Starting a small press or little magazine is easy enough. You look around, you see all this great work that isn't being read, and so you put your shoulder to the wheel and show 'em how it's done!
If you're lucky, your labor of love is very exciting for a year or two, and then . . . well, and then you're broke, all your submissions read like the same lame-o workshop poem, and all your friends hate you for not publishing their work. In short, you find out that keeping a small press or little magazine going after the initial flush of excitement is not so easy. In fact, it's super hard.
Though there's something to be said for the publishing comets too beautiful to live, more often than not the bright-eyed ardor of small press youth fizzles into baleful middle age and retreat. It's sad, but not altogether unexpected given the economic and social realities of the literary world.
The participants in this weekend's Boulder Small Press Festival know this is the way it is. They began as zealous upstarts themselves, but now--a decade or more on for some of them--they're the miraculous exceptions to the Fizzle Rule. They've persevered past their sophomore slumps (and even, in some cases, their post-post-post graduate slumps) to become the standards the new zealous upstarts try to emulate.
What these presses have done during the poetry publishing revolution of the past fifteen years is to constantly ask what poetry is. Is it what Norton and FSG say it is? Is it what Def Poetry Jam says it is? The Poets Laureate? Or is it something else? They've allowed themselves to be continually surprised by the answers. It's negative capability in action. Presses like Ugly Duckling chase the ineffable spirit of poetry through rhyme, blank verse, prose, erasure, typography--whatever manifestations they catch a glimpse of it in.
For some people, this can be confusing--some people want a poem to look, sound, and read in a consistent way. But for readers like myself, I love the chase. I love not knowing if what I'm reading is any good or not. And if a small press is any good, there's always a risk that it's going to publish something you'll hate.
This confusion is the same thing I love about poetry as it manifests itself in digital media. Though you could see the online poetry world as a threat to the small press world, I think of them as correspondents. They're both constantly in flux. Are these poems? What are we supposed to do about these live online readings at HTMLGiant? Can a text message be a poem? A voice mail? A tweet?
The discussion of poetry through digital media confounds in the same way. What will you miss if you ignore the web and just wait to read the next poet profiled in the New Yorker? Well, to name a few things, you'll miss the strange wonder that is Al Filreis Twitter feed, the alternate universe of ubuweb, and the continually maxed outrage and hype of all those poets' Facebook pages (has, as Craig Santos Perez put it, facebook killed the blogger star?)
For a lot of readers and literary pontificators, poetry's lack of cohesion and sense of unified mission is a sign of rot. I disagree. I think it's a glorious confusion, and I'm thrilled to be headed to Boulder's Small Press Festival this weekend to further mix up my mind.
Follow Travis Nichols on Twitter: www.twitter.com/travisjnichols