Fiona McCrae On The Afterlife Of Poems
I love the afterlife of publishing, and poetry has a particularly potent afterlife. As publishers, we see a book from the manuscript’s first draft to the finished pages bound between covers. In over twenty years in publishing, I have never lost the thrill of seeing the finished book for the first time. And if the e-mails (“such-and-such title has ARRIVED!”) and cries of excitement that reverberate around the office are any measure, my younger colleagues at Graywolf feel the same way on the day a box of new books is opened. A day or so after the book appears on our desks, it arrives at the author’s house, and he emails his (usually delightedly happy) reaction. Then (we hope) come the reviews.
Fiction tends to be reviewed close to the publication date; it sells well up front, and there is a lot of hooplah and attention. In any given month, it is normally the fiction—and certainly prose—that is selling the most copies. But poetry travels a different path, and must be judged over the long term. Reviews for a poetry book can still appear twelve to eighteen months after the book is first released, and all the time, the book’s slow and steady sales continue.
After about two years, the first chapter in the poetry book's life is done: sales have established their rhythm, the reviews are in, and there are no more prizes the book can be eligible for. At this point, arguably, the real test begins. Has the book registered? Are people reading it? One way in which a poetry collection's afterlife shows is in permission requests. We get about twenty-five permission requests a week, with about twenty-four of those for poetry. Poems within collections are discrete units; we never get requests for a single page in a novel, for example, in the way we get requests for a poem that occurs on a single page in a collection.
Permission is often requested for the poems to appear in anthologies, of which there are many: death, work in translation, work in a particular style, Robert Pinsky’s Favorite Poem Project, the grand canonical Norton anthologies, etc. Sometimes a composer wants to set the poem to music; sometimes it’s Garrison Keillor’s office requesting permission (usually after the fact!) for the poem to be read on the radio. The internet, too, is gathering momentum as a medium particularly suited to the wider distribution of poetry. We often get requests from the Academy of American Poets, Poetry Daily, and the Poetry Foundation for online use of our poets’ work. Regulating the use of poems on the internet is turning out to be a whole other, fascinating, conversation. But the single unit of the poem, making its way in the world, without the rest of the book, but perhaps drawing audiences back towards the wider body of work, seems like a journey to be encouraged.
You can find the second half of Fiona McCrae's mediation on the afterlife of poetry here.