Small presses depressed

I've had several discussions this week with those who decry the constant struggle of small independent presses to keep independent literature alive, despite the machinery of academic with its relentless careerism and New York publishing with its tunnel-vision on profit-margins.

The debate about poetry reading fees goes on and on. Does charging a fee make you a vanity press? Is it ethical? I think anything that sustains a legitimate press is ethical. That doesn't mean I'm going to pay reading fees. And you can go to my website for a list of presses that manage to exist without doing so, including my publisher, David Robert Books (a WordTech imprint).

That said, it does strike me that by charging fees, publishers are selecting out poets and writers who can't afford fees. Imagine the tremendous loss to literature if in the last 100 years those writers who couldn't afford, say, $1,000 to enter enough contests to win had never been published.

It's a sign of deep dislocation in our culture, the preeminence of money over every other value in cultural life. Poetry has all but disappeared from the mainstream culture. It's hardly even reported on and never makes an appearance on the medium of our time, television. It is, however, accessible and thriving online. But because I too still like to have a print book in hand, I will go on cheerfully paying my fees. I feel lucky to be able to afford them. I wish presses offered scholarships to talented but broke writers. Of course, given their slim margins, that's not possible.

And why isn't the Poetry Foundation helping to shore up the wonderful American small press establishment? Their support of American poetry seems more like SUV-in-the-fast-lane behavior: a festival of back-patting and self-aggrandizement. This is just one fundraiser's opinion, but I think their 501-c-3 nonprofit status should be yanked. We've given them several years to get going. But where's the activity, where's the impact? All I hear is that things in the world of American poetry are getting worse by the day.

According to their 2006 report, the Foundation's funds were spent on:

"The Poetry Foundation has operated this year out of new offices in Chicago, just a few blocks from the first home of Poetry, with 15 employees and a budget of $7 million."

The Foundation’s programs put money—$600,000 in 2006—directly into the pockets of poets and their publishers: authors’ payments, copyrights and permissions payments, and a wide range of prizes and awards."

$600,000 directly to poets and publishers vs. $7 million to -- themselves. Hmm ...

To be fair, among Poetry Foundation's current initiatives are: to support their own magazine and website, to research poetry in America, to enhance the presence of poetry in the media (and when's the last time you read a poem in your newspaper or heard on television?), to identify the needs to teachers and school libraries. Many of these initiatives read to me as setting themselves up as the ultimate arbiter of quality in American poetry. And who are the famous poets running Poetry magazine and Foundation? Hmm ....