marketing poetry

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The Seven Best Poetry Books of 2021… Maybe

T’is the season for “Best of” lists, and yes, even poetry gets in on the game, at least if the playing field is as large as The New York Times, where the Book Review’s poetry columnist Elisa Gabbert selected seven favorites from 2021 only to be pounced on by readers.

One named “to each their own taste” commented “The NY Times carries great authority, yet this list is so arbitrary and slants so steeply toward poets who are not widely known. How can any round up being called the year’s ‘best poetry books’ not include even Kaveh Akbar’s “Pilgrim Bell,” let alone the Louise Glück book seemingly ignored exactly because it’s by a Nobel poet. Does being better-known disqualify?”

I couldn’t disagree more. I mean, I get it. Having read both Nobel winner Louise Glück’s wonderful Winter Recipes from the Collective and Kaveh Akbar’s Pilgrim Bell: Poems, I can understand why they might merit consideration for a “Best of” list. But really, do Nobel winners and familiar names like theirs even need the attention? And isn’t that a little too easy for an expert like Elisa Gabbert?

Unlike “to each their own taste,” I favor slants “toward poets who are not widely known.” In fact, I think The Times’ Gabbert could slant even more. Two of her seven selections were choices of a Brooklyn bookstore’s poetry subscription series – one I myself receive. And while I’m in the confession box, I’ll state here that one of those two choices struck me as ordinary while the other I abandoned (though now I may give it a second go, to see if it’s me or Gabbert). In any event, keep slanting, Elisa! Make the widely unknown a little bit more known and trust that the famous can fend for themselves!

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SHORT TAKES

I’ve been reading Michael Ignatieff’s short essays, On Consolation: Finding Solace in Dark Times, and so far have most enjoyed the pieces on Marcus Aurelius and Michel De Montaigne. Poor Marcus Aurelius. Like Bartleby the Emperor, he would “prefer not to” do anything Roman emperors had to do – rule, lead battalions against barbarians, entertain fools. Yet he slogged on, writing his Meditations to reprove himself (for lack of Stoic discipline) as much as others.

Montaigne, though he lived in the 16th century, struggled with the party (read: religious) line on consolation. He was too busy writing essays about himself as a human mind and a human body. How 21st century of him!

“I renounce any favorable testimonials that anyone may want to give me not because I shall deserve them but because I shall be dead,” he said, neglecting that little business of an after-life. As he lived in a time of Catholic vs. Protestant bloodshed in France, one can see why he loathed religious zealots.

***

Care to sample a few poems from my book online? In the Miracle Monocle out of the University of Louisville, you’ll find “A Boy, A City” (originally written as an ekphrastic poem to go with a photograph) and “Loyalty,” one of my favorite short poems in the book.

You can also find one of the “lost brother” thematic poems, “My Brother’s Bedroom,” in Jacar Press’s poetry publication, one, Issue 21.

***

Speaking of Reincarnation & Other Stimulants, my thanks go out to Steve Penkevich from Reader’s World Bookstore in Michigan, who published this awesome-isn’t-the-word-for-it review of my book on Goodreads.

***


Am I the only one who thinks the scariest bit in the news these days is the slow taking down of our Republic? In this sense, the good news of Donald Trump’s defeat may turn out to be the bad news. If not for his legitimate defeat in the 2020 presidential election, none of this perfidy would have been turned loose.

Ever child-like and narcissistic, Trump denied losing and insisted it could only happen if he was “robbed.” His slavish minions in countless key states with Republican majorities in their houses and senates have taken this lie as an excuse to blatantly gerrymander voting districts so the GOP can’t possibly lose future elections.

Couple that with voter-suppression laws designed to favor voters registered with the GOP and the purging of any election official (Republicans as well) who had the integrity to stand up to Trump’s lies, and you get a recipe for one-party rule, much like you see in, say, Putin’s Russia and Xi Jinping’s China today. Elections may occur in those countries, but they are little more than bad jokes with outcomes a preordained given. Is that what we want for the formerly United States? To see Trump succeed where Jefferson Davis failed?

I’m not sure why Republicans and Democrats alike in states like Arizona, Texas, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Florida, and North Carolina are not up in arms over this breach of citizens’ rights. Why are they OK with some American voters counting more than others? Is it patriotic to acquiesce to electoral systems used in Fascist and Communist (small difference, as both are built around cults of personality in a single leader… sound familiar?) countries today? I’m looking for ways to fight back, but it’s difficult when you don’t live in one of the states that are betraying basic precepts of the Constitution, all while cloaked in a false flag of patriotism.

 

What Color Is Your Book Cover?

A poetry friend asked an interesting question last week. She said, “What color is your new book’s cover? Is it blue like the first two?” (Leave it to a poet to rhyme.)

What’s intriguing is that colors of book covers never occurred to me. Or did it, only subconsciously? The first two are indeed blue, but the new collection, Reincarnation & Other Stimulants, is green. Color never entered the decision equation when choosing the first books’ cover, but it did in this most recent. The fir tree branches are evergreen. The connection for me was in the title: reincarnation. So I chose the simple metaphor of trees that are green when all else is dead in winter: evergreen branches.

Of course, I know there’s a science built around colors. For example, I read that chronic pain sufferers, when shown the color red, will feel more pain than when shown the color blue, even though the pain is the same. But I guess the pain isn’t really the same, is it, because impressions count as much as logical facts. Science be damned — you feel what you feel.

So now I’m left with this — two blue books, one green book. Since it’s come up (thank you, friend!), I’m saying to myself now: Earth colors! Blue, green. This from a man who loves nature and writes not a few nature poems (including in this book).

Now I wonder what marketers would say about all this. I admit to “judging books by their covers,” but I didn’t realize color might be part of the judgement — subliminally if in no other way — when I reach for a book to purchase it (or eyeball it online before clicking “CART”)!

The question remains, then, for authors and readers alike: Do we favor certain colored book covers over others? Maybe it’s time for a little excavation of your bookshelf. You might find you’re part of Team Red or Team Yellow or Team Blue. For the moment, I’m squarely in the Team Green camp, holding in my hands a beautiful new cover designed by my evergreen daughter.

Old Books’ Fountain of Youth? TikTok.

When opportunity knocks, you say “TikTok” and open the door.  The New York Times reports that books released years ago have come on like Lazarus and his pet Phoenix thanks to teenage girls.

“Huh?” you say. The answer (like most, as in “Dr. Oz.” after “Who was Jeopardy‘s most ill-advised guest host?”) lies in cultural happenings of the moment. In a symbol, it’s #BookTok, wherein girls read excerpts from any old book (and books grow old quickly), then cry with the beautiful sadness of it all.

As any husband or boyfriend will tell you, crying is powerful stuff. Teen criers (a modern version of Ye Olde Towne Criers) have taken such books as We Were Liars (published 2014), The Song of Achilles (2012), and The Cruel Prince (2018), returning them to release-date sales status.

For authors with books gathering dust under their beds, this can only mean one thing. (Hint: It does not involve sending review copies to magazines and newspapers or doing readings in front of three socially-distanced mask wearers who left their wallets home.)

That’s right: send copies of your books to the teary girls mentioned in the Times article. Or to your nieces and granddaughters on TikTok. Instructions: Read, cry, record.

Why? Because TikTok, previously the province of teen dance moves, is now the latest publishers’ marketing plan no matter when your book came out.

P.S. If you are a #BookTok reviewer in search of some sad (as in the emotion, not quality) poetry, please hashtag contact me #ASAP for free review copies of my first two collections. I will make your job easier by pre-sticky noting the especially teary ones while supplies (and attached dust bunnies) last.

Don’t look in your rearview mirror now, Amanda Gorman, but here come my new sales numbers now.

Yours, too, if you calibrate your TikTok correctly. Good luck!

Submittable Q & A

sub

Periodically I like to send questions to my fellow submitting Submittable Warriors, also known as “writers.” Their answers show that we all share a similar range of experiences using this technological convenience. Here’s a sampling of the Q & A’s.

What is it like waiting for RECEIVED submissions to flip over to IN PROGRESS submissions, and IN PROGRESS submissions to progress to a decision?

  • “It’s like watching water wait to wait to be boiled.”
  • “Like political ads. Excruciating and maddening.”
  • “Have you ever played fetch with a tortoise? You know. You fling the lettuce, then yell in its face: ‘Go on, boy! Go on!’ Like that.”
  • “Like looking forward to Christmas on December 26th.”
  • “Auditing a course on studying wallpaper.”
  • “The word ‘Received’ is my mantra for morning meditations, ‘In Progress’ for nightly ones. Has been for 8 months. Maybe your question’s a koan.”
  • “Like watching The Food Network. Eternal similarity. Stubborn persistence. Few payoffs.”

When is it worth paying a reading fee?

  • “When you’re accepted and it’s a paying market. Other than that, never.”
  • “When the journal is worthy of financial support. That way, you can look at it as a non-deductible contribution to a good cause.”
  • “When no one will read you for free.”
  • “I do it to reward audaciousness.”
  • “I haven’t done so because every time I email an editor about my writing fee, I get virtual crickets. Have you ever heard a virtual cricket?”
  • “When you want to brag about a certain magazine soliciting your stuff. Just don’t mention that your ‘stuff’ is a credit card as opposed to your poems.”

How many simultaneous submissions do you typically make for any given work?

  • “Three. Maybe I’ve been hard-wired by bad jokes, but everything comes in threes and that includes my submissions ceiling.”
  • “I don’t believe in simul-subs. This gives me plenty of time to revise my work between submissions, meaning no two submissions of the same work are ever alike.”
  • “You mean you count them?”
  • “I take it as a challenge. I once had a poem out at 53 markets over the course of two years, all eventually demurring. Would you say it needed work?”
  • “6.5.”

Is Submittable is more worthwhile for writers or for markets?

  • “Well, let’s see. I’m a marketing dunce, so it’s a godsend. Writers.”
  • “Definitely markets. Journals pay for the service, but if they charge a reading fee, they more than offset their costs. They profit handily. In some cases footily.”
  • “More and more markets use it, so I guess there’s good financial reasons to do so. Markets.”
  • “Submittable itself is a market. Markets benefit markets. It’s in the same aisle as corporations being people according to SCOTUS. Different but the same. Ka-ching!”
  • “Writers. How else would I know what I sent where three years ago? That’s a rhetorical question, by the way.”

The Hazards in Speed Back or Feedback for Dollars

roadrunner

Submitting your work for publication? You and a few million others, it seems, and with increased submissions comes increased response times comes new ways to separate a writer from his or her money.

Let’s start with the ironies of time. We all know how tempus has a habit of fugiting, especially when it comes to that person in the mirror you see every day. You know the drill: a few gray hairs here, a few wrinkles there.

Wouldn’t it be nice to slow time down for yourself? Hey, I’ve got an idea! How about redefining your body as a poetry submission? Voilà! The process of aging slows to a turtle’s crawl.

Business being business and mankind being mankind, there are always ways to cut the long line when submitting your work. But it’s going to cost you, of course. Like everything else in our times: Be prepared to pony up some money (or, in some journals’ cases, more money).

Which leads us to the world of “expedited responses” where your disappointment arrives much quicker and your wallet grows much lighter. My advice? Unless you’re 99% sure of acceptance (and who is?), don’t do it.

Like the reading fee, the expedited response temptation is a drain best defined by tracking it. Trouble is, most writers don’t. It’s similar to coffee drinkers who stop to buy a cup of java on the way to work each morning. Considering these drinks can cost $3-$5 (especially the iced variety with sweeteners), most people wisely leave their purchases untracked. Imagine that “little” cost multiplied by working days per year! Nice money if you can get it! (And to think, you actually had it, but at least you can argue you got some satisfaction from it.)

The other pocket hole to watch for is the feedback fee. Though I’m guilty of a few “expedited dice rolls” (all turning up “snake eyes”), I’ve never done the feedback option. In this scenario, a journal offers a critique on your work for a reasonable (in itself) but sizable (when multiplied by the habit it feeds) fee.

The problem here? There’s no telling who is offering the feedback and what his or her credentials are. Sure, if it’s a name-brand poet doing the reading and feeding, I might pay for my church supper and take a seat. But the responses are mostly from folks like us… people who like poetry, read poetry, have opinions in poetry. Sometimes an intern. Sometimes a reader. Or even an editor (which you or I could call ourselves if we decided to throw up an online zine tomorrow and open a Submittable account).

When it comes to feedback, then, mileage may vary, quality-wise. For the offering journal, however, mileage will surely accrue. It’s Finance 101 come to the Arts. In a numbers game (even one based on words), both speed and opinions translate into dollars made and dollars lost.

As for the market for such practices, it’s primed and ready due to the flock’s size. After waiting from 6 to 12 months for responses and receiving boilerplate rejection notices that give no clue as to any of the thousand reasons “why” work is rejected, writers with a little cash (or plastic) are remarkably vulnerable.

Proceed with caution, then. And repeat this pithy aphorism after me: “Unless there’s an extenuating circumstance guaranteeing more than free disappointment, patience is a virtue (not to mention a savings strategy).”

Signed,

Ben Franklin trying not to be Poor Richard

When Rejection Really Isn’t Rejection

trash

Why so quick to take it personally? Rejection of your writing doesn’t always mean the writing is not good. It can mean a few other things, too. Things you’d never think of because you’re not running a poetry journal (which requires a different sort of thinking).

A few weeks back I made a submission to a poetry journal in Europe. It was posted in Submittable with a deadline a MONTH OUT. I received a “rejection” the very next day, with the editor claiming they had been swamped with submissions and already had enough work to publish their journal.

I wrote back, which is not like me because I know better. Something to this effect: “Well, sir, as your posting is four weeks out, why don’t you have the decency to contact Submittable and have them yank it to save other writers the futile exercise of putting a submission together, executing the submission, and updating their writing records?”

The response to this wild and crazy idea sounded like this:  *** Crickets ***

Then I got the real answer yesterday — an email from this very same European poetry magazine. It was sponsoring a special introductory subscription offer of 40% off, featuring some of the very best poetry in the world (just not yours)!

Suddenly it dawned on me. The rising sun sounded like this:  *** Duh! ***

They were not in Submittable for poetry submissions, they were in it to build a poetry-readers subscription base.

And here we have writers constantly taking rejections personally. Look how creative some editors can be! And others may be rejecting your work not because it is bad, but because it’s good but not to their taste. Or because it doesn’t fit with the other works they’ve already accepted. Or because it’s free verse when they fancy form poems (or form poems when they fancy free verse).

Sure, sometimes rose is a rose is a rose and rejection is a rejection is a rejection, but buck up! Your entry might be accepted to a mailing list saving you 40%!

BTW, the response to this introductory offer sounded like this: *** Move to Trash ***

First-Person Point of Dock

dock

Here in Maine, we are in the very heart of what I call Dock Days — mornings and afternoons where you simply while away time on the smooth, sun-struck slats of a dock jutting over a lake.

After a brief heat wave, more reasonable weather has come in. The humidity went to Miami for a few days. The heat signed a cease fire, agreeing to be agreeable, to be more “Maine-like” for the time being.

Dock Days inspired a poem once. I dug it out for a reread yesterday. It’s one of those poems written last for a manuscript (which would become Lost Sherpa of Happiness). One that never had a chance to play the markets and look for a home in some poetry journal.

I often like these orphans best. Never accepted anywhere, but never rejected, either. They just “are,” which is the perfect metaphor for whiling away hours on a dock, like you did when you were a kid and time held nothing against you.

 

From a Dock on a Maine Lake
Ken Craft

Lying here, side of my head resting
on the crook of right arm and gazing
from the grotto of my right eye,
I hear the water and see the creased
dam of my left elbow, the occasional bird
flying through its wild blond grasslands.

The left eye, though. It peers over
the tanned levee, sees the high gold-shot
lake—so high it threatens
to flood and marl the east shore
where clear sky, punctured by treeline,
seeps anemic blue to airy bone.

Shifting to my back I get the sky’s
gas-flame blue scribed by pine and maple
treetops, the firmament a forgotten
language from first-person point of boy.

And my God, the wind! Needles and leaves
nodding like anxious ponies,
wagging like old ladies’ heads
at green gossip. Trees exhaling a ropey
poem of clouds. White thoughts, broken
words, startled birds put to flight. They flock,
elongate, twist and split open like smoky time
seeking its own shore to roost.

How Do You Like THEM Apples?

m80

There’s nothing quite like the quiet after a storm. Thus my love for the Fifth of July, waking early, hearing only birds and wind through tree and leaf. It makes me feel so, I don’t know. Independent of noise.

Thank you, God.

Yesterday was a passing strange day for this blog. Holidays are slow days for online traffic. Notoriously. I only put my poem “It’s the Fourth of July” up because, well, it was the Fourth of July.

But a lot of people must have been home and on the web because a lot of people visited “Updates on a Free-Verse Life.” Most the site’s seen in over a month, in fact. And from all quarters of the Internet.

No one bought a book, which, ironically, was the prime reason for starting the blog so many years ago, but hey, poetry books usually sell only when they come out. Period. Two years later? It would be like Lourdes, where you’d have to separate the mirac- from the –ulous to find readers willing to take a chance on you.

Plus there are all sorts of myths (truths?) about sales and poetry books. One is that only other writers of poetry books buy poetry books, but even that has limits. As a poet, you can only extend your fiduciary kindness so far.

Two is that established poets outsell still-establishing poets (“Here, Peter Quince!”) by a country mile (“country” being Russia, east to west).

Three is that poetry books cost too much. Yes, there’s that. Though you can also argue that poetry by its nature is richer reading than prose because it holds up to rereading and, like music, offers greater pleasures through the act repetition (think “refrain” instead of “refraining from reading”).

In any event, there’s no getting around the fact that parents advise their children to grow up and become lawyers and doctors, not poets. “My son is a doctor,” women will say to their golf party at the club, never, “My son is a poet. How do you like them apples.”

Oh, would it were so. Just to see the expressions on the faces of ladies wearing lime-green skirts and visors before they tee off on the absurdity of it all.

Happy Fifth, folks. Enjoy your barbecued leftovers or, if you’re not American, enjoy the all our ironies from afar. (Assuming you’re bored with enjoying your own!)

So Much for Red Wheelbarrows

red wheelbarrow

Happy Mother’s Monday (as the day after Mother’s Day isn’t called). I hope those of you with moms did yourselves proud by visiting or, more likely, calling or Face-Timing or Skyping or whatever’s happening nowadays. Moms are a rare breed. Look at what they put up with (a mirror can’t be far).

Me, I called my mom like a good son. Then I spread mulch for four hours, afterwards requiring a long Epsom salt bath for my back. The garden beds look great (you could flip a quarter on them), but I can’t say I feel equally robust.

Still, a long hot bath gives one opportunity to read. I avoid books in the bathtub because I tend to get dozy in the heat and drop them, so reading is confined to magazines. I brought in my last issue (I think) of Poetry instead.

Oh, man. I read this brief-ain’t-the-word-for-it poem and was consumed immediately with jealousy, as in “Why didn’t I think of that?” I’m told jealousy’s the mark of a true poet, so I feel good about it. I have arrived!

The poem was by the well-known poet Mary Ruefle. It’s a spoof on good old William Carlos Williams’ famous “The Red Wheelbarrow” poem, and it goes like this:

 

Red
Mary Ruefle

I fucking depended on you and
you left the fucking wheelbarrow
out and it’s fucking raining
and now the white chickens
are fucking filthy

 

I don’t know. I read poems like this and my mind ricochets all over the place. I couldn’t even get dozy in the heat after reading it.

First, I wondered if Mary Ruefle is a huge fan of WCW’s “The Red Wheelbarrow” poem or if she can’t stand it. I could see either being true. I could see either inspiring her to see red and write this ditty.

If she loves Williams’ poem, this is ha-ha laughing with him, and if she loathes Williams’ poem, this is ha-ha laughing at him (and at people who consider it a good poem). That’s the nature of ha-ha parody, after all.

But what made me more envious still is that I could not write this poem, send it to Poetry, and expect to see it published. If I could it would be so cool.

Alas, this is another clear example of a “Haves vs. Have Nots” poem. Joe Nobody (of Have Not, Georgia) sends it over the transom and it might not even get past the first reader. Joe Somebody (of Have, Ohio) sends it and, wham!, it’s accepted with a check written in J.S.’s name pronto (and make no mistake — Poetry pays well not only for wheelbarrows but for rain and chickens, too).

So, yeah. Brief poem but extensive brain meandering. But I did use a wheelbarrow for spreading mulch, anyway. Gray as a cloud, I fear. No rain and no chickens. And, oh. No f-bombs, either. (This is a family blog, after all.)

But synchronicity! Me and Mary! An f-ing team on Mother’s Day (even if she didn’t know it, and even if she isn’t a mother). Thanks for the fun, M. And thanks for your fame, WCW.

Wheeling over and out, KC.

 

How To Get Your New Poetry Manuscript Published in 14 Easy Steps

booky

How to Publish a Book of Poems.

  1.  Begin work with 40 to 70 pages of poetry in mind. As you write, be poetic but don’t be overly poetic. Keep it simple. Anglo and Saxon over Latin and -ate, every time.
  2.  Subject-wise, say the same ole, same ole only in a new way.
  3.  Submit to poetry journals. Make sure they are prestigious so as to give your future Acknowledgments Page *pop*. Maybe something like Kenyon Review or Pleiades or Ploughshares or Agni. In a pinch, The New Yorker‘s not bad, either.
  4.  When one of these well-known journals accepts individual poems, say yes. Never hold out in hopes of a bigger bopper. A bird in the hand, and all that.
  5.  If you can be a Fellow, be a Fellow. Jolly Good is optional.
  6.  Apply for residencies and go to conferences, preferably taught by established poets who get published before their poems are even opened and read. Mix. Schmooze. Don’t drink too much. Laugh at other people’s jokes. Read established poets in advance so you can allude with accuracy.
  7.  Attend poetry writing courses taught by established poets who get published before their poems are even opened and read.
  8.  Share drafts of your poems with established poets who get published before their poems are even opened and read. Ask for feedback.
  9.  Ask a friend who happens to be an artist or one who happens to be a photographer to design your book cover. If your friend’s initials are “Chip Kidd,” all the better.
  10.  Only submit to publishers who invite you to submit. These will be the ones the established poets who… yadda yadda… publish with. Maybe something like Faber & Faber or Milkweed Books or Copper Canyon Press. In a pinch, Harper & Row Publishers is not bad, either.
  11. When your poetry collection gets accepted by the publisher who outbid all the others, don’t forget your “Thanks” and “I Am Indebted To” page where, in alphabetical order (it’s safest), you can thank all those established poets who get published before their poems are even opened and read. You know. The ones you mixed with and got feedback from and who now consider you their protégé.
  12.  Write an op-ed feature for The New York Times Book Review that has something to do with the something to do your book of poems is doing with. Send it in requesting a publication date that matches the week of your book’s debut.
  13.  Voilá! as they say in Montmartre. You are now on your way to Park Place Poetry (as they say in Monopoly).
  14.  You’re welcome.