The underlying assumption—oft-shared throughout the book industry—is that poetry is somehow infirm relative to other genres. The recent essay by Poetry Foundation president John Barr in the journal Poetry called for making American poetry more relevant to American audiences, while suggesting that poets themselves were to blame for poetry's small market share. The ensuing debate, filled with anger and schadenfreude, quickly ascended to the New Yorker and the New York Times. Admittedly, it is difficult to earn one's bread by way of poetry, but these days, the same can be said of almost any literary endeavor.
The practical business of poetry is no different from the rest of the book business, except that the expectations are smaller all around. Poetry publishers could benefit from some tutelage from larger houses, but then, since models are often smaller than real life, perhaps poetry is a good model for the larger industry to follow.
Poetry is an indicator species for the survivability of literary reading, and while some argue that poetry needs to be more “entertaining” and accessible if it is to survive, we at Copper Canyon believe that sustainable expectations—and risky books—are what can invigorate publishing. It's difficult to make a movie or create merchandise based on a poem, but rather than seeing this as poetry's weakness—as the majority of the publishing industry seems inclined to do—we see it as poetry's strength.
In a marketplace where a poetry “bestseller” may sell 5,000 copies, the day-to-day business of publishing poetry can feel tedious and disheartening. But in the face of ambivalence, it's necessary to invest time and effort toward actively finding audiences to match with books. Occasionally unexpected titles—small books of integrity—make the biggest splash and provide the most nourishment.
Last fall, Copper Canyon published its first Arabic translation, So What by Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali. Taha was relatively unknown in the States, working most of his life as the proprietor of a souvenir shop in Nazareth. We discovered him through a reference in a poem by Shirley Kaufman, and approached Taha's translator and publisher in Israel. The publisher, initially content with the book's sales, declined our invitation to publish an American edition of Taha's work. But eventually he came to understand the appeal and impact Taha's poetry might have on a wider audience and agreed to the project.
Publishing So What was all-consuming and challenging, from finding funding for the project and locating an Arabic typesetter and proofreader, to dealing with the confiscation of the typesetter's computer in Israel and the constant communication across 10 time zones. The struggles (and opportunities) continued in marketing and publicity when Taha was invited to read at the 2006 Dodge Poetry Festival, and we set about planning a brief U.S. tour for him last July, at the height of the recent war between Israel and Lebanon. When a missile landed down the street from Taha's shop, we finally had to stop and ask if a tour was even possible.
It was then that the book took on even more significance. It was not an exaggeration to say that publishing poetry felt necessary, that publishing the beautifully captured details of one man's existence and singular thoughts—the point of poetry—was one of the most relevant and useful things anyone could do with his or her time. The tour did happen, and Taha read to thousands of people at a poetry festival, an urban church, a rural auditorium and a small bookstore. So What was reviewed widely, Taha was interviewed for a feature on the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, and to date the book has sold more than 7,500 copies.
What made this book work? There was no extravagant co-op arrangement, no major ad campaign—just the rich translation of one man's voice. We followed the human instinct toward empathy and understanding, and put a human face on a political conflict.
Taha Muhammad Ali's story is not unique. Other books (at Copper Canyon and elsewhere) have grown from similar passions. Sometimes those books don't work out in the marketplace, but when they do, they sustain the art. And they might even sustain an industry.
|Michael Wiegers and Angela Garbes are executive editor and publicist, respectively, of Copper Canyon Press.|