The Poetry of Beginning: Twelve Poets Who Got Things Going in 2007

Kevin Larimer
From the November/December 2007 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

Only a poet would worry so little about traditional measures of success that she would ignore the sales figures of her recently published book. Only she would know better than to hold her art—famously neglected by the public—to such standards, preferring to focus instead on word of mouth, anecdotal praise, or critical commentary. Whether as a means of self-preservation or the result of an enlightened understanding of poetry's place in our culture, only a poet would look everywhere but the bottom line to gauge the public's reception of her debut collection.

After all the writing and the waiting, the submissions and the revisions, the ordering and the reordering, the contests and the commitments, how does a poet's consciousness of his own work change once he finally sees it in print?

"I don't know how sales have been going," says Rusty Morrison, two years after the Center for Literary Publishing released her debut book Whethering. "I haven't asked." Morrison, whose second collection, the true keeps calm biding its story, will be published by Ahsahta Press in January, was one of eighteen poets included in the first of our annual features on debut poetry, in 2005. And she's not the only one of the bunch who shows so little interest in her receipts.

"I have tried not to focus too much on the numbers, lest I get discouraged by the near invisibility of poetry in mainstream culture," says Dana Goodyear, whose debut collection, Honey and Junk, was published by Norton in 2005. Dan Brenner, author of The Stupefying Flashbulbs, published by Fence Books in 2006, and included in last year's feature, says his debut book has done just "okay."

"A lot of people have been telling me they don't understand it," he says.

But for every poet who ignores the numbers, there is another who, even if he occasionally looks askance at the figures, closely follows his book's progress with equal parts fascination and amusement. "Watching my sales numbers rise and fall on Amazon has been something of a perverse spectator sport," says Thomas Heise about Horror Vacui (Sarabande Books, 2006). "What constitutes good sales for a debut book of poems? Seven hundred and fifty copies? One thousand? Fifteen hundred? The numbers are so minuscule that they're laughable. No one became a poet to make money, but probably all of us want to be read, want literally 'to get the word out,' so sales are important."

The initial print run of How Long She'll Last in This World, María Meléndez's debut, published by the University of Arizona Press in 2006, was fifteen hundred; recently she was told that it would go into a second printing. A year after I Have Not Been Able to Get Through to Everyone was published by Turtle Point Press, Anna Moschovakis doesn't know exactly how many copies of it have been sold. "But I believe the book at least broke even by the end of the fall 2006 season," she says, "since I actually got a royalty check in January. I think it was $9.42."

Some books, of course, do manage to produce bigger numbers. Buoyed by reviews in the Los Angeles Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and other periodicals, David Tucker's Late for Work (Mariner Books, 2006) sold thirty-eight hundred copies; Victoria Chang's Circle (Southern Illinois University Press, 2005) sold more than a thousand; and Laura Sims's Practice, Restraint (Fence Books, 2005), about five hundred.

But every debut poet knows—regardless of whether they pay attention to them—it's not all about the numbers. In the two years since Coffee House Press published his debut, Somewhere Else, Matthew Shenoda has realized that, "as a writer, success is less a measure of sales numbers and awards and more a measure of human responses."

For some poets, that measure—the responses of critics, and of the readers whom these poets can now count as their own—is a boost, a validation. "The book was a milestone in how others viewed me as a writer," says Susan B. A. Somers-Willet about her debut, Roam (Southern Illinois University Press, 2006). "I was suddenly a legitimate, respected, and successful poet."

But perhaps even more important are the individual responses of the poets themselves. After all the writing and the waiting, the submissions and the revisions, the ordering and the reordering, the contests and the commitments, how does a poet's consciousness of his own work change once he finally sees it in print, published—made public?

Alex Lemon's first collection, Mosquito, published by Tin House Books last year, met with strong approval from readers and critics—as evidenced by the news that his second book, Hallelujah Blackout, will be published by Milkweed Editions in late 2008. But publication also transformed his sense of himself as a poet. "I feel fortunate that instead of paralyzing me, Mosquito's publication has turned into a catalyzing foundation for the rest of my writing," Lemon says. "It allowed me to see my work in a new way, with a new depth.… If anything, Mosquito has made me work harder and spend more time with my writing."

It is not always so. Many of the poets who were included in our first two features and responded to a call for updates reported declines in their productivity following the publication of their books. "I felt creatively lost, ridiculously self-critical, and basically completely unable to write for at least the first year postbook," says Andrea Baker, whose Like Wind Loves a Window was published by Slope Editions in 2005. Baker says she immediately began thinking in terms of a second book rather than just writing poems and allowing a new collection to form organically.

"Don't wish for the endpoint. Attend the deviations," advises Sarah Gridley, who says the publication of Weather Eye Open (University of California Press, 2005)shook her confidence and made her question her faith in writing. "Initially I had what I would call a Dimmesdale experience in having my book published: I felt frocked on the outside, and fraudulent on the inside. Despite all the benefits of having a book published, it was not for me an unalloyed sweetness."

For unpublished poets who are still plugging away at their first manuscripts every day—before work, once the kids have gone to bed, or on the weekends—it is not a comforting point: The reward for finally getting the debut book published isn't absolute. But just as the process of finishing the first collection can never be scripted, the process of moving on to the second is an uncertain one.

"Publishing my first book was a relief and it gave me more confidence about my work," says Heise. "But publishing also creates a set of expectations, not only expectations about the rate at which you publish but also the kind of work you publish. Stylistic expectations, I guess. Your first book is a kind of opening statement and when your second book comes out, it will be measured in terms of the first: Does it 'fulfill the promise' of the debut book? Is it an unwelcome departure (think of the critical reaction to Ashbery's The Tennis Court Oath)? Is it a reiteration? In a sense, then, publishing your first book opens metaphorical doors for you, but it also creates expectations that potentially could be limitations, limitations which one can embrace, surpass, or perhaps simply ignore."

It is still too early for the twelve poets featured here to worry about limitations. After all, they've only just had their first books published. For some it was a relatively simple process; for most it was the culmination of untold hours of writing and hard work, years of studying the art of poetry and the business of publishing. And now that success is theirs, they are, most of them, understandably excited.