My Personal Crisis with Poetry: On Digital Publication and Rights

By now, I assume word has gotten around to most Bloggers…

Putting work–short stories, poems, a full length novel (should you dare)–on a public blogging platform is considered, by many sources, to be published, when it comes to First Publication rights. Self-publication is no longer a joke, in certain circles, so in a sense, it is quite valid for publishing houses to take the idea seriously. The problem, however, is that in reality, self-publication exists somewhere between valid and a joke. Putting your own book up on Amazon is a very real form of self-publishing that often takes work, and by virtue of being a marketed product, is validated as it sells. Blogs and short form content, (like poetry, as discussed previously, here) are taken less serious. For example, if you are asked about the publication of your prior work in an interview and you cite your own blog, chances are you’ll get the professional equivalent of an eye roll.

But I would like to focus on poetry for now.

In my experience, submission guidelines for poetry are sometimes more lax, but still important to follow when it comes to publication or contest entries. Their laxness is that some, like the Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship will allow for some poems to be previously published.  Others, like the Walt Whitman Award allow for any number of the poems to be published, so long as the specific collection itself has yet to be.

The latter is a situation I’ve seen often when it comes to both publication submissions and contests (though the Whitman Award is certainly a hybrid of those, given the prize of publication.)

The problem is that this laxness will leave aspiring poets in the dark. I know that I personally fear putting too much of my work onto my blog, because it is sometimes unclear what crosses the line into being too published. There’s a sense that we ought hold back. Even among young and new poets, their websites and blogs often imply a large body of work that is unavailable via the blog or site, unless through a store page.

And that’s where things get blurry. As I discussed before, the issue of how to monetize, patronize, or otherwise contribute to a poem in the modern age has become complicated by our sense of value. Of course these young and new poets should profit from their labors. Of course they should be able to sell a book as they please. But there is a tyranny in having to hold back in order to make it so one can make a living from their work. It is unjust to all parties. The audience is given loose incentive based on a delicate balance between sharing and under-sharing of the poet’s efforts. The poet is left in a worse state, having to decide how much to exist, how much presence to commit to the open world, because publication is a world of Rights, but it is no longer the only means to become, well, public. In the end, what this does is it creates a culture (an admittedly formative one) where emphasis is placed so heavily on the means by which a poem is cast into the world. It creates a culture where consideration has to be given, not to if an audience will enjoy the work or how to find the right audience, but how to withhold from them properly.

It creates a culture where it feels as though one could waste a poem.

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