Death of the underdog: An open letter to poetry


by Jen Woods

This morning as I sit down to start my work, coffee in hand, the air definitely feels different in that “today-is-my-birthday” kind of way. Typecast Publishing, started a little less than one year ago, now has four authors, one whose book releases this very day.  The Lumberyard Magazine celebrated its unbelievable fifth year in operation, and we announced our very first Roark Prize in Poetry in 2010.

Every turn has been an adventure. A terrifying, exhilarating adventure. I’ve blabbed off a lot this year to friends, fans, and colleagues about publishing—the state of it now, where it’s headed, what peeves me, on and on and on. For once in my lifetime, the thing I love (printing and books) is a glamorous hot topic. Much of what you read is pretty drenched in fear and pessimism, people are freaked, but if you boil all that away, what you find is a new life being born, a healthy friction–I believe this is what they call “creative destruction.”

And I, for one, think it’s high time. Especially as it pertains to poetry.

You see, I think poets are rock stars. I really do. What poets do is one of the absolute coolest forms of expression I’ve ever known, and many of them writing today are doing things with poetry that make my hair stand on end in excitement. Some of them make me want to run out in the streets and howl. Some of them make me feel human. They can, through the manipulation of words, set things straight in my head that have tossed around like clothes in a dryer for months, years. POETS LIGHT ME UP.

But the thing is, I often find as I’m out in the world, up on my soapbox talking about this love, the hardest people to convince of the above are poets themselves, or worse yet, the people who publish them. The last twenty years or so have not been exactly kind to poetry. The major houses have all but given up on it, and so nonprofit indie houses have stepped in to try and preserve some kind of literary history, piecing it together through the endless search for grants and like-minded donors who also know deep down that there is value here.

But what we’ve lost in the meantime is our sense of pride. Here’s an example. Just last week, in a Barrelhouse blog post called “Good News: David Simon is No Longer A Starving Artist,” there were several lines that made me pull back from the screen and wince. One occurred when the blogger asked, “Is poetry effectively worthless because very few people pay money for it?” What made me cringe about this was the resignation. Is this really the question to ask, I thought to myself, or is there not a question that comes before it?  Collectively, our industry has all but decided on the premise that people won’t pay for poems, that most Americans just don’t believe it has commercial value.

And it’s easy to see why. For a long time, people haven’t paid for poetry. So much so that poets by and large don’t even expect to be paid for their work, or for readers to pay for their books. I see insanely talented poets handing out their work for free constantly. The prize has no longer become making a living as a writer, the prize has become some quasi-status amongst the already committed. We’ve effectively given up.

But I’m not ready to concede. For one, it’s not true at all that people won’t pay for poetry. People will pay for anything if you let them. Advertising has proven this to us time and again; think Snuggies and the Jonas Brothers. We’ve got to stop looking at ourselves as the underdogs, the hopeless, the bottom of the art food chain. We’ve got to be open to making poetry viable to the world we live in today, not the world of 1975, or 1995 for that matter. And we’ve got to have the confidence to stop deprecating ourselves.

I know change is hard. But that doesn’t mean it’s not good or worthwhile. When we started Lumberyard—this idea of taking poetry and putting it in a contemporary context of design and texture and, well, fun, in the name of enticing people back to it—I’ll be honest, I wasn’t 100% sure it would work. But it HAS worked. And we’ve been on trucking shows talking about poetry, had launch parties with metal bands, made hoo haa with the visual arts community, and traveled from NYC to Bismarck, North Dakota, talking to both red and blue America about poetry. And you know what? People really like poems! Yes, I will dare say it twice. People really like poems! They like reading them, they like hearing them, they like talking about them. The proof is that five years into the magazine, we’re still a for profit company operating with zero institutional support and zero grant money. We run off the will of our consumers to seek poetry out, to have a relationship with it. But our reliance on consumers forces us to constantly seek new horizons, to push it in places it hasn’t been mentioned to date, or at least for a very long time. And it works! It really works!

The future for poetry does not look like the one you’ve probably come to know. It might feel a little messy, a little loud at first. We’ve been locked in this closet a long time. We will have to adjust. But the future is not less than the past. The world today is not the same as yesterday. This is the nature of time. All this evolution really proposes is a new way of looking at something you already know, like falling back in love with your spouse when the light hits his/her face just so.

Here’s an example of what I mean: in the past several months, a handful of poetry book trailers have hit the airwaves. And they are pretty effin’ cool. A poet friend remarked, “I never thought poetry would lend itself to this visual medium, but this book trailer thing is the coolest ever!” She was excited, because these trailers were allowing her to see poetry in a whole new way, even though she’s been a long-time student of the craft. And of course poetry lends itself to the visual—it’s POETRY.  All the arts blend together. It’s the same damn process no matter if you’re a painter, a musician, or even a poet. Through this fact, we now have a way to reintroduce something to the world that has been marginalized by a perception of its being irrelevant, stuffy, out of date.

So this morning, I am declaring THE DEATH OF THE UNDERDOG. Rise up, sleepy poets, and embrace that you are amazing, that what you create has immeasurable value. Trust that it’s a part of our humanity, as poetry has been around since before the written word. Don’t shy away from that microphone at your reading tonight, step INTO it, set your words free to crawl in the heads of your audience. Fuck with them, make their hearts race, make their palms sweaty. Get up there and do your thing. Make them love what you love.

They will love you for it, I promise. And as long as Typecast survives in this world, we will be here to back you up.

Coposted with Typecast Publishing