Saturday, June 18, 2005

I sing the body electric...

Hi, everyone. Just dropping off a readerly-rant. This isn't about how to find an agent or the best format for a query letter, but it does say something about the state of publishing and books today, so I felt the need to share. Hope you're all having a good weekend.


I'll admit it: I'm not a huge reader of poetry. It's not part of my steady diet. But I do like it, and I go through poetry phases where I have an urge to reread old favorites or go discover someone new. I like funny, rhyming poetry or classic, epic pieces, or just quiet, thoughtful poems with an interesting cadence. Poetry makes my brain work in a different way, and I tend to use it to cleanse my reader's palate, especially when I'm writing and want to shake off the voice of some novel I've just finished.

So imagine my dismay when I walked into Barnes and Noble last night and discovered the poetry section was gone. Not moved, or shrunk or combined with something else... just gone.

When I first moved to LA, that particular B&N had a decent sized poetry section. There was an area of free-standing bookshelves where four bookcases were backed by another four, making a sort of wall, and there were four of these in a row. Each wall of eight bookcases made up a different section: mysteries, science fiction, romance, and poetry. About a year after I'd arrived, poetry lost one side of its wall, cutting the section down to four bookcases. The space was given to science fiction (two bookcases) and graphic novels (the other two). And I understood. Really. I didn't like it, but I got it. I mean, poetry isn't all that profitable after all, and in a town where every Tom, Dick, and Harry is making a movie based on a comic book, it only stands to reason that the bookstore should give graphic novels a little bit of real estate. Good business sense, even if it was just one more indication of the decline of civilization as we know it...

But to do away with poetry entirely? No more romantic poets, no Emily Dickenson, no Yeats or Neruda or Whitman or Ginsburg...? Yeah, I know you can order anything you want online, but you can't wander into Amazon.com and pick up a random book and read a few lines to see if you like it, no matter how many sneak peaks they let you have into the book. It just isn't the same. It's hard to run a search on a poet when you've yet to hear of them. It makes me sad, and also angry, and even a little bit afraid. Because where one big chain bookstore goes, the rest are likely to follow...

20 Comments:

Blogger Linda Winfree said...

That is frightening and also very, very sad. What's really scary is that I'm not surprised. I'm a voracious reader, always have been. However, as a teacher, I've noticed a disturbing trend over the last few years. The number of high school kids I teach who read independently is dwindling every year (I had a grand whopping total of six independent readers last year, out of 113 students). When I interview them about reading at the beginning of the year, I find they don't live in print-rich homes, either. And if they're not reading novels or magazines, odds are they aren't buying poetry tomes. That means they aren't growing up to be adults who read either.

The worst part to me as both a teacher and aspiring writer is they don't realize what they are denying themselves by not reading. They're missing being sucked into a piece of writing that transcends reality.

My job? Show them what they're missing and make 'em like it at the same time. I'm slowly converting them, and if I loan out a book from my shelf and it doesn't come back, I can live with that (this year I lost Secret Life of Bees, Summer of My German Soldier and A Day No Pigs Would Die along with my complete works of Robert Frost.) Maybe if they think one is a keeper, they'll go buy another. And another. And you have a reading convert.

(Whoo, how's that for long-winded and going off topic. I think I'll shut up and write now.)

Saturday, June 18, 2005 at 5:14:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Kristen Painter said...

Wow. That's sad. Really sad. I cut my writer's teeth on poetry. It was the first thing I ever published and one of the beloved mentors of my early life as a writer was poet Michael Waters. The man was a great inspiration on and off the page.

I hate when stuff like this happens.

Saturday, June 18, 2005 at 6:13:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Jennifer Stimson said...

Nephele:

I'm so gratified that you read Walt Whitman (or is it Irene Cara?) and still want to be my agent!

I like the metaphor of cleansing your palate. I read poetry when I'm about to revise a novel, to remind myself that every word counts. But I'll admit that, probably because I'm a novelist, I gravitate toward prose poems. In poetry classes, I stumbled upon W. S. Merwin's "Tergvinder's Stone" and Lyn Hejinian's "My Life" (possibly one of the coolest books ever) with a great deal of relief. Ahhhhh.

I suppose it's lucky that the age of the big-box store coincides with the age of the Internet. No thumbing through, but at least we have a place to buy whatever we already know we need. (Plus shipping.)

Linda:

You go girl! My four-year-old is studying poetry this summer at Montessori school, a whole week of camp devoted to the classics. If we have patience and keep showing them what we think is important, some of them will agree.

Saturday, June 18, 2005 at 6:24:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous beejay said...

"Poetry makes my brain work in a different way"

This is probably neurologically correct, even if you didn't mean it that way, because something with distinct rhythm works different parts of your brain, maybe like music does???

I write novels, and I can pretty much express whatever I want in them. Yet, I find that some things I just have to write as poetry. I don't know whether it's the feelings or the words or what it is that needs that form, but it just doesn't work otherwise.

Now, I'm going to piggy back an agent type question on this. I'm on lots of writers lists where we complain bitterly about the way books come out literally loaded with mistakes. I see this frequently, but it really bugs me when one of my favorite author's books suffer from that.

She's one of several best selling writers who's very prolific, putting out several books every year. So, the publisher and her agent are making a decent sum from her books, right? So, if she's really making these mistakes and they aren't being built in during the editing and layout process, why is no one watching her back???

Doesn't an agent have some responsibility to see that their clients look the best they can in print? Of course, the "editors" should have ultimate responsibility, but I'm wondering can an author not rely on some back up.

I know every author gets galleys, but clearly they're missing a lot of booboos. I'm not pointing fingers, I genuinely want to know. I'm a freelance editor, so I suppose I notice the errors more than most, but I just have to throw my hands in the air when I'm marking (sorry, OCD editor, here) the 20th error and I'm only in chapter three.

What's the answer? I'd hope that when I'm pubbed I'll be careful enough going through galleys that no one will have such a bad experience with my books, but will that make a difference? I'm afraid that the answer may be that, "X is a best seller, and people will buy his/her books whether they have mistakes or not" or "they buy them for the story, not the good editing." Hope not.

Saturday, June 18, 2005 at 6:39:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Jennifer Stimson said...

Kristen and Beejay:

How cool. Where has your poetry been published?

Come to think of it, my first publication was a prose poem of sorts in the college lit journal, a modified version of an assignment from a creative writing teacher to write a 1,000-word sentence. I got a lot more compliments on that "poem" than I ever did on my musical compositions. That was the catalyst for switching my major from music to English, for good or ill.

And now, like Beejay, I'm a freelance editor cursed with an eagle eye for typos (except, perhaps, my own).

Saturday, June 18, 2005 at 8:59:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Kelly said...

Which LA B&N is this, if you don't mind telling. I spend a lot of time in LA and, while I prefer Duttons in Brentwood, I do sometimes end up at the big two.

Thanks!

Sunday, June 19, 2005 at 10:09:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Nephele Tempest said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

Sunday, June 19, 2005 at 11:58:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Nephele Tempest said...

Jenn-
You make me wish I were four. Montessori school sounds like a fun way to spend the summer.

Beejay-
Agents do review bound galleys for their authors, as do the authors themselves. And obviously the last line of official defense is the copy editor at the publishing houses. I don't really know what to tell you about books that slip through with multiple errors, other than it drives me crazy as well. We all do our best to keep it from happening, but there are a lot of books published every year and we're all human. I can only speculate that the more books you publish, the better the odds are of it happening because there's more room for error.

Kelly-
It's the store at the Grove. Sad, but true. And who knows? The others may have been affected as well, but I haven't been in to check recently.

Sunday, June 19, 2005 at 11:59:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Kelly said...

Wow! The Grove is one of the more intellectual ares of L.A. (if one can say such a thing!) I'm pretty sure poetry must be long gone from the Westwood and Santa Monica branches. I'll have to check it out next time in town.

Thanks for the head's up.

Sunday, June 19, 2005 at 1:28:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous beejay said...

Thanks, Nephele. Sorry for the rant, but, being an author, I guess I feel like they need to be protected, from themselves, too. ;+)

Jennifer, I haven't had any poetry published in years. I'm really not a poet, but sometimes that's the only way to express something. The few things I had pubbed were in small journals in the UK. But thanks for asking.

Sunday, June 19, 2005 at 5:06:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous beejay said...

BTW, I thought I should reassure you that I wasn't talking about one of your authors. That's why I felt comfortable asking that here. ;-)

Monday, June 20, 2005 at 12:46:00 AM EDT  
Anonymous Babe King said...

I agree, that's sad. I'm currently reading the poetry of Alexander Pope, but no, I didn't get it from a bookstore. Thank God for libraries. When I did lit at uni there wasn't a single subject on poetry available, despite the fact our head of english dept. was Bruce Dawe- awesome Aussie poet and all-round delightful man. We met like a group of anachronistic bohemians in the pub after classes to discuss poems, ours and others that grabbed us.
Alas, where it used to be drugs were hidden and poetry exalted, the tables have turned. Now the ode has become "the glance by day, the whisper in the dark". Woe is me.

Monday, June 20, 2005 at 9:59:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Katy said...

Nephele, I called my local B&N at 6:28 this morning and asked. They've got three or four bays of poetry books--a bay being a stand of six or seven shelves. He didn't think any B&N would eliminate the poetry section. If lots and lots of people called their local B&N's, just to ask, it might make a difference.

Monday, June 20, 2005 at 10:05:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Polly P.I. said...

A haiku...


Poetry is gone
From B & M shelves
[Insert nature reference here]
Thanks, I'm here all night


Okay, okay. I'm not a poet, I'm a private investigator. I am not shocked, unfortunately, that Barnes and Noble would get rid of the poetry section in their stores. For them, it's all supply and demand. People have forgotten the powerful way that poetry condenses emotion/sensation.

Monday, June 20, 2005 at 11:08:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Polly P.I. said...

Okay, I realize I said "B & M". I did that on purpose. It's about beans.

Monday, June 20, 2005 at 12:05:00 PM EDT  
Blogger jax said...

What a tragedy! I think one of the first things I wrote in English was poetry. I could understand if they moved the section, but to do away with it entirely is a shame. What will they do away with next! How can they do away with Dickinson, Whitman, Byron, Keats, Shakespeare, Poe...?

Tuesday, June 21, 2005 at 7:20:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous Alan said...

Okay, here goes the masculine identity for the day... just pretend its an episode, and not an ongoing introspective thing, kay?

Losing poetry is losing the essence of the written word. Expound on the basic form all you want (and enjoy the myriad forms that spring from it), but to me poetry is the central concept of expressing through language. At its best, it's a soul speaking directly; at its medium, no-frills communication with a clear bottom line (except for Gertrude Stein popping those "tender buttons" of peyote). And even at its worst, it's a short, sharp delivery of feeling, funny, vulgar, loving, or otherwise.

Looks like another form of expression is leaving us great unwashed, headed for the insular territory of its most dedicated only.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005 at 7:48:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Nephele Tempest said...

As a bit of an update...

A friend went into the aforementioned evil poetry-eliminating-branch and asked where their poetry section was. She was told they don't have one, but there is some poetry shelved in with the classics and there's a table of poetry books near where the actual section used to reside.

On a positive note, the branch near where I live still carries poetry, and has been advertising a poetry "open mic night." So maybe all hope is not lost.

Alan, I think you missed your calling. But I recall telling you that before...

Tuesday, June 28, 2005 at 11:25:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Katy said...

I e-mailed Barnes and Noble today about this, then posted the e-mail on my blog. When I get a response, I'll post that, too.

Friday, July 1, 2005 at 1:32:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous Jane said...

Poetry is a distilation of thought into words. It can be pure, ethereal and spark multiple interconnectivities of symbolic meaning. I don't write poetry, nor read it, yet I can't imagine a world without poetry. Sometimes, while writing a novel, I'll erupt into a more poetic style and have to reign myself in.

After all these years (exact number not inserted), strains of an old poem still float to my brain:

"I see the lights of the village shine through the rain and mist and a feeling of sadness come o'r me that the heart cannot resist...'

Longfellow, well taught.

Jane

Wednesday, November 23, 2005 at 10:42:00 AM EST  

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