The Farrar, Straus and Giroux Poetry Blog

April 08, 2009

Q&A with Ron Hogan of Beatrice.com

Ron Hogan, for years with his MediaBistro blog, Galley Cat, has kept us all informed on the publishing industry's goings-on and ups and downs. This month, with his site, Beatrice, which is more directly engaged with contemporary literature and poetry, Ron is setting out to feature a collection of poems a day (last week he featured Farrar, Straus and Giroux's own poet Carl Phillips, whose collection Speak Low came out this month). Read my interview with Ron below, for his insights into topics such as the future of poetry.

--Angie Venezia

FSG: Tell us about Beatrice.

Ron Hogan: Beatrice began in the mid-1990's as the convergence of two trends in my life: First, a few friends thought it might be cool to launch a "Generation X" zine, and, second, I'd seen the first article in Wired about Netscape and the World Wide Web and realized I wanted to do a web page. The zine lasted one issue before everybody realized they loved the idea of doing a zine more than doing a zine, and because I was working in a bookstore at the time, I eventually hit on the notion of interviewing writers as they passed through town on their book tours.

That Q&A format lasted, off and on, through three years of freelance dotcom work in California, two years at amazon, and another four years of freelancing in New York City, until my paid writing gigs began to crowd out the time available to do the kind of interviewing I was doing effectively. The site was almost in danger of dying out completely until I switched to the blog format near the end of 2003; ironically, once I was posting to the site everyday, my readership grew much faster than it ever had before.

FSG: What is the mission behind Beatrice, and what is Beatrice's relationship to poetry?

RH: "Mission" sounds a bit grandiose, but if I had to pick one, I suppose it would be the phrase I've been using as the site's tagline since shortly after it became a blog: "introducing readers to writers." I'm the first to admit the criteria for that is purely personal and idiosyncratic; I focus on the books and writers that I find interesting, and I hope other people will find them interesting, too.

I hesitate to make any great claims about Beatrice's "relationship to poetry." It's one of those parts of our literary landscape, like short stories and international literature in translation, I'd like to see receive more attention, and I do what I can to make that happen. Without a website, I'd probably just be "handselling" the poets I admire to my friends.

FSG: As a publishing industry and book blogger, how do you think the current, strained climate of layoffs and industry shake-ups will affect poetry that is published?

RH: It will either have absolutely no effect, or it will gut poetry completely, and I'm betting on the former.

Poetry is easily the most marginal facet of mainstream commercial publishing. I haven't researched this very thoroughly, and would gladly be proven wrong, but I'm struggling to think of anyone besides the late Mattie Stepanek who got on the New York Times Bestseller Lists in recent memory with a volume of poetry. (Certain poets, including Mark Doty, Mary Karr, and Kathleen Norris, have achieved bestseller status with their memoirs.) And you'll notice how, when America's literary cultural class gears itself up to talk about poetry every April, it never talks about Mattie Stepanek, even though he was at least as good a poet as, if not better than, let's say, Alice Walker.

At New York publishing companies, working on poetry collections is probably the purest labor of love the industry has to offer, and the advances, print runs and so forth are minimal compared to the most other types of books. And, sure, you could run the numbers and say, "Hey, look at all the money we'd save if we cut these books out," but taking poetry away from editors would be like---oh like pulling all the water coolers out of the building. Whatever you'd save financially, it's not worth the hit to your staff morale when you take away the projects that give them that sense of doing something culturally significant.

The independent publishers, meanwhile, are already acutely aware of just how economically marginal poetry is to what they do--and they don't care. They publish poetry because they love it, and they're going to keep publishing as long as they can afford to stay in business. (And though independent publishers may be at risk in this economic climate, publishing poetry isn't what put them there.)

FSG: I'm sure you receive galleys daily from small presses and publishers trying to get the word out about their latest poets. Which presses/publishers are coming out with the best poetry content these days, and which poets are you excited about at the moment?

RH: I actually don't get very many collections to review unless I ask somebody for them specifically. I don't see that as especially alarming: First, publicity resources are stretched so thin for ALL books at presses large and small that if I were a publicist, I wouldn't send a poetry galley out unless I was nearly positive it was going to get attention or hoping for a spot in a National Poetry Month round-up; second, Aprils aside, I haven't done as much as I could on the site to make it obvious that I'm ready and will to discover great poetry.

I'm actually only just beginning to refamiliarize myself with what's been published lately, so I don't feel especially comfortable signaling out any presses, but I would probably pick Gary Snyder as my favorite poet working today. And last fall I tried to put together an event that would bring together David Hinton and David Young, who had both published translations of classical Chinese poetry; I was always a bit regretful that I was never quite able to make that work, as I think it would've been a fascinating hour's conversation.

FSG: Why did you decide to feature a book of poems a day on Beatrice for National Poetry Month? Are you discovering that to be a daunting task?

RH: This isn't the first year I've set myself this goal, although it's the first one in awhile where I feel like I'm going to make it--well, apart from cutting a few corners on weekends to talk about other websites that are celebrating National Poetry Month. There's no huge motivation for this doing this beyond my own interest in poetry.

I will say that from the moment I started doing this, back in 2004, I was pleasantly surprised by how much you could find online about poets if you did a little digging, and as much as I enjoy introducing short poems to Beatrice readers, I'm equally glad to be able to collate some of the other information that's floating around out there, and maybe encourage readers to search out more.

FSG: Are there other blogs or websites doing exciting things to celebrate National Poetry Month that some of our readers might not know yet?

RH: I'd actually like to call attention to some sites that are out there celebrating poetry every day of the year, not just in April: site like No Tell Motel, which showcases a different poet every week, or The Best American Poetry blog. Poetry Daily showcases a new poetry collection every day, and Verse Daily takes its cues from the literary magazines (many of which are also online).

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