Good News for Poets and Readers: Sales Trend UP

To say poetry sales slumped in recent decades would be an understatement, but there’s good news for both poets and readers. The sale of poetry books is on a healthy upswing. What’s it about?

The good news:

Sales are improving according to “The Rising Popularity of Poetry: The Surge of the Poetry Market.” In Britain, between 2015 and 2017, poetry books enjoyed a 21 percent increase in sales. According to BookNet Canada, “between 2016 and 2017 [poetry sales] increased by another 154%” over the 79% increase between 2015 and 2016. And Broadway World tells us that “the poetry book category in the United States has grown at a compound annual growth rate of 21 percent since 2015, making it one of the fastest growing categories in publishing.”

A word about the “slump”:

Poetry was once found on bookstore shelves and even printed in newspapers and magazines. It was read and discussed broadly, not just in academic cycles. Then it began to disappear; perhaps poetry had become tired. It found limited oxygen among songwriters and new life in the spoken word trend. But bookstore shelves remained next-to-bare and poems had virtually disappeared from the popular press. Literary magazines struggled to stay afloat. I wonder why.

Throughout the 1970s I was studying literature, and I was writing, enjoying invitations to read in cafés and other popular settings. I was being published in some of the best literary magazines (Descant, The Fiddlehead). I felt on the edge of an exciting upswing and dreamed that writers and readers had entered a portal to something like the golden age jazz and literary modernism, something akin to Paris post WWI. After all, the beat poets’ popularity had surged, feminism had opened a door to voices like that of Sylvia Plath. Poets were sharing meaning drawn out of the context of their lives. They found a link between experience and audience; they were relevant. I was living on the Windsor-Detroit border at the time and excitement was in the air; everything was possible. But all that changed.

Perhaps the economic recession of the 1980s, the rise of conservatism, a shift from “frivolous” arts to “applied and practical” endeavors may have led to fewer-and-fewer poetry sales and to those empty bookshelves. Some commentators have suggested that while creative writing degrees improve knowledge and skills, it also narrows life experience. Poets had become teachers of poetry and life experience shrank to academia. Yet, poetry breathed in new-old forms.

Poems found a home disguised as song lyrics (think Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell) and there have been other hopeful notes such as the spoken voice poet-performers who gained a measure of success. These carried us through the desert of the late 20th century and into the 21st.

I’m encouraged by the popularity of writers who found outlets for their work during the drought, writers like, Canadian poets Mary di Michele, Lorna Crozier, and more recently Ken Babstock, as well as American poets Jane Hirshfield and Taylor Mali. (Please scroll down for links to my reviews of these poets).

What’s happening to poetry now:

Publishers Weekly (PW) has profiled the meteoric rise of Canadian poet, Rupi Kaur, whose self-published Milk and Honey was picked up by a trade publisher. In 2015, the collection was selling 30,000 copies a week. It would seem that self-publishing and sales generated through a social media presence can catch the eye of publishers and the public. According to The Guardian, by 2018 this Canadian author enjoyed the #1 best-selling spot for a poetry collection in the U.K. Milk and Honey has sold over a million copies.

The Guardian article quotes a source identifying the crux of poetry’s new popularity. He says that it isA passion for politics, particularly among teenagers and young millennials, is fuelling a dramatic growth in the popularity of poetry, with sales of poetry books hitting an all-time high in 2018.” The Guardian article also notes that poetry “is a really good way to explore complex, difficult emotions and uncertainty,” and it seems that the brevity of poems means they can “be easily consumed on phones and shared on social media.” (Given the quotes from The Guardian article, one might assume the reference to politics is about the state of the public world, but the politics of Rupi Kaur involves the intimate politics of violence, abuse, love, growth and healing.) The formula, if there is one, seems to be twofold. First, content must be relevant for today’s social context and readers (which really isn’t new, although sales history suggests that it may have been largely forgotten). Then, through the Internet poems can be shared, buzz created and sales increased.

The sales trends should be good news for poets who are exploring themes that connect with readers, poetry lovers, publishers, the literary press, and booksellers.

Journal-Pen image LR-1

Links to references:

“The Rising Popularity of Poetry: The Surge of the Poetry Market”

BookNet Canada

Broadway World

Publishers Weekly (PW)

The Guardian

Rupi Kaur “ I’m Taking My Body Back”

Links to my poetry reviews:

Jane Hirshfield

Taylor Mali

Mary di Michele

Lorna Crozier

 

 

 

 

 

 

Days into Flatspin by Ken Babstock: “A Poetry Book Review”

Days into Flatspin is Ken Babstock’s extraordinary second collection and it reveals a poet in full flight, fearless and technically brilliant.

Diving into and then beyond what is seen, or the “coma of looking” as one poem calls it, Babstock veers into the inner core of things, animals, and places through portals that exist all around us…. And these are always entry points, always a means by which to go forward and further into… (cover overleaf).

The first time I read Days into Flatspin by Ken Babstock, the words rushed through my mind and over my lips: they raced. They carried a voice, dramatic and theatrical. It was easy to imagine Babstock, like poetry slam writer Taylor Mali, performing the poems (see May 2018 review: The Whetting Stone). I was carried by the force of words and rhythms and was left feeling disconcerted. Then I read Days into Flatspin again.

Reflecting on Babcock’s choice of words, I thought of Ursula LeGuin who wrote that words “transform both speaker and hearer; they feed energy back and forth and amplify it” (The Wave of the Mind). Babstock’s poems brim with energy and they clearly fed energy to me. But that addressed only part of my dilemma, which led me to Jane Hirshfield (please see Ten Windows). Hirshfield notes that “a poem needs to retain within its words some of the disequilibrium that called it forth, and to include when it is finished some sense also of uncomfortable remainder, the undissolvable residue carried over….”

In Babstock’s second collection, his mastery of these skills – words that create action/energy and words that leave the door open for a remaining question – is clear from the outset. I looked closely at Babstock’s word choices and the work they were doing together.

The first poem titled “Carrying someone else’s infant past a cow in a field near Marmora, Ont.,” ends:

…What was I shown that I haven’t retained?
What peered back long before the cracked
bell of its name

This unknown (unknowable?) is also apparent in the second poem “Bottled Rabbit,” in which Babstock describes an image seen, alludes to a charcoal sketch by Cézanne, a CBC interviewer in Gander, Newfoundland, a play by Pinter, and his great-aunt’s kitchenette. But suddenly, the scene shifts: “The word wore down, thinned to a film on the air in the ear. Morning ate its hinge.” Once more, after the carefully constructed images and linkages Babstock provides, we leap into something surprisingly different from where the poem ostensibly was taking us. He draws us into what is seen but also unseen, what is felt, unknown, unsayable.

My favourite poem in Days into Flatspin, “The Painting on the Cover of Otherwise,”  seems to explain a bit about what drives so many of the poems in the collection toward unsettled feelings.  He begins with an image:

A small pond dug
into a footpath that bisects
a French garden. The neat
hedgerows bent, obey.

And then, he identifies what is missing, things like “wind…litter, heel-scuffs…a sparrow, anything.” Perhaps, like me, you will come away from reading the collection with a new awareness of the dichotomy between what is seen – how we often idealize it – and what is more deeply experienced through what lingers after the immediacy of the moment when we ponder the place “where hard edges slip…unclipped…beyond the vined wall that darkens the middle distance.”

This unfocused middle distance of mystery is what Ken Babstock discloses through a turn, a surprising glimpse that doesn’t provide an answer to our questions, but draws us to a deeper, elusive potential.

The writers among us will have heard Emily Dickinson’s instruction to “tell it slant.” Many will know LeGuin’s advice about making every word a choice; particularly poets will know that every word must work. We have probably also been told to reward readers for reading to the end, to provide a surprise, a twist, something that illuminates. Hirshfield’s suggestion to create a disconcerting disequilibrium is another consideration that pushes boundaries and borders.

Days into Flatspin achieves this triumvirate of advice. The poems begin with what we may each have experienced, but they take us beyond images, sounds, emotion into deeper, surprising places of heart and mind.

57 Days into Flatspin

In addition to Days into Flatspin (2001), Ken Babstock has published Mean (1999), Methodist Hatchet (2011; Winner of the Griffin Poetry Prize, 2012), and On Malice (2014).

Available through your local bookstore or online: Days into Flatspin