In the summer of 2006, after a tired and deflated return to Ireland after another foreign sojourn, my confidence and thirst was restored by the poet Stephen Murray (House of Bees, On Corkscrew Hill) who suggested self-publishing a joint collection and taking off across the continent of Europe for poetry readings and plamasing. It was both a beautiful and important decision.
Fast forward eight years, and I’m now living in southern California. With time to kill in another one of those photocopied malls, I wandered into Barnes and Noble Bookstore, stepped onto the escalator and looked up to find the arse cheeks of a teenage girl looking back at me from under a waist-high skirt. I stepped off the escalator at the Self-Improvement section, but bypassed it and went straight for the Poetry. It’s a ritual I have as an unpublished poet, scanning the shelves to see who’s published what, which publishers are out there and active. Now, I am not jealous that peers have moved ahead of me and brought out multiple collections with various international publishers, in fact I applaud them and will do my best to help promote them in any way I can. It’s all good. However, I have recently had doubts, so help me God. Publishing houses who have brought out books I’ve either bought or thumbed through have been riddled with typos or have just simply published pretty weak poetry on account of who that poet is. That brings me to Exhibit A, if you will. The only books in the Poetry section of Barnes and Noble by Graywolf Press was by James Franco. Now, I don’t need to go quoting lines of text to batter you with my opinion on how shockingly bad the poetry is (The Telegraph beat me to it here), But I had to think of who approached who. Did Franco, having obviously read a good chunk of Graywolf’s catalogue decide that they were indeed the publisher for him as many of their writers reminded him of his own writing, or did Graywolf take a look at Franco and identify a young man who had found fame in a much more lucrative field who could possibly do for poetry what Beckham did for the MLS? If it’s a case of the latter, we are all fucking doomed. The kids from the Twighlight franchise could also help boost sales. Give them pens.
In honesty, I’m not sure who I was more disappointed with, the publisher or the poet. Who needs who more? When we write a poem, and mail it off to a journal with another four to make up a submission, what is the endgame? A book deal, perhaps. Readings organized on our behalf. Reviews in respected newspapers. Bragging rights. Book fairs. Residencies. Maybe every once in a while we get to pose, no, frown and look serious for a feature in Poets & Writers. Is A a better poet than B and C because A’s with Faber and B’s with Ahinga and C’s made her own chapbook at Staples? I’ve been thinking about this for a few years now, and in the meantime, I’ve been lucky enough to have been invited to speak as a guest poet at a number of venues in no fewer than fourteen countries, rubbing shoulders with the published and the accomplished. I have made friends along the way and seen some of the most gorgeous places that I wouldn’t have otherwise had the drive to go and see if it weren’t for poetry. So, to cut a short story long, when Chiwan Choi (Writ Large Press) asked me if I’d be interested in taking part in a reading in Union Station, Los Angeles last week as part of DTLAB's 90 for 90, to read with other self-published authors, I jumped at the chance. This is where is all began and begins again. So long as I live, feel free to punch me in the face if I ever get too big for my boots and think myself too important for any reading. In Traxx Bar on a Wednesday night, I shared the podium with the ever-lovely and possibly the greatest advocate of poetry readings I have ever met, Jessica Ceballos; I sat and listened and was charmed by clever, original and well-delivered verses of Nikita Liza Egar, wanted to hear a lot more from the modest Kirk Dietrich’s 'Junk Shop Heart'; gladly traded merchandise and took home a copy of Petrea Burchard’s ‘Camelot and Vine’ as well as Jonathin Flike’s pop culture poetry in 'It only gets worse' that was both witty and sharp. Though probably not as well-attended as the organizers would have hoped, these nights are as important as any reading or book launch. For many it's the beginning of a journey into the printed and spoken word world. That decision in the summer of 2006 came back to justify itself to me last week. It was both a beautiful and important decision.