The modern-day poetry world: toxic Waste Land?

Poetry and First Publication Rights

Is the latter poisoning the former?

I believe so.

In the world that is Fiction writing, a great story is a great story. And a great story continues to be a great story, even after it’s published for the first time. Reprints are still valued and valuable.

Not so for poetry.

As far as I can tell — barring (which is devoted specifically to “poems that deserve to be read again”), and unless you’re a poet rockstar having work assembled in a “Selected” volume — reprints for individual poems are, well…not a thing.

Essentially, poetry publishing today is a “one-and-done” world; once a poem is published, its market value disappears. It’s retired from further avenues of public view. If poems were cars, they would not only depreciate by thousands of dollars the very instant you drive one off the lot: it would be rendered virtually worthless. Like $0.

And this, I think, is a serious, even poisonous, problem.

It creates a poetry culture determined by, and staked on, journal reputation, putting the “prestige” of the publication ahead of the artist and readers.

Why? A poetry culture determined — and dictated — by the precedent of first publication rights:

1. Puts the onus and burden on the poet to not just write but also place his/her poems. Each poem. Entering submission cycle after cycle, contest after contest, paying reading fee after reading fee. It requires of writers the arduous, administrative task of submission-tracking: finding out where one’s work may (have a small chance to) fit, weighing each journal’s stance on “simultaneous-submission,” packing one’s life and schedule into a tangled mass of deadlines and cover letters. Inducing anxiety or at least annoyance.

2. Creates an environment where it’s easy for excellent poems to get lost, buried, and passed over, all in a very short timeframe. The short-lived shelf-life of a poem, as determined by the nature of journal periodicals, makes it difficult for readers to find poems according to their tastes — because they’re always having to wade through the new, not necessarily what’s best for them. And that’s too much work, so a lot of people don’t care to bother. Hence the frustration and the stereotypes. “Poetry is just not for me.”

And this hurts publications’ bottom-lines. If people can’t easily find poems they like, there’s little wonder why journal subscriptions are not profitable. The majority of publications today (including, ahem, Poetry) are floated by either cushy university budgets or wealthy patrons; the journal’s output and subscriber-base are not enough to make ends meet.

Hence people don’t get paid. Journals’ reading teams and editorships are almost expected to be volunteer work. (i.e. “Experience/ résumé cred is your payment.”) When it comes to poetry, you’re incredibly lucky if you get paid at all for the work you do.

This is a toxic poetry culture for everyone, but especially for poets and current/ would-be poetry readers.

I think the poetry world can learn a lot from Great Jones Street, the catalogue and app experience for short stories, whose mission is to, “bring short fiction back into pop culture.”

With a reprint-friendly culture, we could do exactly this for poetry.

GJS wants great short stories to be read, and read widely.

Per their website, only around “20% of [their] stories are original, first-run material. The rest are reprints.”

— They pay between $250 and $500 for new stories of any length.

— They pay a minimum of $50 per story if it’s a reprint, at 1.5 cents/ word.

— “For reprints, the contract is a standard story contract. [They] don’t need exclusivity. [They] don’t want derivative rights. 10-year license with option to remove after 5.”

— “For first-runs, we are a little more needy but not by much. 6-month exclusivity. No derivative rights. Perpetual license.”

80% of their stories are reprints?! Woah. GJS sees the value in making great stories available AGAIN, in making those stories easily accessible (and searchable) to the public.

This is a much healthier approach, embracing the mentality that a good story is still a good story and should still be read after its initial moment of glory. And a good writer should still be treated and eligible to be paid as one for their new and previous writing — for as long as that work is visible and adding value to people’s lives.

Why can’t we adopt the GJS, reprint-friendly approach for poetry?

It would clearly benefit poets! For example, these testimonials from Reprint magazine’s website:

So nice when someone writes you out of the blue, asking for permission to reprint a poem of yours, first published in an e-zine and forever archived in dusty electrons, because someone else has turned him onto you and he read your poem and admires it. — Jee Leong Koh

In this hurry-up, Internet flash age, good work does slip by quickly and is lost without venues such as yours that support writers and readers. — Joani Reese

The internet offers us the opportunity to extend our publications beyond the first or only place where they appeared. — Diane Lockward

If we adopt a reprint-friendly mindset for poetry, everyone wins.

Poets win. Readers win. The role of the journal as creative contribution could be expanded to showcase not only the newest best work, but the best best work, situated in new contexts, alongside other creative media. The exciting role for editors would not primarily rest in gatekeeping, then, but rather in being creative engineers, with the freedom to build new structures and challenge artistic boundaries, given excellent contemporary poems as raw material. This would add to our understanding of both the parts and the whole. This would allow journals to generate new value, not only provide the vehicle for it. And this might even make journals profitable…

And if we make reprinted content searchable and curated for each reader’s specific tastes, we give poetry the chance to be popular again. We give poetry back to the people, where it belongs.

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