Giving Poetry Away

By Beth Spencer

Republished with permission of the author

A while back I got an email from a scientist in Texas who’d read some poems on my webpage in his lunch hour and said he was heading down to his local Barnes and Noble to buy a copy of my book.

Of course, he’s not going to find it. It is hard enough to find any work by an Australian poet in an Australian bookshop – let alone a book that’s a few years old. He probably would have more chance of success if he said he was going down to his local pet shop to buy a wombat.

Basically, bookshops are a nineteenth century technology for the distribution of cultural products to an elite group. They still work fine for some things, but I am always amazed at how committed poetry publishers and funding bodies are to pursuing this avenue, given that the best you could hope for is to get your poetry book into say, seven shops around Australia, instead of three. (The cultural equivalent of re-arranging deckchairs.)

And there is something so personal about owning a book by a local contemporary poet that, for many people, even if they do happen to know about and live handy to one of these rare (and admirable) poetry-stocking shops, hovering around the poetry section, choosing something, taking it to the counter — and then having it visible beside their bed as a marker of their taste — can be as intimidating as going into an adult bookshop.

It is not that people don’t like poetry – I think the internet has proven that they do, and that itÕs a highly participatory art form. Indeed while poetry has traditionally been valued for its universal themes (universal amongst the small elite group that read it), there are so many wonderful opportunities for its use as a niche product.

Furthermore, with school curriculumÕs increasingly requiring students to write a poem as part of their assessment, there is probably never been a better time for looking at ways to get a wide range of diverse voices and styles out there where people can wander through in the privacy of their own homes, and select what they want for further reading.

And there has never been a better time, or better opportunities, for giving it away free.

So I have decided to join the honourable tradition of freeing poetry from the shackles of capitalism — and here I’m thinking of things like Pio’s little magazine 925, given away free on street corners in the 1970s and 80s, and John Tranter’s internet magazine Jacket, with an average of 15,000 hits per issue from all around the world. From today I’m making my chapbook Things in a Glass Box (originally published as part of the award-winning SCARP/Five Islands Press New Poets series) available on my webpage as a free download.

With the help of a friendly graphic designer I’ve recreated the original print file and turned it into two pdf files. With these anyone anywhere with access to the internet and a printer (and a stapler, although you could also use a needle and thread) can print the files on A4 pages, fold them down the middle, staple them and have an exact facsimile of the original 32 page book, cover and all.

I love the chapbook form. Poems are such intense compact things that a small compact book that you can read in one sitting (instead of watching a television programme, for instance; or on the train to work) and then pass on to someone else seems ideal to me.

Indeed another problem with the fixation on bookshops is that collections are often padded out with a lot of less-than-wonderful poems to get to that 98 pages and a spine. And if you never finish a book, youÕre much less likely to pass it on or recommend it to others.

In fact once you shift from this provider-centric viewpoint — how do we get more people to buy more poetry books– and ask instead things like: ‘how do we rejuvenate and make poetry culture healthy and vibrant a lot changes?

For the real need is not to sell books, but to create the conditions where our best poets, and a diverse range of poets, have time and money to devote significant time to their work for significant periods in their lives.

And giving it away free might just be a first step towards this.

Cast your bread on waters, goes the old saying, and it will come back buttered.

After all, for most of us, giving it away is hardly going to be a major financial sacrifice.

For instance, if having my poetry book on the internet gets me just one gig speaking at a school, or sells a handful of library copies of my Body of Words CD & Box of Words CD-ROM, then it will have made me more than I ever got in royalties from the original hard version.

Of course this doesn’t mean I’m going to give all my writing away for free. But why hang onto something that doesn’t sell well anyway? Why not get it out there, let it circulate?

In his book Unleashing the Idea Virus, Seth Godin suggests that you give things away for free and then create added-value products and souvenirs that can be purchased: an expanded version, a hand-crafted or signed gift edition, public performances, workshops, talks, audio versions to listen in the car, teaching materials and so on.

Godin himself is a particularly good example of this principle: even when his entire book was available as a free download on his website, the hardback was still number five on the Amazon bestseller list.

For what this method does is value people who are cash-poor but time-rich. These are your virus sneezers, the ones who have the time to trial your product and then pass the message on. They are poetry is free advertising and they have a cultural role that should be nourished and respected.

Publishers would still be crucial, as selection portals (the quality control gatekeepers for those without time to scour the net themselves) and for their editing skills.

But you could use your subsidy to pay an artist and a web-designer instead of the usual graphic-designer and printer. Mass copies out via the Web, and a beautiful limited edition for sale to friends, collectors and rare book libraries.

And who knows: videos were predicted to destroy the viability of cinema but instead created an increased demand. Perhaps the same might happen here.

IÕm not sure why literature funding bodies seem so nervous of operating outside of the publisher-bookshop nexus. There are lots of other examples out there where cultural products are commissioned and then given away free: the ABC, sculpture in public places, libraries, schools.

And there are so many possibilities in this print-at-home format, especially in these times of increasing media concentration. It could be used for monographs, essays, all sorts of interventions that can circulate quickly and for free but be read offline in a convenient and attractive form and passed around.

Simple and compact.

And compactness is the key: the ability to say something in a pithy, meaningful and memorable way, which is after all the essence of poetry, whether it’s in a poem, or a story, or an essay. So that these little spineless books could have real bite.

Things in a Glass Box is available free at www.bethspencer.com.

Or you can hear sound versions on Beth Spencer’s Body of Words double-cd and Box of Words cd-rom available from www.dogmedia.com.au.

(www.bethspencer/spinelessbooks.html)

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