Salt’s announcement that it’s no longer publishing single poet collections but focusing on its anthologies, came with a press quote: “There’s never been a better time for poets to write”. Note the emphasis on “to write”, not “to find an audience” or “for poetry to be read” or “for poets to find readers.”
Unfortunately, it’s true. There’s never been a better time to start writing poetry. There’s been an expansion in creating writing courses from one-off workshops to postgraduate courses in Creative Writing, an increase in mentoring programmes, arts organisations are offering conferences in how to market using social media or how to be a writer in residence (for those who can find both the funds and time to attend) and more of a poetry presence in healthcare settings as well as more poetry prizes, particularly in regional and local competitions. The writer Blake Morrison recently observed that “there are still writers who make their way without ever having gone on a creative writing course. But whereas once they were the majority, now they’re becoming the exception. That’s in part because literary agents and publishers have begun looking to creative writing programmes to find new talent.”
In its last round of funding decisions, Arts Council England scrapped annual funding for poetry presses such as Arc, Enitharmon and Flambard and made a huge increase in funding support for writer development schemes. That’s writer development schemes, not reader development schemes.
Competition for the few publishing slots there are is fierce, which in itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but where are all these creative writing graduates and emergent writers going to find their audiences?
There’s a difference between writing and getting published. One doesn’t, and shouldn’t, necessarily follow the other. Writing something doesn’t entitle the writer to see that something published. Writing a poem is about creating the best poem. Publishing is about attracting a readership or selling books. It doesn’t just consider the merits of the poems themselves, but also whether the poet can do publicity and do so without any support from a publisher with a zero marketing budget. It doesn’t help that poetry review outlets are diminishing as well: those that are left receiving far more poetry books, pamphlets and magazines than they can review.
So if poets need a form of recognition other than getting published, what form should that recognition take?
Not all poets are natural performers or teachers. Not earning money from poetry means earning money elsewhere which means less time writing and editing poems. For those that say poetry is a vocation, do it as a hobby without the expectation of earnings: fine, just don’t expect very good poems to result. Brilliant writing doesn’t happen overnight, if poets can’t find time to practise, they can’t improve. If you spend eight hours a day in a job to pay the bills, eight hours sleeping plus time on family and other commitments, time on the administration side of being a poet (accounting, sending out poems to editors, dealing with editors’ responses, etc) that doesn’t leave much time to actually write, practise and improve.
Not all writers will want to undertake a postgraduate creative writing course either, whether through lack of time, lack of funds or knowing that an academic course isn’t the best way of learning for them. What about those exceptions, now a minority, who made their way as poets without attending a creative writing course? The merry-go-round of attending a course and earning by teaching and/or performing doesn’t leave much time to write let alone develop a readership. Poets need readers and, if established poetry presses can’t find readers, how will individual poets?
Currently a single poet collection will sell less than a thousand copies. Bricks-and-mortar shops rarely stock single author collections beyond the bigger names from larger publishers. Book sellers, suspicious of vanity and self-published books, are very reluctant to even take books by local poets. Online ordering is relatively easy, but wholly reliant on the buyer knowing the book exists. It’s very difficult for a casual browser to discover a poetry book.
Salt’s decision is not surprising and it should act as a wake-up call to those who think developing writers without developing a readership is a good thing.
By Emma Lee