Poetry 101 – Building the Brand

046It’s a supply and demand problem. We’ve got some amazing new poetry in the UK at the moment, but nobody wants it. Ever since Salt Publishing announced (well, sort of, there wasn’t exactly a Press Release) that it would no longer publish any new poetry, apart from anthologies, there’s been a round of agonised hand-wringing in the poetry world. Poets want to know why it is so hard to publish poetry books, and why, when they are published, they barely sell more than a couple of hundred copies. Poets who have their first collection out want to know why they are permanently classed as ‘emerging’ rather than ‘established’ poets. There has been talk of the End of Poetry.

At the root of the problem is this; poetry in this country is a subculture (or maybe a cult). It’s generally only the people who write poetry who also read poetry, because they are the only people who really understand it and have their ears and brains attuned to it. Even some of the people who write the stuff don’t know how cringingly bad their work is, because they don’t read enough of it to have an appreciation of what good poetry looks and sounds like.

I earned my MBA from London Business School. I could (and I might) spend time drawing up a Porter’s Five Forces diagram for poetry, or doing a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) analysis. There are poets who would shudder at the idea that poetry might even be amenable to such commercial dissection, and I will address some of the less ‘monetisable’ aspects of it in a later post. In brief, though, poetry needs to make a profit, or at least break even, before it can be published. Some people may subsidise the magazines they run, but for most of us that’s not viable and I maintain it shouldn’t be necessary. So, there are four ways we can consider making a positive difference to the margin:

1. Charge more for the product.

This probably isn’t going to work. It generally only works if people are clamouring to buy the product in the first place, and scarcity (c.f. designer handbags) adds value to the proposition. Although, I will say that one bookshop I know sells a lot of American poetry books, and the shop owner believes this is because they are beautiful objects in their own right; smooth paper, attractive typefaces, good typesetting with plenty of white space, luxury endpaper, gorgeous covers. The poetry gift market, maybe. Certainly books to treasure.

There’s also something to be said for ensuring that the quality of the actual poetry between those covers is high. Every poem needs to earn its place in a collection, there’s no room for fillers and makeweights. The skilled editor is key in this endeavour. Maybe there are too few of them around. Maybe those who are around, are unappreciated.

2. Charge less for the product.

This only makes sense if it helps you shift more stock, which is unlikely. Maybe there is a market for poetry downloads for Kindle, or poetry apps. One thing we shouldn’t do is make actual printed books look any cheaper or tackier. There’s such a thing as a ‘value signal’. I’m fond of the Stella Artois approach; reassuringly expensive. I don’t think there is much call for discount poetry.

As for low quality poetry; well, Pam Ayres, Helen Steiner Rice and Patience Strong have always sold well. Hallmark Cards are still in business. There is a lowest common denominator approach that hinges on giving the people what they think they want, rather than giving them something wonderful. Reality TV works on that premise. I’m assuming that most poets don’t want to go there. I certainly don’t.

3. Upgrade the Product.

This is a bit radical, but examples of it working are already available. If printed single-poet collections don’t sell (unless you are Seamus Heaney or Carol-Ann Duffy, or indeed, Pam Ayres), then sell your poetry in other formats. Spoken Word events are thriving, and poets who mostly perform their work seem to be appreciated by a growing ‘youth’ audience. Crossover with rap music is helpful, as poets like Kate Tempest (recently endorsed on twitter by Stan Collymore) have found. Poets who have been genre-busting for decades, like John Hegley and John Cooper Clarke, have found their audiences by getting out into comedy and music, respectively. It hasn’t done their careers any harm. It certainly helps to be accessible, but it may not be the place for every earnest experimental poet. It’s also a tough, gigging lifestyle, like being a stand-up comic. Not everyone is well-placed to do that.

Anthologies sell well. Bloodaxe have produced ‘Being Human’, ‘Staying Human’ and ‘Identity Parade’; the first two of these, at least, have stretched out beyond the usual poetry audience. Salt are cannily hanging on to the annual ‘Best British Poetry’ anthologies and have recently showcased new talent in ‘Salt Younger Poets’. But having read one or two excellent poems in those books, how many general readers then go on to look for more work by the poets they enjoyed? It doesn’t translate into sales.

Themed ‘Poetry Projects’ are fashionable at the moment. ‘Binders Full of Women’, ‘Poems for Pussy Riot’ and ‘Penning Perfumes’ address particular topics and cause a buzz in the poetry world. Publications are sometimes secondary to performance, and kudos to anybody who runs any of those performances outside London.  (It seems the ‘poetry set’ really believe that putting on a gig in a pub in Clerkenwell is central to national culture – to which I would say, it is necessary but not sufficient, because these gigs rarely engage anyone who isn’t already in the poetry world. Where are they advertised? – mostly to a bunch of known poets who haunt the right pages of Facebook.)

4. Expand the Market

I’ve been told that the market for poetry in this country is between 5,000 and 10,000 people, most of whom also write poetry. In a country of over sixty million, it isn’t hard to deduce that we could do better.

The market segment we should be aiming at, in the first instance, are those who are educated, and enjoy other aspects of the arts, but never, ever, pick up a book of poems unless they are choosing something to read at a wedding or a funeral. If I were a marketing manager working for UK Poetry plc, I’d call this market segment the ‘Nearly Theres’.  They buy music, by CD or download; they will appreciate the lyrics of a singer / songwriter and might go to gigs or festivals. They love literary fiction and clamour for the new Booker Prize shortlist. They might venture to the theatre to see some fairly serious plays. They watch BBC 4 history documentaries, and read the arts review pages in the weekend newspapers. They would love poetry, but they don’t know they need it.

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When I’ve asked friends of mine who don’t read poetry, why they don’t read poetry, they put forward two major complaints:

A)     It is all about clouds and butterflies and full of ‘doth’ and ‘hath’ and is generally soppy, impenetrable and does not engage them with its subject matter. They are a bit worried about having to listen to a lot of embarrassing soul-bearing.This view is caused largely by lack of exposure to contemporary poetry. You may say that things are better at school now, with anthologies that stretch to Duffy, Armitage and Zephaniah, but in order to access the sixty million, we do also need to reach people who were at school a while ago.

B)      It is frightening and intimidating. They fear they won’t understand it because they are not clever enough. They think poetry is a pastime for the elite. One friend of mine said this:

“I don’t know anything about poetry and I don’t know where to start. I’m afraid that I’ll say things such as ‘I like that because I see the picture of the glorious scenery in my head’ only to be stared at and laughed at by intelligent people and discover it’s actually about early twentieth century Soviet Gulags and that I’ve missed the point entirely.”

I think this is also partly caused by the way poetry has been taught. Students are taught to dissect poetry, looking for alliteration, synechdoche and so on, but are never asked how the poem made them feel, what they like about the sound and rhythm of it, what the poem conjures up for them, how it makes them think differently about the world. It’s like telling a mechanic to strip and rebuild a car engine, then asking her what it feels like to drive the Nurburgring. We’ve failed to transmit the enthusiasm, or indeed the purpose, of the poem.

I do not think it is a hopeless task to engage vastly more people in poetry. I know it can be done, because it happened to me. And here’s my evangelical conversion story: I read, and wrote, a little poetry at school as an adolescent. Doesn’t everybody? I went into my twenties with a handful of poetry books to my name; a Golden Treasury of Poetry, The Faber Book of 20th Century Verse, a collected Betjeman, and Penguin Modern Poets – The Mersey Sound. That was it. I studied Life Sciences, got a job in the pharmaceutical industry, and became a Nearly There. What made the difference to my poetic journey? Three things:

  • A friend bought me Wendy Cope’s Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis as a birthday present. Light, accessible, but also engaging, well-crafted, and funny.
  • I heard an interview with Alice Oswald on Radio 4’s Front Row, listened to her read some excerpts, and immediately ordered a copy of Dart from Amazon.
  • An on-line friend showed me some poems he had written. I realised that Normal People both read and write poetry. I started noodling around with writing poetry myself. I began reading again with the accessible end of the list. I needed a little exposition to move on to something more chewy. I’m still not completely there with the elliptical and associative stuff, but I’m open to learning.

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So, in short, I don’t believe it is hopeless, but I think the key to saving poetry is to push it out to a much, much wider audience. It will take some radical re-thinking of how poetry works. I don’t know whether contemporary poets have the appetite for this, or whether they quite like being part of an initiated elite, indulging in something that is not a commercial proposition, but only a kind of mystical one.

I realise I haven’t got down to the big questions; how to engage more people with contemporary poetry, and indeed, why. I’ll save both of those ideas for later.

 

 

Totleigh in the Springtime

Photo: Where I've been all week...

What a perfect week at Totleigh Barton – the Arvon Foundation’s gorgeous, pre-Domesday-Book retreat in Devon. It is settled in this wonderful valley full of orchards and cow fields and it feels old, really old. When I think about the different types of English those walls have heard spoken, I’m overawed by how ancient and historic the house is, and what a privilege it was to spend time there with other writers in such gorgeous spring weather.

It’s the first time I’ve been on an Arvon course about prose – previously I’ve been exclusively interested in poetry. I felt that I’d gone back to Square One, with no real idea whether I can even write prose; but the encouragement of the marvellous Maggie Gee and Nii Parkes was a tremendous boost – and my fellow students also seemed to like the excerpts I read for them.  A novel about the pharmaceutical industry? Crazy – but it just might work!

The very first things they asked me, floored me.  What’s the theme of the book? What’s the climax of the plot? Well, the theme may be twofold: 1) Science and scientists are interesting, and creative, and 2) how knowledge is lost if we don’t take care if it, but may be found again. And the climax of the plot, well, you will have to wait and see, but at least I’ve got one, now…

It was a great treat to have Hisham Matar visit us and read from his new work. He’s writing a dramatic monologue, for performance, which hovers between prose and poetry, and hearing it read by the author was a stunning experience.

It’s always simplistic to say that someone is “the new whoever” but this week I heard echoes of Barbara Pym, David Lodge, Helen Fielding, Orhan Pamuk, Janet Fitch and Ian Fleming. I look forward to seeing these wonderful stories in print.

I feel I can get on with the book now. I know where I’m going and I’m much more confident that I’ll get there. That is, after a few alcohol-free days and a big catch-up on sleep.

I LOVE Arvon.