It happens all the time.

Death by poetry? It happens all the time.

A circular email arrives. It is addressed to several publishers, so I am one of a list – often quite an interesting list. Occasionally the list of other names is suppressed, so the email appears to be copied to its author, but I know I am one of many because the email will begin, “Dear Sir/Madam” or “Dear Publisher” or, as in one last week, “Dear Small Publishers”.

Then there is an appeal to read some poems. These will either be attached as separate documents or pasted in a long string underneath the message.

There may be elaborate claims for the brilliance of the work. There may be detailed descriptions of the author’s long-reaching literary arm.

However, the small publisher doesn’t read that far. She has already deleted the message or, as in my case, saved it in the Mad Poets file.

Sometimes, especially if I think the poet may be young, I reply with some advice, which may be a stupid thing to do. Once it involved me in a lengthy interaction, where the male poet (for some reason they are always men) bombarded me with poems. A barrage of verse. I had to block his messages in the end.

I do not read the poems. Okay—that’s not totally true. Very occasionally I read a few lines, with a sort of horrid fascination. I have never, in this situation, come across anything I liked. But even if I did, I wouldn’t like the way it had been thrown at me, and so I wouldn’t consider working with that poet, not for one moment.

Besides, the phrase ‘coals to Newcastle’ springs to mind. I am sitting in a room where two walls are lined floor to ceiling with books. Almost all these books are either collections of poetry, or books about poetry or poets. The third wall has a table, with piles of poetry books, and another bookcase full of . . . er . . . poetry books. I am sitting at the fourth wall, which has a window and so no room for a bookcase. However, on the desk in front of me, beside the Imac screen there is a pile of . . . you guessed already. Some of the work in this room is wonderful, and if I had time, I would be reading it now. I probably should be reading it now. Why would I want more? Especially of dubious provenance.

My job (because I am a humble publisher) is to sell poetry to other people, not have them hurl it at me.

Perhaps the real reason the mad poets’ emails are so frustrating is the way they caricature what I myself am doing as a purveyor of poetry. Here are some poems. You’ll love them! Best you’ve ever seen. Really—latest pamphlet, book, sampler. Unmissable.

But poetry is patently missable. We can live without it, despite the fact that some of us continue to search for the texts that feel indispensable. It is an odd search, and an odd dedication.

A little of the right sort of poetry—that’s what we want. It is never a matter of the more, the better. Too much poetry is a killer. I like pamphlets for that reason. Not too much in them, not too overwhelming, no overweening aspirations. Don’t ask me what ‘the right sort’ is. I only know for me, not you.

But I like a publication that results from an interaction, a process. I like a poet with humility and reserve. I like understatement, and I like irony, and I like playfulness.

There is a ‘right’ way to approach publishers with poems. It requires the poet to notice the publisher as a human being with personal preference and practice. These are not secret things: they’re easy to find out about. Websites are full of information. The world is littered with interviews and articles and year-books and listings. And you can write to a person—you can establish some interaction—without sending poems.

The poetry publisher is never short of Po. Although the mental (and sometimes physical) space is knee-deep in Po-matter, more and more of it arrives. He or she does not wake up one morning to say ‘Hurray! Five hundred more poems have arrived. Just what I wanted!”

However, he or she may—just possibly—say: ‘Hurray! A letter from J M B: I hope she’s included some new poems.’ It’s a relationship. It’s a context. We are human beings, not poem counters.

However, for those who continue to believe fame, fortune and the fabulous future are just around the corner if the victim publisher will just dip into the amazing poem in their email, I recommend British Writers Awards. This organization will take lots of money in return for feeding the belief that a life of influence and affluence is just about to commence. . . .

2 thoughts on “DEATH BY POETRY”

  1. No comments? I thought this was eminently sensible. Maybe others agree but think it’s too frightening to post comments in case we fall into the ‘mad poet’ category. Or maybe everyone else who’s commented is so mad their comments have been suppressed.

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