In 1912, Harriet Monroe founded Poetry magazine in order to give poets "a chance to be heard in their own place, without the limitations imposed by a popular magazine." Monroe was a pioneer in her time; today, she'd be part of a growing crowd of editors determined to give poets "a chance to be heard" above the cultural din and harsh thrashings of the poetry marketplace, where only a handful of poets can be counted on to sell. It is that effort—to find new voices—that keeps many a literary journal going, and it is one of the important sources for book editors looking for the next Louise Glück or Kevin Young. [Last week, the NBCC poetry award went to Troy Jollimore's Tom Thomson in Purgatory, a book published by the small literary journal Margie.]
Christian Wiman, the current editor of Poetry, says, "The most important thing for us is discovery—discovering new young writers that are out there." In fact, while Poetry is one of the most prestigious magazines in America, three out of 10 poets in its March issue have never appeared in the magazine before. Jill Bialosky, executive editor and poetry editor at Norton (and herself a poet), professes enthusiasm for a number of well-known literary magazines—American Poetry Review, Triquarterly, Ploughshares, Yale Review, Gettysburg Review, Paris Review, Kenyon Review, Colorado Review, in addition to Poetry—as well as newer mags like Open City and Tin House. "I read a poet whose work I discovered in a magazine called Lyric and fell in love with it and wrote to the writer asking to see her new book. We'll see what happens."
Ed Ochester, editor of the Pitt poetry series, which championed Billy Collins years ago, has a slightly different perspective, because he also edits a magazine of his own, 5:AM: "I've discovered people by publishing them in the magazine, and I've invited them to send manuscripts for consideration for the press. When I'm reading for the press, I might ask them to submit a particular poem to the magazine."
In one instance, publication in a literary journal led directly to a contract from a book publisher. Johannes Göransson and Joyelle McSweeney, editors of Action Books, spotted "funky, wild poems" by the Korean poet Kim Hyesson in the journal Circumference. Action offered Choi a contract for a book of Hyesson's selected poems.
Book editors and publicists use magazines as a means of publicizing their authors' books. Laura Moriarty of SPD, one of the only distributors to carry many of the micro-presses that publish poetry, notes, "Literary magazines are a super-important expression of the community." Many people in the poetry business look to magazines to help generate and gauge the enthusiasm of the passionate poetry readership. Monica Fambrough, publicist for Wave Books, a new, all-poetry press (it recently packed a bus full of poets and sent them touring across the country), says, "I'm glad to see that a poet is published in a wide variety of magazines. It shows that the author has a commitment to interacting with the contemporary poetry community and that they have an audience. That can lead to someone buying a book."
Given that poetry fosters tight-knit communities, if not big sales, it's not surprising that many literary magazines also have book imprints, which publish books that match or extend that magazine's aesthetic. The magazines help sell the books, and the books help sell the magazines, as Rebecca Wolff, publisher and editor of Fence and Fence Books—among the most well-known venues for experimental literature—says: "For us, it's mostly about visibility—the liveliness of the journal has helped to give our press a profile that it wouldn't have otherwise had. And we can advertise the books in the journal."
The venerable Ochester largely disagrees: "It's a promotional tool to a very small degree." Timothy Donnelly, poetry and reviews editor at the Boston Review, shies away from connecting notions of book sales to magazine editorship: "I have never thought that an appearance in Boston Review might help a poet move product per se, although I have thought we might introduce readers to a writer with whom they were previously unfamiliar, and if this leads to a purchase, that's terrific, but I don't think of it as the objective."
Given the small space allotted to reviews of poetry in newspapers and general interest magazines, literary magazines are the principal venue that poetry presses can count on to cover their books. "I'm sure it helps in the long run to have books reviewed in smaller publications. They often do not come out in a timely fashion, but the shelf life of a book of poems is longer than other genres," says Bialosky. Poetry has a lively criticism section, the birthplace of many a blurb. According to Wiman, "We have the space to review so few books, so a review can have a significant effect on a book's sales." These reviews also get right to the audience that might buy the book under consideration, reinforcing the idea that the poetry community is self-sustaining; its support—the buzz generated within the pages of literary magazines—is usually essential to the success of a book of poems.
"I like reading the thoughtful reviews of poetry in magazines like Poetry, Boston Review or Bookforum," says Bialosky. "But I'll take a review of a book of poetry anywhere I can get it." The reviews that Donnelly runs in Boston Review are particularly prized: "Ideally our full-length reviews will raise an issue or two pertinent to more than just the book at hand, and will help the reader to become a more sensitive and careful and contented reader of poetry in general."
More than anything else, however, literary magazines are a boon to poets themselves. "They give you the initial map of the world you're looking at," says Brent Cunningham, a poet and operations director at SPD. "I think of them as introductions to the literary world."
With poetry books seldom if ever commanding a huge readership, publication in a literary magazine is all the more important. As Wiman points out, "Most poetry books sell 1,000 copies if you're lucky. If you get a poem into a magazine like Poetry or Boston Review, you're going to reach 50,000 readers." When it comes to poetry, the true relationship between magazines and books is hard to characterize. As Bialosky notes, "It takes time for a book of poems to establish itself and its audience. It builds in mysterious ways."