Interview for "Bear"
written March 27, 1999 by Lyn Lifshin.

Dear Bear

IF there is more interest in poetry, it is that more people would rather write poetry than read it. Fewer people are buying poetry collections. Twenty years ago a rather well known poet would have a collection printed in editions of 40,000 copies by a major publisher, reviewed in many import review venues like Library Journal and Publisher’s Weekly, would find major archive collections much better funded to buy their papers as well as significant funding for readings and workshops. When I began publishing, and doing readings, I never was not paid, often well paid. I was offered very substantial payment for my papers, my first often mimeographed, stapled collections were reviewed in review magazines that now either (I have heard) either ask for or expect expensive ads be placed– this according to someone who published one of my collections a few years ago– or simply do not touch poetry. As a result, many librarians say it is impossible to know what work, what books are worth buying. Distribution of poetry has always been hard ( for the one hundred plus books I’ve published, when I do readings, until my books from Black Sparrow, very very few people had ever seen a book of mine– they saw my poems only because I published so widely) but if librarians have no idea what is good– a librarian told me that most reviews they see are pure puffs– I’ll review you if you review me-- and I’ll get you a reading if you get me one, a prize, an audience– then it is much harder for a library to have any idea what to order.

When I began writing and publishing, I had the rather innocent belief that writing well and seriously was what was most important. But now it seems connections, publicity, networking have as much to do with the vague chance that your book might actually be seen, if not bought. The mainstream places that were available for me when I began to write, MS and ROLLING STONE. People who never would think of reading poetry used to see my poems there and it was great.

It was a shock to me, after doing readings for many years and ALWAYS getting paid to do them, to come to the Virginia-Maryland-DC area and find many writers (except maybe those connected to a university) jumped to give readings in any bookstore, café, park for no pay. I couldn’t believe this and refused to do any or many of the ones I was invited to do. Now, my main aim is to get people to see and buy my books so to promote them, I have done what I never would have in the past. Of course, living part time in New York means I have the incredible good fortune to be in one of the places that POETS AND WRITERS is involved with and helps to sponsor readings and workshops. I am eternally grateful for their help, especially at a time I began to write and to get my work around.

It’s not hard probably to connect the fact that so many more people are interested in writing their own poetry than before: writing programs have ballooned around the country and with so many people in them, of course they are not only writing while in school but hoping to make that their occupation. I heard poetry in the 90's described as "careerist" rather than an act of creativity and joy and fun. Though other writers have disagreed with me about this, I see poetry as much more splintered and cliquish than ever before: the academics, the slam poets, performance poets, ethnic poets etc. There are millions of readings all over. Except for readings of extremely well known or prize winning writers, or writers whose reputation has something to do with something other than their work, many of the people who come only come to read their own poems, come for an open reading. In this area, some writers go to many readings during the week to hear the same writers they know read in order to insure they will have an audience when they read. This is all new to me.

Not only is it harder to sell archives, get funded for every reading, escape being labeled a slam poet, a renegade, an academic, but, though I have been very very lucky (and have worked very hard for this) and have had some wonderful publishers, and right now feel privileged and very very happy to have Black Sparrow as a publisher, I think, without connections (I began and still have no connections!) it must be very very very hard to get a book published. And distributed. Believe me, I know how hard and diligently some of my previous publishers have worked and how difficult distribution and sales have been. And reviews– that I think is the most current tragedy and nightmare. Having edited four anthologies, I know the frustrations, work, difficulty in editing and publishing and promoting any collection. I have the utmost gratitude for the many small press, unfunded, hard working, devoted small press editors of magazines and publications. It is probably one of the very few areas of working for love not profit.

For me, though I am known as an excellent reader, I find it work. I know there are writers who find it fun and just a delight, to read anywhere, on a street corner, in a bar, in a zoo.

It is very hard for me not to try to discourage talented writers from taking and making writing their life, unless they want to teach. In a recent NYTimes book review there was a comment about how almost no poets can exist outside the universities. That may be true but I don’t think it was always like this, it didn’t feel like this when I began to publish. Also, I never saw the "personal promotion" that I see now in every aspect of book selling and of course the chain bookstores create their own dynamic. And the jeopardy that so many small bookstores are in is horrific.

As far as the fans: it is hard to know if there are fans who are not beginning poets, would be poets. I think that the few non poets who read poetry in ROLLING STONE and MS etc probably now are not aware of or interested in poetry.

Perhaps it is only my perspective but while I want to spend my time on writing my poetry and reading others poetry, on ballet and I’d love to begin painting again, the "business" of poetry seems to have grown. It’s what I like least. What I find most difficult. I did a series of poems kind of about the state of poetry as I see it, taking typical interview questions and answering them in a poem–probably sounds pretty bitter-sweet. Perhaps, I hope, the Internet with its wide access may add something to a scene where I feel much has been taken away. Otherwise I wonder if only scandal or worse will make anyone buy any poetry book

And yet, as I’m saying what probably sounds harsh, I am also extremely thrilled and ecstatic about having COLD COMFORT from Black Sparrow, actually out in bookstores and BEFORE IT’S LIGHT scheduled for fall 1999 publication! I’ve worked very very very hard for many years and this is a wonderful rewarding stage

Lyn Lifshin

Last updated: December 27, 2000