Poets and Writers Reading Program

I received this note from Poets and Writers this morning, I think because I’ve been funded by them (generously, thanks) in the past.

Dear Writer,

The Readings/Workshops program at Poets & Writers is planning to launch an

e-newsletter about our grant program and the opportunities it offers. We

would love your feedback on the ideas we have for the newsletter. Please

click here to fill out this very short survey, which will help us serve you

better: http://www.surveymonkey.com/s.asp?u=74443631234

As I filled out the survey I became kind of flummoxed because underneath the survey it made a number of odd assumptions, and it struck me that an e-newsletter would be a lost opportunity for Poets & Writers and myself, since I’m hungry for real information about how writers actually made the business of writing work. This kind of Poets & Writers mission, although there is an element of their magazine that engages what I call writer-porn, that is presenting writing is a series of glamorous summer retreats, award ceremonies, and earnest discussions about “craft,” when in fact my experience is short on this qualities and long on waking up early and staring at a computer screen wondering why I don’t sleep and stare at a computer screen for a cause that actually pays something, you know, like a job.

So here is my response for what it is worth:

I didn’t find the survey very useful in addressing how a vehicle for Poets&Writers may be useful to literary writers and poets funding through your program. (Thanks though for having funded me in the past!)

I don’t think a newsletter, for instance, would work well that well as a push medium. It is unlikely that I would read an an e-mail and a printed object would most likely end up in my recycling bin (and only receive a cursory glance when it came in). Boldtype produces to me the model of a good newsletter (I notice it is also online in a blog format) — but I find their format extremely limiting in terms of actual information. It is pretty and is light on text — both essential factors for an email — even great long email lists such as Pat Holt’s list, end up getting skimmed and filed when they come in.

A well written blog, with the ability to capture community comments, and with an RSS feed would strike me as a far more precise and cost effective (in terms of production) medium. I would be able to scan, and then search and find the content when I needed to find it.

Furthermore, a blog would reach writers who are not aware of your programs. When they performed searches at Google they would likely come across it.

The other aspect of the questionnaire was that it made a number of assumptions about the practice of literary readings. I would be interested in knowing more about how and why these assumptions were made. For example, why are special populations called out in particular — and why these specific special populations? And why would a writer cater to special populations as opposed to other populations? Why should poetry be inflicted on the homeless as opposed to executives at a business lunch? I begin to guess why, but the survey made the assumption that this was understood.

Finally there have been recent seismic shifts in the business of literary culture in the last seven years. Much of the infrastructure that writers depended on in the past have either collapsed or become ossified to the degree that they are no longer useful. Traditional book reviews have essentially been dropped from mass circulations magazines and newspapers. Independent bookstores continue to fail. New York Publishing continues to lose 10% or more a year — publishing less and less worthwhile work year by year. The university system which had once provided a home for many mid-list, literary writers, and poets has become clogged with the “overproduction” of teachers such that a graduate of an MFA program in creative writing has a better chance of signing to the NBA than they do getting a tenure track creative writing job.

This is not dire, however. I would say other, poorly understood factors have taken the place of these older forms. As a literary writer I have little chance of earning a living or even finding a tenure track teaching job, but I have have plenty of chances to publish my work, read my work, serve “special populations,” and teach. However none of this looks anything like the traditional system.

Such poorly understood factors include:

  • The rise of blogs as rapid, easy, and an open publishing platform
  • The rise of online reviewers such as Amazon.com
  • The rise of social communities organized around books (Bookcrossing or Library Thing)
  • The establishment of the alternative press and alt-weeklies
  • Short run printing alongside cheap, high-powered desktop publishing and the corresponding explosion of tiny and small presses
  • Methods of selling books directly to readers via Amazon or Paypal
  • The rise of literary centers and grassroots reading series such as The Hyde Park Art Center in Chicago, Richard Hugo House in Seattle, etc.
  • Connected bookstores such as Reading Frenzy in Portland, Powell’s in Portland, or Quimby’s in Chicago (as opposed to the traditional independent bookstore such as Elliott Bay or The Strand.)

    It would be very helpful if Poets and Writers as a hub for “serious” writers took it’s mission seriously and coordinated the ongoing discussion about how these factors are changing the way writing is produced. I believe you would take your e-newsletter seriously but it presumes for instance that any single person (or clutch of editors) can understand the nuances of these changes.

    I don’t believe a traditional edited newsletter would do the job. For one thing it is impossible for a clutch of editors to keep track of these changes nor actually serve as an authority on how all of this works. But they can leverage their position with Poets & Writes as a funding source to create a space where this conversation can evolve and where writers can come to get some clue about what these changes are and what they mean.

    Anyway that is my two cents.

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