Finding and making value—and readers

Family events and life in general have intervened since the last blog. In late February and early March, I took FRAMESHIFTS to the Chicago conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs. It was an opportunity for many conversations and sharing of work, like these publications:

Although mostly engaged at my own booth across from the fascinating exhibit, I also enjoyed conversations with Richard Greenfield from NMSU, Ellen Wade Beals, and Joanna Beth Tweedy. Ellen’s book, SOLACE, is a collection of poems solicited from a wide group of poets, asking the question: Where do you find solace? This prompt has elicited some amazing poems. Joanna’s work is distinctive for both narrative and her studied focus on dialect. Sandy Zulauf gave me a copy of the Journal of New Jersey poetry in exchange for a copy of FRAMESHIFTS. Lee Barnes came by the booth to say that “it takes guts to publish a book yourself.” (Well, it does take cash. Perhaps it also takes stubbornness.) I even had pleasant discussions with the editor of The Arsenic Lobster and the representatives of the Prairie Schooner, both of which publications have rejected my poems, although I still await the verdict on a book of poems, Floaters and Sinkers, under review at the Prairie Schooner. By the way, although your poems may be rejected, The Arsenic Lobster is always happy to receive pictures of lobsters.

Less pleasant was a conversation with a printer-publisher who was packing to leave a day early. Many small literary magazines, he said, do not have to make a profit. They would rather give things away than pay to ship out. He owned his own press and bindery. This practice, he said, was unfair to him and to his authors. It devalues work. It devalues the very writing programs represented at AAW. What value is this work if it’s given away? What does this practice teach the students in such programs about making a living as writers?

He packed off at 11 a.m. on Friday, before the conference opened to the public on Saturday.

What is value in a piece of writing or music? After over a hundred conversations with conference participants, I came away convinced that we are the best audience for each other’s work. How do we find each other’s work without being told what to read by a marketing department? More than ten thousand readers were in Chicago. It was a good place to start. The business of publishing is another matter. Barnes and Noble, Borders, and Amazon have monetized writing and undercut independent booksellers. Borders and Barnes & Noble are now on the receiving end of “progress,” with Borders the first casualty. The current issue of The Nation traces the history of Amazon from a package of search tools to set information free to a monopoly that cuts out suppliers who don’t toe the company line. Also see the article about the fixed-price, government-subsidized publishing business in Germany and some other EU nations. By setting public value on the cultural importance of writing, these countries have found ways to publish more new works, encourage translations, provide tax relief to independent publishers for unsold inventories, and use the proceeds from best-sellers to support low sellers—and the authors who write them. What’s the value of a piece of writing? Pretty much what society says. Certainly, writers know this. Shakespeare could wonder and write about the problems of succession, but he knew better than to make his comparisons too close to Elizabeth I. Society dealt sharply with such writers—sending Peter Wentworth to prison for ten years simply for raising a question about succession. Definitely bad for business. Of course, some writers have made a name for disregarding the business side of writing, often posthumously.

But it seems to me that unless one is prepared to include the necessary genre-ingredients designated by business, one’s writing will simply remain a hobby or, as I call it, a folk art. Certainly this seems to be true of what I do, since the book that requires permission to write is not the book that I want to write.

Recently I’ve written a book of short stories and begun a song cycle, The Fisher of the James. Both works feature Richmond, Virginia, our new home.

Leading this book of short stories, HIDDEN MOVES AND HIDDEN FACES, is the tale of a priest who has lost his vocation but is unable to escape caring for the souls around him in Richmond’s tattooed, crystal-scrying young painters, musicians, and cult-followers. This story is a sequel to FRAMESHIFTS. Other stories include an update for the online age of the fairy tale of Jack and the Beanstalk, a macabre story about a henpecked husband short-lived relief from a psychotic mate, a story about a barber who thinks he’s received an email from God, and other stories. Available only in a small printing, I will send you one for postage if you are interested. Good writing.