (or delusions about) making money from poetry, so having the opportunity to be published and get my work read, without worrying about “making it” was a great experience. (This is kind of dorky, but I was actually excited that I was published in at least one book that had its own ISBN!) These approaches may not work or appeal to everyone, but they enabled us to get work out there in a meaningful context.

(Photo credit: Jon Ciliberto – taken at Eyedrum in 2004.)

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3 thoughts on “The (not so) secret life of poets

  1. WOW!Thank you SO much for sharing your writing journey & thanks for the link promos!

    APG certainly puts its own unique spin on the traditions of a very solitary venture .. writing. Although like you, I would of been very intimidated, I think have a constant audience and support is rather refreshing.

    And I agree, there are many, many alternative routes to getting published these days, especially if being able to share the work is the only ultimate goal. It would be interesting to see whether or not the new influx of electronic publishing possibilities impact for aspiring writers to overcome the traditional gate-keepers of getting published.

    From my research thus far, I get the sense that self-publishing is still somewhat frowned upon. However, the novel-prodigy, Christopher Paolini, author of the Eragon series self-published first. Only when the book received some very positive reactions did a larger publishing house – Knopf picked it up, reprinted it & launched it into mainstream. (Like Barnes & Noble, Borders, etc). So I have not entirely ruled out the possibilities of self-publishing.

    And yes, me too! I would be quite elated to get an actual ISBN connected to any of my works.

    • I don’t think self-publishing is as frowned upon in the poetry world as it is in the fiction world. I have a good friend who recently self-published a non-fiction book on God/spirituality and I think self-publishing for that genre is probably a good bet.

  2. Pingback: Tweets that mention The (not so) secret life of poets « A life itself -- Topsy.com

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