Today, I went to Barnes and Noble to look for Sarah Pinborough’s new Leisure Book’s title, Feeding Ground.  Didn’t find it.  So, I did what I usually do while wandering aimlessly around a large chain book store: I entertained the idea of getting an overpriced cup of coffee, I browsed the overstock/bargain shelves, did a walk through of the science fiction and fantasy section, and I did my best to avoid the poetry shelves.  Why?  Simple.  I’ve found that poetry sections of many Barnes and Nobles, Books-A-Million, and Borders are beyond pathetic.  If you’ve been around poetry as long as I have, it’s a no-brainer.

Roughly half of the two four foot (on average) sections consist of Charles Bukowski, Maya Angelou, Marge Piercy, Mary Oliver, and perhaps Charles Simic or James Tate, if you’re lucky.  Another huge swath of it is noted, centuries old classics from Shakespeare, Homer, Dante, and a few others.  What’s left, in terms of shelf space, is split down the middle.  Again, if you’re lucky, there are a few new titles from Graywolf or Ecco, and, even rarer, books from Copper Canyon or some univeristy presses.   Over the past year, I was happy to see new volumes by Paul Guest, Marie Howe, and Frank Bidart on Barnes on Nobles shelves.  So, what the problem?  They’re on equal footing with self published ventures like

You know, the sort of “hope” writing that fails miserable both as self-help books and as poetry.  Then, there’s also the faux poetic crap with badly alliterative titles and sloppy watercolors as covers.  For example:

I would say, “I don’t mean to beat up on self-published poets”; I realize, however, that — wait a minute — that actually is my intent.  Keep in mind that the average poetry section is not very large.  So, when you have only two four foot shelving sections, you have to wonder what 8-10 titles from Publish America, Authorhouse, iUniverse, tells a potential reader who knows nothing about the current state of English language poetry.   It really comes down to a space ratio. It gives the false impression that nothing is going on, or that beyond the names I’ve listed above, nothing interesting has happened in the last 50 years of poetry and publishing.

And that is so, so blatantly wrong.   American poetry, for instance, is particularly vibrant at the moment, with many different schools and traditions still going, from new formalism to language poetry and all the shades in between.   There is plenty of compelling, interesting books from established presses coming out every year.  However, the average Barnes and Noble browser will never see them.  They will see “alcoholic addict” and stuff like that, and will come away with a wholly inaccurate assessment about the state of poetry.  For the record, I’m not saying that all self published titles should be pulled off the shelves at brick and mortar stores.  There’s always a better choice available, however.  And the person responsible for ordering and keeping books on hand — they largely are largely ignorant about poetry.  Sure, they may be well meaning, but stocking self published poetry sends the wrong message.  It’s also passing on poetical ignorance.  I mean, how hard is it to browse The American Poetry Review, Poetry, or even the New Yorker from time to time?

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