I’ve been invited to give a writing workshop (a day of workshops) at an art center even further up north in my state. I want to do it. I want to support my friend who directs the arts center, who has been brilliantly in charge of the revitalization of the center’s historic building as well as instrumental in her downtown’s renewed vitality. I want to support her extended community, to reach out to out-state writers, to maybe make a difference in how they write and why.
But I am struggling to put a writing workshop together. And I guess it’s because my heart is elsewhere. I started this publishing company, Danielle Dufy Literary, to celebrate literary short forms (poetry, short(!) fiction, flash essays, short drama, etc.), to welcome a wider readership to the same, and to support independent booksellers for whom these shorter forms can be a hard sell. Of course, the writer is the obvious and essential component to any publishing venture; but because my publications will draw almost exclusively upon previously published work, I don’t have much to offer, at least at this point, to writers work-shopping new work. (Well, I do. But likely what I’d offer would not be what writers expect to get from a workshop. There are professional, perhaps better credentialed writers who can provide that.)
I am grateful for the invitation, however, because it has helped me better understand just where my heart is. And it strikes me that I would be very willing to speak, present, think-tank, round-table, workshop, respectfully debate, or otherwise hobnob about that! A working title for such a gig might be:
The State of Poetry and other literary short forms and what you, yes you(!), can do about it… or, Reader, Please Come Back.
Here are some bullet points:
Benjamin Percy, fiction writer and essayist, has noted the choke-hold academia (specifically the MFA-track) has at present on what counts as creative writing. I would add that academia’s choke hold doubles down for poetry and other short forms. The problem is not the MFA per se (long live higher ed!); nor is Percy (nor am I) out to demonize any particular holders of MFAs. But when a discourse, even an artistic discourse (like poetry) takes for its primary residence academia, you can expect it to spiral into an ever-narrowing, increasingly specialized, increasingly exclusive, primarily peer-oriented communication.
The problem? an alienated and disconnected, eventually unsupportive, perhaps even hostile reading public. As someone who believes poetry (and beautiful, powerful language of every sort) is everyone’s birthright, this is simply unacceptable.
So how do we fix this? Certainly not by being against MFA programs. Artists and writers deserve to be trained to their highest capacity—to specialize like other professionals. And universities (for those who can afford them) tend to be a good place for that. But poetry (or what gets to qualify as poetry) must not be authorized only there. Poetic discourse belongs more properly to what we call the commons; so the question becomes how do we bring it home? and how do we bring readers home to it? (Remember that I am always talking about written work that is intended to be read. Spoken-word poets, writers and their audiences—especially urban ones–are already finding their way home.)
Our present over-emphasis on new work (on work that’s not been previously published). The call to submit only new work goes out daily, hourly from presses large and small, from most literary magazines (print and online), and from publishers of every form and genre. This not-previously-published emphasis has itself become an industry which I fear (or maybe hope) is not sustainable.
To my mind, the publishing industry’s over-emphasis on new work contributes mightily to undermining the relevance of the literary in people’s lives. Hence, it is shooting itself in the foot regarding the reading public on whom it depends for life and livelihood. How so? Because some of the best work in the world only gets to see the light of day once(!). Imagine if that were true in the art world, or in the music world, or even in the culinary art world?! How would an Annie Leibovitz photograph, Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, or even the gorgeous Salad Niçoise ever become beloved with just one showing, one venue, one use?
There are a few living celebrity poets whose work we are allowed to cherish, it’s true: because we’ve seen a particular work more than once (although please be suspicious of the “we” in that sentence). For instance, I happen to keep in my own pocket Wendell Berry’s The Peace of Wild Things and Naomi Shihab Nye’s Kindness. But it saddens me to think of all the beautiful written words that will never ever have the chance to endear themselves to someone because their first (and only) publication languished in some obscure print venue or was online today and gone tomorrow. In the case of poetry, printing only previously unpublished work robs the public of its poets and poets of their public.
Note: I am not the first to make some of these points about the consequences of privileging new work. Thankfully, good arguments are cropping up with some regularity. See especially, Kathy Derengowski’s guest post on Trish Hopkinson’s poetry blog.)
Amazon’s near monopoly on decisions about what kinds of literature make it to a wider “market.” Hint: almost exclusively fiction, memoir, or block-buster tell-all, although occasionally a particular poet or essayist will “sell well”. But Amazon is a can of worms—one I’m willing to open later. This post is already too long.
The role independent booksellers can/should play–are already playing—in bringing readers home: in their embrace and encouragement of readers of every stripe, through the good work they do in their own communities, through the in-person connections indie booksellers forge between writers and the reading public, and via the main street economies they shore up. I believe independent booksellers have an especially important role to play in getting more short-form literature into more readers hands; and that doing so might carve a newish niche for them—one that Amazon has pretty much abandoned (see point 3 above).
Egad! What a windbag I am! I have too much to say. It will likely take the duration of my retirement (which I guess is to say the rest of my life) to say it. But I will do so with all my energy, with all my resources (financial and otherwise), and with all my heart. If your group or organization would like to engage with me where my heart is, on any or all of these critical issues, invite me. If I can possibly come, I will.
But if it’s a writing workshop you want, well… I know some good folks.