by Pat Holt
Friday, May 18, 2001
JANE HIRSHFIELD: 'A SEA CHANGE' IN THE AUDIENCE FOR POETRY BOOKS
It's probably safe to conclude that of all the categories of books, poetry sells the slowest (and, I worry, is published the least, but perhaps that's a different story).
Poet Jane Hirshfield offers an eloquent defense of "low numbers" (see #236) by stating that poets writing from the margins of society often have more to say than do writers whom the mainstream approves and pays well.
But writing from the periphery does not mean that poets aren't heard, she says. Indeed, "there's been a sea change in the world of poetry," she says. "In the last five or 10 years, that world has grown incrementally."
Jane should know. She began publishing nearly 20 years ago as one of five poets chosen by the seminal Quarterly Review of Literature for the first book in its hybrid series.
One of the poets in that book, Lars Gustaffson, was and is "an extraordinary, world-class poet," says Jane. Another, Wislawa Szymborska, "whose poems astonished me at the time" of publication, went on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1996.
So Hirshfield began in a high aerie, one might say, and gradually found herself exposed to a wider audience when her next book was published by the Wesleyan University Press, which was distributed by then Harper & Row, which in turn published her other books (anthologies, translations and collections), culminating in the most recent (and to me most jaw-dropping) collection, "Given Sugar, Given Salt."
Thinking back on her publishing history, "I'm impressed by how much the process of publishing happens one person at a time," Jane says. "The reader is a single person in an armchair, reading a book, but also in every step I have taken toward the public as a poet, I can point to certain people and say, 'that person made a difference.' "
She refers to the outside reader at Wesleyan who supported her publication there and "has remained a friend in poetry"; the business editor at Macmillan/Scribner who accepted "The Ink Dark Moon" (translation of poems by Ono No Komachi and Izumi Shikibu) because "he loved Asian culture"; then Scribner sales rep Gary Todorov who, she says, "single-handedly" sold out the hardcover publication because "he told bookellers they must buy the book along with collection from Wesleyan" and as a result, "that year I gave 35 readings."
But that hard work of building a following editor by editor, bookstore by bookstore and reader by reader is not what Jane means when she refers to "the sea change" in the world of poetry. It is rather a force or a movement that she feels graced to have been a part of, both as poet and as reader.
"I think of when Dylan Thomas was trying to establish the poetry reading as something that Americans might want to attend," she says. "He was the only person doing this, and there were very few places he could go. But now there seems to be a place for poetry in innumerable universities, in free-standing literary centers, and in this program I just did at the Seattle Public LIbrary called 'If All Seattle Read the Same Book.' "
What an energetic and widely appealing program this is turning out to be. In it, a grant for $175,000 from the Lila Wallace/Reader's Digest Foundation covers three years in which the library, working with 30 independent booksellers in and around Seattle, trains discussion leaders, distributes background material and study guides (called "reading group toolboxes") and stimulates the creation of book groups in which everybody reads and talks and attends lectures about a single book.
"I think the program started with novels by Russell Banks and Ernest Gaines," Jane adds, "then fanned out to poetry with Bill Moyers' 'Fooling with Words: A Celebration of Poets and Their Craft' [Harperperennial], in which Bill includes interviews with 11 poets at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival in Waterloo, New Jersey - another place where audiences of poetry are large and enthusiastic.
"The 'If All Seattle' program not only brought Bill Moyers to Seattle but later presented a couple of the poets he interviewed - Mark Doty one day and me a few days afterward - doing onstage interviews. More than 400 people came to my event, for example."
It perhaps helped that several months earlier, poet and teacher Ed Hirsch had been invited to Seattle to talk about the book he edited, "How to Read a Poem And Fall in Love with Poetry" (Harvest).
"This is what I mean about the kind of audience development that's going on everywhere," she says. "Many people who came to hear Ed had never read poetry before, but they have now joined growing audiences who meet in the hundreds all over the country, all the time, to talk about and listen to poems."
Hundreds rather than thousands don't exactly add up to mass audiences, but to Jane, the cumulative impact is serious, potent and profound.
"I can't imagine that 10 or 20 years ago there would have been as many venues as there are to what I'm doing now. In the Bay Area I remember only one - the College of Marin series that Sydney Goldstein launched before she started City Arts & Lectures in San Francisco.
"Doing introductions there was the first time I ever spoke to audiences of 500 when I was just a young sprog working in the Poets in the Schools program. That was my first work as a poet, going into classes of 2nd graders, and trembled before them. But I found that teaching 2nd, 5th and 7th graders how to practice metaphor, simile and imagery was very instructive to me, enormously so."
Which brings us to the time this much-sought teacher and poet was asked by West Point Academy to teach poetry. It perhaps says something about the "sea change" Jane describes (that it takes a long, long time) to note that West Point is still the only, or one of the very few, institutions of higher education to require freshmen to take a course in poetry.
"They do this at West Point I think because they still believe in the idea of creating 'an officer and gentleman' - or gentlewoman, since about 15% of the class was female - and so they encourage a certain thoughtfulness.
"A poetry course teaches subtle mind, complicated mind, an ability to be particular with language, to read with sophistication the evidence before you. It's so interesting they [the teachers at West Point] figured it out."
Ah, but the timing, Jane, the timing. "The course begins with three living poets and works back in time to 'the great dead,' as we say. Because everyone is required to take it, West Point asks poets way in advance to teach it, since the school then buys your books for 1400 people. So I was asked at the time of a peacetime army, of 'velvet revolutions.' I was very excited about it.
By the time she began teaching at the start of '91, however, the United States had engaged in a full-blown war in the Persian Gulf. "My feeling is that when you're invited to something like this, you can't castigate your hosts," she says.
(I want to say it sounds like the same problem when a poet is asked to read in a chain bookstore, but perhaps this isn't the time.)
"I didn't feel I should go in and say I was against the war with all banners waving, so I spoke at the beginning about the values of poetry - the values of our interconnection with all beings, and the values of peace. The students were very receptive."
I think, still under the spell of "Given Sugar, Given Salt" (which I'm going to have to save until next time after all), and having witnessed the deep silence that engulfs a crowd when Jane Hirshfield speaks, those students never forgot what she said that day.
One more question, since we're talking about students. Since Jane is a poet who teaches widely, how does she perceive students in schools and colleges today? We hear so much about kids who are unable to write or understand a poem or story by the time they're teenagers - can that be true?
"Well, I do think a great enemy of current young minds is carelessness," she says. "If I see anything we need to be alert for in the way young people read poems right now, it's that very often they're a little too quick to move from the page into their own life, their own ideas, without first attending deeply enough to what the poet has said.
"Now that is probably a sea change from my generation of poetry students, who grew up under the 'new criticism,' which required that one pay very precise attention to the poem itself. Today the whole culture has become a celebrity culture, a personalized culture, and I see some effect of this in the way poems are read by young students.
"But I also think if the poetry course they're taking is well taught, then this tendency to personalize a poem too quickly has a chance of being worked with. The task of people who love and teach poems, after all, is to instruct a different kind of attention.
And here again is another Jane Hirshfield comment - about both the reader and the writer of poetry, one feels - that I'm going to cut out and tack to the wall above the keyboard:
"Attending to the mind of poetry is attending to your entire consciousness," she says. "You're not working with a separate part of yourself that is interested in art; you're working with the deepest levels of what you care about, how you're made, how you think. That makes poetry in a very technical sense a yogic activity - it yokes the inner and outer. It goes all the way through you, if you do it well."
AMAZONED? WHO, ME?
What a kick it is to read the New York Times article in last Sunday's Money & Business section called " 'Getting Amazoned' and Other Fantasies" (5/13).
There writer Amy Harmon exposes the many authors whose books predicted that "prosperous corporations were about to be slaughtered by the dotcom insurgents" and that business executives had better change fast to adapt.
Of course the reverse is becoming true - it's the dotcoms that are failing so quickly you can hardly find the Internet through the bodies of venture capitalists piling up along the way.
Still, the funniest part of the article, a glossary called "An Internet Guru's Lexicon," while instructive, doesn't go far enough.
For example, the term "Amazoned" is defined as "What happens when a large, established company is overtaken by a Web-based start-up. As in 'We don't want to be Amazoned.' "
That's the old definition, good and succinct and mightily out of date. So let's consider (gleefully and sadly at the same time) what today's meaning of the term "Amazoned" might be.
How about: "What happens when a good idea remains unproven and is taken to such extreme proportions that it blows up in everybody's face."
No, wait, try this: "What happens when a new frontier opens and the first true pioneering company so dazzles everyone that nobody notices the dangers until it's too late."
Okay, okay, here it is: "What happens to a small idea that should have been nurtured within the cocoon of a single industry (say the book biz) and location (say the United States) but instead is corrupted by visions of product and world domination."
No, no, I got it: "What happens when cutthroat corporate competition attempts to buy or inhale everything in its (cyber) path and forgets what independent thinking can do with relatively no money or outside backing to compete."
All too wordy, so one more: "What happens when you forget that fads come and go, on Earth as in Cyberspace, while things of substance - trust, for example - are valued forever."
Dear Holt Uncensored:
In #236 you quote students from the University of Alabama saying they no longer shop at brick and mortar bookstores near campus. Instead they send their money to a big e-tailer in the Pacific Northwest that collects no Alabama sales tax, pays no Alabama property tax, and provides no jobs to the people of the great state of Alabama. This in the middle of a major funding crisis for Alabama's colleges and universities caused by a decline in sales and property tax revenues!
Why are you so overjoyed that these students choose to ignore their local independent bookstores? (Tuscaloosa and Birmingham have several remaining between them.) They obviously prefer the experience of shopping in a "real" bookstore but you commend them for sending their dollars out of state to a dot.com bookseller.
I'm shocked that you'd support the online-shopping, discount-seeking, tax-avoiding students over these independent bookstores. Next time, please consider this more carefully before reporting glee that students are learning to avoid the independents you love in favor of a dot.com in the northwest. There's not a bit of difference to the local independents if those students shop at Powells.com or Amazon.
Ed Dravecky III
Holt responds: This is a very important question, and thank you for bringing it up (translation: my feelings are hurt!) - that is, how to 1) "unbrand" Amazon.com, as it were, and 2) educate readers about sales tax, and 3) reacquaint them with neighborhood independent bookstores and 4) even reinstill a bit of pride in spending dollars locally to support their community. It's not a process that happens all at once, nor does it mean that anybody in that process supports one way of buying books over another. The pride in those students' voices when they talked about ordering NOT from "the other option" (they didn't even want to say the word "Amazon") but from Powell's indicated to me that they had made what was for them a huge step in taking a stand for independents. Let's give them that, and applaud them for it. Right now, in this crucial period where we are all following the demise of Amazon (I do think "demise" continues to be the right word), many people are on the brink of this decision, and let's applaud them for that, too. Disengaging from Amazon.com and finding a place to buy books on line where one feels equally comfortable and reinspired by all that's going on about books is not an easy process. Heaven knows Amazon has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to stop customers from doing that very thing. But once people do shop elsewhere - and I bet Powell's is happy to be a way station in cyberspace - what a change is in store! They not only rediscover the perspective of independent retailing on the web, their antenna are up anew and what do you know, very soon they start noticing an immense diversity of independent bookstores on line as well as on the ground in front of their eyes all along. I do think online shopping is here to stay and that our charge in the book biz is to help states enforce existing laws about sales taxes. But this period of transition offers a huge opportunity for everybody in the book biz to help disenchanted Amazon.com customers find an even better way to buy books.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Regarding your issue #236, and the general public's awareness of the plight of independent booksellers (among other "Main St." type businesses), I really don't think that the average person, i.e., book readers and book givers, understand or have thought much about the consequences of buying their books and cards at the big box stores. When I started my company [notecards geared to book readers] last spring, many friends and neighbors asked if I had talked to the manager of the local branch of a large bookstore chain, regarding buying the cards. Of course if they had thought about it, they'd realize that buying decisions only happen at headquarters ... not in the store that's down the block from favorite pizzeria or coffee shop. Likewise, I don't think the reading public was that interested or put that much thought into the recent suit against the chains...except of course for those directly involved in book buying, selling, distributing, publishing, etc. etc.
So, we need to continue to be pro-active...please tell everybody to remind their friends to patronize the local independent stores...if they want them to survive!
Robin K. Blum
Holt responds: It seemed to me going back to the impact of other lawsuits that the reading public has HEARD about the controversy, if not the current lawsuit, for a long while and has a sense that something important is at stake when they shop at chains or independents. The uproar that exploded so quickly against Barnes & Noble's attempt to buy Ingram Book Company, however inspired by the American Booksellers Association and Authors Guild, did seem to be a genuine reflection of that fed-up feeling that had been growing about chains for some time, especially in the book world, and that culminated in the face of the colossal arrogance of B&N in thinking it could just sweep Ingram under its wing without anybody noticing. When they notice in such impressive numbers, I like to think they get the larger picture.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Before Bibliofind was obliterated by Amazon, there was an announcement a couple months earlier that there had been a security breach into the credit card system, which, of course, is every Internet consumer's worst nightmare. Nothing specific was described either to the booksellers or the buyers (I was both). But Bibliofind, which had already been bought by Amazon half a year or so ago, decided to make amends by offering the service for free and eliminate the management of credit card information. In May, of course, Amazon got rid of Bibliofind and offered its own website as an opportunity to sell books online, although the percentage they take on each sale and the monthly fees are prohibitive, not to mention the fact that most independent bookstores would rather dance with the devil than do business with Amazon.
The only other decent alternative to Bibliofind, as far as I can tell, is Abebooks.com out of British Columbia. We are currently transferring inventory to their system, and as I was applying to become a bookseller on their website, a comment from their tech support regarding their reluctance to handle our credit card information via email made me wonder, in my possibly paranoid fashion: Did Amazon set up the fear of a security breach within a smaller Internet business to discredit Bibliofind's competitors as a final dig before they eliminated Bibliofind? Did they fabricate it? Even though Amazon owned Bibliofind during all this time, anyone using the site would not have known it. It was to say the least, very discreet.
I don't know how untouchable Abebooks.com might be because they're Canadian-based, or even if some other giant secretly owns them (I do know they share some kind of credit card software with Barnes & Noble), but either way, I couldn't help speculate on the possible mischief. Would your readers have any thoughts?
Greg, Oliver's Books
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Jane Hirshfield's remark that "the margins are important spaces" brought to mind a quote from Jesse Jackson - I wonder if she ever saw it:
"It was in the gap between the assumed and the actual that power waited. Most politicians operate on the line, not in the gap. When somebody steps into that gap and addresses it, he's gonna find favor with the people. 'Cause the people LIVE in that gap."
Holt Uncensored provides this forum for the free and uncensored exchange of thoughts and ideas from writers of all callings. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Pat Holt or the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association.
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