News of plummeting sales do not, as some fear, indicate a dying art. In fact, the genre is adapting well to a new publishing age
On Wednesday evening, a collection of poetry in support of the jailed Russian punk rock group Pussy Riot won the award for Best Poetry Anthology in the 2013 Saboteur awards for indie poetry.
Catechism: Poems for Pussy Riot features the work of 110 poets and two dozen translators and began with a Facebook appeal by its editors Mark Burnhope, Sarah Crewe and Sophie Mayer for poems in support of the women, in the run-up to their appeal hearing in October 2012. Ali Smith, Deborah Levy, Phill Jupitus and John Kinsella are among the contributors to the collection, which was published as an ebook in partnership with English PEN, and is now available in print-on-demand.
It beat four other anthologies to the award: The Centrifugal Eye's Fifth Anniversary Anthology (edited by EA Hanninen), Rhyming Thunder – the Alternative Book of Young Poets (Burning Eye), Sculpted: Poetry of the North West (North West Poets, edited by L Holland and A Topping) and Adventures in Form (Penned in the Margins, ed. Tom Chivers).
The awards come as one of the UK's leading indies, Salt, announced that they are abandoning the single-author collection as being financially unsustainable. And indeed, hardly a week goes by without someone assuring us that poetry is dying. Given the decline in sales that they have experienced, with a 50% drop over the last five years, half of which happened in the last 12 months, Salt's decision is perfectly reasonable. No commercial press can possibly support those numbers without looking to change their business model.
The stark truth is that poetry publishing is not going to be particularly commercially viable, given that the total value of UK poetry sales has gone from £8.4m in 2009 to £6.7m last year. Mind you, Salt seems to have been particularly severely affected if you compare its fall of 25% last year to the overall 15.9% drop. In one sense, it could be argued that Salt's decision is good news for Faber, Bloodaxe, Carcanet, Shearsman and all those Saboteur shortlisted indies, since it means that there are fewer big fish swimming round a shrinking pool.
However, it would be a serious error to equate the demise of a single publisher with the overall state of health of poetry. Even Salt director Chris Hamilton-Emery has noted the "massive increase in the number of poetry publications coming out", and he's right. Jim Bennet's extremely useful Poetry Kit website lists more than 400 UK poetry publishers, and while the list is broad (it includes Faber) and perhaps a bit out of date (it also includes Salt) it shows the range of publishers around. As for the US, a quick look at the SPD site indicates that the situation there isn't much different.
Most of the smaller presses are amateur, in the strict sense of the word. They are often run by poets, for poets, and on a shoestring budget with the noble, and possibly unattainable, financial aim of breaking even. Frequently their publications stretch the definition of "book" to the limit, with gatefold pamphlets, tiny chapbooks, CDs, poster poems and even poems folded into matchboxes featuring on their lists. The publishers generally do the typesetting, design and sewing themselves. These presses belong to a DIY tradition that runs back through the Gestetner and Xerox revolution if the 60s and 70s back to William Blake and earlier.
And these are just the traditional print publishers. There are, according to the Southbank Centre Poetry Library, "hundreds of thousands" of dedicated poetry websites out there, presenting poems and poets through the full range of digital media, including video, audio, animated text, ebooks and interactive hypertext.
The Poetry Kit also advertises regular reading events; there are more than 250 open mic events listed in the UK alone, not counting festivals and one-off readings. For many younger poets, open mics and poetry slams represent their first interaction with an audience – their first "publication". In fact, some on both sides of the spoken word/print divide see the oral poetry movement as one of the biggest threats to print publication. After all, who needs to have a book out when you can perform to enthusiastic live audiences every week of the year? It's enough to dismay the lovers of the printed artefact.
I might have felt that way myself, but the experience of reviewing Rhyming Thunder, an anthology of slam and performance poetry from Burning Eye, one publisher which hasn't made it on to the Poetry Kit list yet, changed my mind. Here are a loose group of young poetry performers who are clearly pleased to find themselves captured in the pages of a "real" book. Indeed, some of them even have single-author collections out. A number also have their own web presences. At what might be considered the other end of the spectrum, Robert Pinsky announced just the other day that he finally has a website of his own. On Twitter.
So, where some see poetry as a dying art, I see it as an early and enthusiastic adopter of new technologies, partly because it has to be. Why? Well, if selling what you're making isn't going to make anyone rich, but you want to share it with those people who are interested, then you have to work out the cheapest way to do so. And right now it looks like that way is a mix of online, performance and print, with each supporting the other in a new model of publishing, one in which the printed collection is no longer the only accepted mode of publishing but remains a key part of the package. And given the apparent reluctance of most bookshops to stock verse, they'll be sold mainly online and at events. It may not be big business, but that's not what it's setting out to be.
In 1923, Virginia Woolf hand-set the type for the Hogarth Press edition of Eliot's The Waste Land. The edition was limited to 470 copies and I doubt it made much money, almost certainly not enough to pay for the time and effort invested in it. It was reviewed in the Manchester Guardian on 31 October that same year, a review that ends with the words "so much waste paper". The reviewer, Charles Powell, probably thought that Eliot's "mad medley" represented the death of poetry. But poetry's a resilient beast and current reports of its impending demise will, I'm sure, prove to be somewhat exaggerated.