Wednesday, November 9, 2011

To Pierce a Heart: Risking Sentimentality in Carey Salerno's Shelter

A lot of first books of poetry are byline-heavy. Flip to the back cover of nearly any first book and look at the description next to the author's picture. You'll often see a long list of chapbooks, journals, some anthologies, and likely a degree or two. This is, of course, true for most books of poetry, though as a poet becomes more well known, he/she sometimes trims the bio-data down to near minimalist proportions (see Michael Dickman's bio for his James Laughlin Award winning collection, Flies: "Michael Dickman was born and raised in Portland, Oregon." Seriously, that's the whole thing.) But for first books, the author bio of the unknown poet needs to help sell the book and the poet, in order to get a contract, often needs a hefty bio/acknowledgments page to get the book published. Which was why I was shocked when I flipped to the back of Shelter (Alice James Books, 2009), the first book by Carey Salerno, and found the following byline:
Carey Salerno has an MFA from New England College. Her poems have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and have appeared in Rattle and Natural Bridge. She lives in Boston.
A quick flip to the acknowledgments page found just as little information: a brief thank you to unnamed family, editors, mentors, friends and classmates and an acknowledgement that one of the forty six poems in Shelter had previously appeared in Rattle (and was an honorable mention for the Rattle 2006 Poetry Prize).

Then I started reading the book and had to ask why literary journals weren't scooping these poems up?

Shelter is a book length sequence of poems that takes place in an animal shelter. The speaker of the poems takes us through the lives of the people who work at shelters, cleaning up after the animals, helping people who bring in strays or runaways or hit-and-runs and, often, putting unwanted or injured or feral animals to sleep. The poems are, in one word, haunting. In another word, they are gorgeous. Salerno's use of language and lyricism in her narratives, almost all of which are written in un-rhymed couplets, is brutally and emotionally honest. And she sets the tone of the book immediately with the opening poem, "Fledgling." Here, two shelter workers, Tina and the speaker, are euthanizing seven kittens and the mother. "Kittens," she writes:
             velvet skeletons, wither
in my hands, cumbersome skulls

drooping without muscle.
The sonic effect of this three line description is both sorrowful (the way the kittens "wither/ in my hands") and resentful (especially the adjective "cumbersome"). And it is this duality of the job that permeates the entire collection. See the poem "Certification," in which an unnamed "she" attempts to get a syringe in a drugged cat's leg in order to be certified, the character ever "focusing/ on the twenty-five cent raise." And then, at the end, the poem's rage bubbles over:
                 Compassion: the slabbed certificate
on the wall reads so. In the name

of all holies she, he, anyone will-
ing to work for minimum wage may kill.
And then there is the poem "Asylum" (the sole poem mentioned in the book's Acknowledgments page), in which the speaker tries to capture a room full of feral cats and ends up drenching them all with cold water, "dous[ing] every/ pair of eyes I could see." The poem opens by saying, "I still hate myself for what I did" but it turns two-thirds of the way through the poem:
                                                        I hated them
because they were homeless ungrateful bastards, who had

created other bastards to replace them before they got here.
Because they could look me in the eye with no shame

or request for love ...
The rage in "Asylum" drenches the reader the way the speaker drenches the cats, but it is always complicated by that opening statement, "I still hate myself for what I did," which makes the final line, the harsh epiphanic truth the speaker conjures from this experience, all the more brutal (for the animals, for the speaker, and for us reading the poem):
              They snarled and swung out long
claws, curled around my hand as if

playing. I wanted to break that spirit.
Shelter does this over and over, placing us within the emotional landscape of a minimum wage worker dealing with the life and death of animals, doing dangerous, dirty and psychically damaging work. And it succeeds for the very reason the ending of "Asylum" and the ending of "Certification" succeed. It doesn't shy away from being sentimental in its descriptions and in the spaces it takes the reader. Instead, it remains completely honest and, in so doing, remains completely complicated. When Salerno pulls at the reader's heartstrings, when she effectively says, "look at how horrible this is... don't you feel sad?" we, as readers buy that sadness because it is surrounded by very real, very complicated images and descriptions. And because it is almost always accompanied by a counter emotion (rage, boredom, disdain, etc...)

This is not to say everything in Shelter is harrowing. Not all the poems take place in the e-room (euthanasia room). There are moments of euphoric joy placed perfectly among the terrors of the stacked bodies of dead animals. When reading "Skipping Stones," I couldn't help but smile and think warm, fuzzy thoughts about my own pets. This poem takes the speaker out of the shelter and to the beaches of Lake Michigan with her dog, a stray she has decided to take home. "Kennel rules disintegrate," Salerno writes, and the rules of the book also disintegrate as we get a series of snapshots of an owner and her pet acting as we might see them on a nice Animal Planet show. "You'll jump over the seat onto my back/," she writes, "and howl and drool and snivel..." And then, the ending image of the owner "watch[ing] you tear down the vacant beach."

But, it should be noted, "Skipping Stones" is a poem that treks dangerously close to the sort of sentimentality we as readers are supposed to be so wary of. Salerno keeps us reading, though, because the shelter remains in the background of even this joyous poem (she mentions the e-room twice in this sixteen line poem).

So I return to the question that started this review. Why aren't/didn't these incredible poems pop up in the best journals around the world? Perhaps we're so afraid of sentimentality that anything that remotely looks like it is simply set aside without question. Or, perhaps, it is just too much of a taboo to write about pets, no matter the actual content/context of the poems.

I remember attending a reading by Sharon Olds where she commented that she often had trouble publishing her poems because, in the paraphrased words of the editors of the time, "poems about mothers and children are better suited for magazines like Women's Day." I thought of that as I read Shelter and I thought of how many journals explicitly state (seriously or sarcastically) that they don't want to see any poems "about your dead cat." It is a common topic, especially among young writers. After four years of reading submissions for GlassI can attest to that. But Salerno shows that poems about dead or dying animals can be good when, you know, they're well written.

There is something about this collection that seems to require people to push it beyond its surface subject, though. One of the book's blurbs, written by Michael Waters, describes the book by saying, "Abu Ghraib haunts these lines as the shelter takes on harrowing, allusive dimensions, and as the narrator weighs her burden of complicity." I can certainly see what he is saying here. Look again at the lines quoted above from "Asylum" and you can see how easy it is to turn the feral cats into a metaphor for the prisoners at Abu Ghraib and how easy it is to turn the shelter workers into a metaphor for the soldiers and interrogators there. And reading through some of the poems, I definitely found myself wanting to take notes on the many issues of class appearing throughout the book (see "Certificate" again or the poems "Boss" and "Burnout"). I instinctively wanted to turn those notes into an argument about the Great Recession and how desperate people are having to do (and are becoming willing to do) terrifying things they never would have imagined doing.

But I stopped myself. Because this book isn't about the Great Recession or Abu Ghraib. And as wonderful as it is to make vitriolic statements about the economic and international horrors of the past decade, Shelter doesn't need those contextualizations to be a horrifically beautiful collection of poems. It doesn't need to "really be about Abu Ghraib" because being about an animal shelter is enough. These poems work, not because they speak to larger news headlines. They work because they are written by a skilled poet with an incredible eye for detail and an incredible ear for language.

I started reading Shelter two days after my pet, Gwen, was put to sleep. She was eleven years old and had suffered from a seizure disorder for eight of those years. The vast majority of her life was wonderful but her last day was the scariest of my life. She had numerous seizures in the span of a few hours, including one on the car ride to the emergency animal hospital where I was taking her to be put down. I have had bad experiences at that hospital. I won't go into detail but will simply say that I felt the workers weren't exactly compassionate. But that night they were beyond compassionate as I bawled my eyes out about my dying cat.

I can see why editors would be uneasy about poems about dead pets. I can already feel myself going to that bad place all poets fear, the place where craft and image and surprise are swept aside by the flooding emotions. And I know that poets and cats go together like peanut butter and chocolate so I know there are thousands of poets with thousands of dead cat poems bumping around in their heads.

But I read Shelter as I grieved the loss of my pet. And it was very difficult. But it was worth it because it gave me a clear insight into the lives of the people working on the front lines of America's pet landscape. It did so with poems that foreground craft and image and surprise all while not shying away from flooding emotions. To me, that is enough to make me want to re-read Shelter. I don't need explanations about why the poems "really matter" in the 21st century. All I need are poems like "Fledgling," the opening poem and the one I mentioned earlier about the two workers euthanizing the mother cat and her seven kittens. If you want to know why Shelter matters, you need only read that poem, read the ending as Tina moves to euthanize the mother cat:
                                   She doesn't fight
as Tina draws closer, knowing

the angle at which to pierce a heart.
See, Shelter really matters because it's really good and really smart and really complicated. No matter the length of the author's bio or her acknowledgments page.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Stop Buying Books by People Named Whitman, Dickinson, Neruda, Billy Collins and Tony Hoagland

So, shortly before Labor Day, I came downstairs from our home office to our living room where my wife was patiently waiting for me to finish checking my email so we could enjoy the last hour or so together before I had to go to bed. To explain why I had taken unusually long on the computer, I told her, “I got an email from a publisher interested in my book. Sort of.”

Some background: I have been “shopping” my book-length collection of poems to publishers for approximately twenty months. With little success. By which I mean, of the twenty or so places that have received my MS (or a sample), I have gotten a response from about six of them. The others, apparently, don’t think I deserve a “no thanks” letter/email.

Of course, my wife was excited by this news. Then I explained. I probably don’t need to do too much explaining to you. The email I received was from Geoffrey Gatza, editor/publisher at BlazeVOX Books, who has received so much attention from the internet’s poetry community lately when he was condemned by Brett at Bark: A Blog of Literature, Culture, and Art, for requiring a $250.00 donation of the authors he accepts, a post which then went viral among the poetry community thanks to people like Christopher Higgs of HTMLGIANT, who ran a post titled “BlazeVOX Goes Vanity Press?

I will discuss my decision regarding Mr. Gatza’s offer to publish my book for $250.00 later, but first, the comp/rhet/feminist/Marxist theorist in me is screaming for more context. So, read the following links:

From No Tell Motel/No Tell Books, two posts, both by Reb Livingston:

No Tell Books Supports BlazeVOX Books
the ease of selling poetry books”

From Slope Editions, by Christopher Janke:


Four posts from Versal/wordsinhere, which do not deal directly with the BlazeVox controversy but are incredibly important to this conversation:

A summary of advice, part 1
A summary of advice, part 2
A summary of advice, part 3
Oh, Whiny Writers. Or, on the use of the word "Repugnant" in response to a $2.00 submission fee.”

Anis Shivani’s Huffington Post article, which I’ve already linked to in a previous post:

Poetry Book Contests Should be Abolished: Why Contests Are the Stupidest Way to Publish First Books

And, finally, for now, friend and BlazeVOX author, Stacia Fleegal’s recent post:

My Name Is Stacia Fleegal, and I Donated to BlazeVOX, Or, a Lesson in Word Choice for Writers Who Should Know Better

Now, it only takes about a minute to google the term “vanity press” (holy aqua-Buddha, I’m using a Wikipedia link…) and get some basic information:
With vanity publishing, the author will pay to have their book published. Since the author is paying to have the book published the book doesn't go through an approval or editorial process as it would in a traditional setting where the publisher takes a financial risk on the author's ability to write successfully. Editing and formatting services may or may not be offered and they may come with the initial publishing fee (or more correctly, printing fee) or might be offered at an additional cost. 
Self-publishers undertake the functions of a publisher for his or her own book. The classic "self-publisher" writes, edits, designs, lays out, markets, and promotes the book themselves, relying on a printer only for actual printing and binding. 
More recently, companies have offered their services to act as a sort of agent between the writer and a small printing operation. In these cases, the distinction between self-publishing and vanity publishing is less obvious than it once was.
An important point here: “the book doesn't go through an approval or editorial process…” According to Gatza’s email to me, “Of the 928 manuscripts I received I choose 30 books to publish to finish out the year. There was a real system in choosing these texts and in my opinion this is better than holding a contest.” Fleegal makes a similar point in her post.

Unfortunately, duotrope has removed the BlazeVOX listing. Had they not, we could use their acceptance/rejection statistics to confirm whether or not there is an approval or editorial process. Sadly, we will have to wait for some brave soul to come forward and admit his/her book was rejected by BlazeVOX. With all the talk condemning BlazeVOX, I highly doubt anyone will admit they were rejected by what so many are now calling a vanity press.

But, it takes just a little effort to google the term “co-op publishing” (and you don’t find a Wikipedia link at the top!). According to the Fearless Books “How to Get Published” Guide:
A recent development in alternative publishing is the rise of co-op publishers, who charge authors fees for the production and publication of their works. This method is a step above traditional “vanity publishing,” in which authors bear the full cost of publication for a very small number of conventionally printed books.
The lines are blurry. But, I would point you back to BlazeVOX’s mission statement/slogan: “a refuge for innovative fictions and wide ranging fields of contemporary poetry. We are an independent publisher of weird little books.” BlazeVOX proudly publishes books that otherwise would not be published, books that are out of the mainstream, books that are weird, books that are political, books that traditional publishers are never going to touch. And for that I commend them. I also acknowledge that, within a culture where poetry already doesn’t make any money for anyone (except a very select few), BlazeVOX is publishing books that are going to have even worse commercial viability. Asking authors to invest in this “innovative publisher of weird little books” is not inherently evil, corrupt or immoral.

For more on the difference between vanity presses and co-op presses, I turn to Michael J. Bugeja’s Poet’s Guide: How to Publish and Perform Your Work (SLP Writers’ Guide, 1995), which, though seriously old, still offers some valuable distinctions. On co-operative publishing, Bugeja writes:
The poet works with the publisher and shares the burdens of publication.
Because of the declining market for poetry and the increasing costs of publication, a few smaller commercial publishers and many small presses require the poet to bear some of the risk involved in publishing a work…
Some cooperative agreements require the poet to pay certain costs of production. Others require the poet to participate in the printing or marketing phases of production. A few require the poet to contribute money in a fund for books by other poets … In any case, cooperative publishing is highly respected by the literary establishment, and you should look into it if you cannot place your collections with publishers offering standard contracts.
And on vanity/subsidy presses, he writes:
A subsidy company guarantees acceptance of your manuscript, and you pay all costs…
Some agreements are less predatory than others, but all bank on your general ignorance of publishing and willingness to pay handsomely to see your byline on a book.
I’m sure I’m not the only one who sees the difference between PublishAmerica, accepting everything and asking the poet to pay all costs and BlazeVox, presumably accepting 0.03% of manuscripts and asking those who are accepted to contribute 10-15% of publishing costs.

In the end, after much consideration, I ultimately declined Mr. Gatza’s offer. Not because I was offended, as so many poets seem to be, by Gatza’s business model. But rather it was because right now I cannot afford the $250.00. Also, having recently done a whole-MS revision during which the vision/argument of my book completely changed, I’m no longer convinced the MS fits the BlazeVOX line anymore.

I have no problem with the co-op model and am pretty sure more publishers will be moving this way in the near future. The only problem I can see in the way BlazeVOX publishes is that the co-op policy is not mentioned on the website. This is a moot point now as most everyone knows the policy. But Gatza should put it on the web site and include an explanation of why BlazeVOX publishes this way and how this is a better model than the now-traditional reading fee/contest model of publishing poetry (you should also know, if you don’t already, that BlazeVox does not charge a reading fee or run contests).

But I didn’t write this long blog post to talk about BlazeVOX Books. BlazeVOX Books, despite the attention it is getting, is not the disease. It is only a symptom.

Writing poetry is an art. Publishing poetry is an industry. Selling poetry is a business.

In the twenty first century, poetry has no working business model. The business of poetry is in dire straights. Hence publishers rely on grants, endowments, contest fees, reading fees and co-ops. Unfortunately, the economy is drying up donors and republicans across the country are cutting funding for and/or closing down organizations that provide grants for the arts. In addition to that, as noted by William Pierce of AGNI, in a 2006 interview with NewPages, “The stereotype is that lit mags are read by no one, and bought only by writers who want to appear in them. Dana Gioia [director of the National Endowment for the Arts] seems to accept the stereotype, and he’s been working to minimize the federal grant money supporting them.” Take that sentiment and amplify it for books of poetry, especially first books of poetry.

The result has been publishers turning almost exclusively to contests or to charging reading fees. Those who do not, close down for lack of funding. Why? The fact is that there are more poets than there are readers of poetry. This cannot sustain an industry.

There is no silver bullet to this problem, but that does not make it any less of a problem. The industry needs solutions so the business can continue. Otherwise, you can kiss the art goodbye.

Co-ops are one solution. Here, the artists invest with the business for the good of the industry. This is also, in my opinion, a much more fair system than the contest/reading fee system. Think about it. In a co-op, if it is done correctly, there should be no reading fees. Therefore, if you submit your work and are rejected, then you have paid no money. You only pay if you are accepted. You only invest in/support your work.

On the flip side, for reading fees and contest fees, you pay anywhere from ten dollars to thirty dollars just to have your work read. If you are accepted, great! Hey, if it’s a contest, you may even get some money out of the deal. However, if you are rejected, you get zilch. In the contest/reading fee system, you pay the winning author. You pay the contest judge. You pay the production costs of the book. You pay for the (limited) publicity. And many times, you don’t even get a copy of the winning book.

The production costs of all poetry books are subsidized in one way or another, often by authors. In co-ops, though, only the publisher and the published author are required to make that investment.

While reading about the controversy over BlazeVOX, I came across another potential solution that is worth discussing. Change the system of reading fees/contest fees by boycotting any publishers who charge reading fees or who run contests. Now, some publishers have both contests and open submissions, so I’m not sure whether we would be boycotting these publishers. I’m also not sure if we are only boycotting submitting to these publisher or if we are boycotting them for real, by which I mean we are no longer buying their books. This seems neither feasible nor reasonable nor practical. After all, the problem of there not being enough readers would still exist. The only real change would be that there would be fewer publishers (as many would have to close down). This, in turn, would put greater pressure on the remaining un-boycotted publishers, who would likely have to hire more readers to deal with the exponential increase in submissions, which would of course cost the publisher even more (without, necessarily, assuring greater sales).

But more to the point, consider what publishers and what authors you would be boycotting.

Seriously. Name me any publishers who accept unsolicited manuscripts of first books who also don't have reading fees or run contests? Off the top of my head I can only think of Press 53 (though they do run an individual poem contest) and Word Press.

But what about another solution? What if we all just bought more books of poetry? What if we all bought more books by smaller presses? What if we all bought more first books? What if we all bought books by people we’ve never heard of? What if we put our money where our art is?

Between September 1 and December 31, 2010, Tin House asked writers to include with their submissions a receipt showing they had recently bought a book. They called this their “Buy a Book, Save a Bookstore Campaign.” According to their website, “We experienced the good, the bad, and the ugly in response, but overall were encouraged by thousands of good words about bookstores.” They have returned to their normal submission process (though they continue to encourage writers to support bookstores).

I have one question for Tin House: What ugly? How could any writer, who hopes to publish in a journal and ultimately publish a book, which I assume they would want in a bookstore, how could he/she possibly be upset by a journal asking that writer to support a bookstore? Seriously?

This, to me, is the best solution to the co-op/reading fee/contest business models. Publishers should require the following: if you want to send your manuscript to us, send us a receipt that shows you have bought one, two, or three (I prefer three but two might be more reasonable) books of poetry within the last six to twelve months from a publisher other than us. In other words, if you are submitting to BlazeVox, show us you’ve bought a book from Sarabande and a book from Alice James Books.

There should be some stipulations here. For example, Knopff and Norton and other giant publishers like them should not be counted. But the basic idea is here. Buy books by people and publishers who need the financial support. In return, we’ll consider your manuscript. If enough publishers use this model, it is possible that readers will be buying books from all the publishers, thus creating the financial stimulus needed to keep all the publishers afloat.

Sarabande and Cooper Dillon already use a similar strategy. If you submit during their open reading periods, they will wave the reading fee if you buy one of their books. Imaginary Friend Press, who published my chapbook, also employ a similar publishing model. They don’t post their submission guidelines anywhere. Instead, if you want them to send you their guidelines, you first have to buy one of their chapbooks.

This is just a theory. It is still rough around the edges. But it could work. Or, at least, it could be a start. Until poets are willing to buy books of poetry – lots of books of poetry by lots of different poets and published by lots of different publishers – until then, poets will have to accept reading fees, contest fees and co-ops from publishers, big and small, who also will have to rely on grants and donations just to break even.

P.S. You should already own the complete works of Whitman, Dickinson and Neruda. By all means, keep buying new work by Collins, Hoagland, Levine, Olds, etc… I do. But I also buy books from a lot of people you’ve probably never heard of.

Currently Reading:
Neighborhood Register by Marcus Jackson
The Far Mosque by Kazim Ali
Fragment of the Head of a Queen by Cate Marvin