The Farrar, Straus and Giroux Poetry Blog

April 13, 2009

Q&A with Don Selby of Poetry Daily

Today I'd like to share my recent discussion with Don Selby, co-editor and co-founder of Poetry Daily. I've been a fan to the site since 2001, and it's held my attention first as a reader and a student, then as a teacher, and now as a publicist (and still a reader) who works with many of the new poetry titles at FSG. From the weekly newsletter with updates on recent articles on poetry, the run-down on poets they will feature during the week, to the contest and conference notices, I've found PD to be a valuable (and surprisingly well-designed, non-overwhelming) resource. In the Q&A below, Don shares his insights into the making of one of the best (and first) online-only resources for contemporary poetry.---Alyson Sinclair


FSG: Can you tell us a little about how Poetry Daily got its start?

Don Selby: My co-editor and co-founder, Diane Boller, and I were working in a very different sort of publishing then---law publishing (for a company that is now called Lexis Publishing. Diane and the third co-founder of Poetry Daily, Rob Anderson one day presented some new technology ideas ("bulletin boards" back then, if you can believe it, but also the nascent Web) to a management group I was part of, which before long got me thinking about things other than new tools for lawyers and judges.It seemed to me that the web might help poetry publishers with thin (to say the least) marketing budgets reach the always-suspected-but-never-quite-recovered audience for contemporary poetry. Equally, it might help readers find out what was being published---not so easy in those days, even in communities with good bookstores. Shortly, thereafter, I walked into Diane's office for the first time and saw a volume of W.S. Merwin peeking out from behind Liability of Corporate Officers and Directors, or some such. We went to lunch, I sketched the basic idea for Poetry Daily, we began exchanging poems we liked, and before long we were using off-time on business trips to sound out editors and publishers like Joseph Parisi at Poetry, Peter Davison and Wen Stephenson at The Atlantic, and Jonathan Galassi at FSG, about the idea. We started working on it in earnest ten months or so before out launch on April 7, 1997. 

FSG: How has the site changed in the past twelve years? What features have you added? What have you shifted away from?

DS: The design--the physical, graphical look of the site--has changed quite a bit, of course, along with the tools we use to publish the site, though we have worked hard with our designer, Jim Gibson (of Gibson Design Associates) to maintain a consistent look and feel. Our goal all these years, in keeping with our mission of bringing publishers and editors together with readers in order to help make contemporary poetry part of daily life, has been to keep the site simple and easy to use. The web has become a complex place since we began but its greatest virtue, to us, continues to be uncomplicated, free, democratic access.

All by way of saying that our features have remained pretty constant as well, providing selections of poetry and prose-about-poetry from magazine and book publishers large and small, along with current links to news and reviews from around the poetry world. Early on we did more original features than we do now. For example, we published a comprehensive original survey of current books about poetry writing, by the poet (and Shenandoah editor), R.T. Smith; an extensive feature highlighting Ecco Press's Essential Poets series; a month of poems written by David Lehman and sent to us each night for publication the next day, when he was engaged in the work that became The Daily Mirror, and an interactive feature that allowed readers to add lines to Albert Goldbarth's; Iowa Review poem "Library." But the point has always been to draw attention to what editors and publishers and poets are doing, not to present original work in the same way they do. That has kept us pretty simple.

FSG: I imagine your audience has grown wildly since 97, what sort of feedback have you received from your various visitors to the site and subscribers to the newsletter? Have any particular comments struck you as either highly rewarding or annoying?

DS: Yes, our audience grew rapidly from the start---the audience was there, and hungry, as we guessed, and from early on we heard from them, and from far and wide (my favorite was a note from a woman on a research ship in the Antarctic, when she read a poem on PD by a friend, thanking us for keeping her in touch with things). There have been some wonderful moments. I always think first about an unexpected onslaught of angry notes when we features Ron Padgett's "Nothing in That Drawer" (from his book with Godine, New & Selected Poems)----a sonnet that repeats the title for 14 lines; offensively, it seems, to a great many devotee's of the form. And on the other hang, a rush of positive, you-go-girl!-type notes from women readers when we features Kim Addonizio's "What Do Women Want" ("I want a red dress. / I want it flimsy and cheap, / I want it too tight, / I want to war it / until someone tears it off me . . . " (from Another Chicago Magazine). The most rewarding notes, as you'll guess, come from readers who report that they are doing just what we'd hoped---discovering poets new to them and then buying the books or subscribing to the magazine where more of their work can be found.

FSG: Is it true that you are not a poet yourself? This makes you a rare specimen in the poetry world as someone who neither teaches nor writes poetry, but is doing great things to help promote it. Are people often surprised when you tell them this?

DS: True! Neither is Diane. My first and last efforts were for (mandatory) submission to my junior high school annual literary rag. Diane confesses to no attempts to date. Our most valuable contribution to poetry, surely, is not writing it.

And, yes, it does seem to surprise, sometimes confuse, some people---from poets to publishers to editors to grant panels. It makes sense. We're hard to place, now that so much poetry publishing is done by people who are poets first. We're publishers first, and devoted readers.

FSG: Everyone is talking about the loss of print media these days, and in the book world this means fewer reviewers---especially for non-commercial titles. Since most poetry titles are automatically viewed as non-commercial (as in unlikely to sell more than a few thousand copies), we're seeing less and less poetry book reviews. Are there are web sites, bloggers, etc. that you think are doing exciting, intelligent things to keep the dialog going online?

DS: I have a feeling a great deal is going on online when you consider not only efforts dedicated to reviewing like Contemporary Poetry Review, but the traditional print publications that are making serious commitments to online publishing, such as the Kenyon Review and Iowa Review, not to mention publications like Jacket, which was online from the Web's Ur days. Bloggers, of course, are legion by now. Silliman's Blog is one I always think of---he has been at it for a long time now. It's becoming a serious challenge to keep up.

It's clear that something important will be lost if serious reviewing continues to decline; and blogging, even by serious people, seems to me very different. But, from the poetry publisher's standpoint---wanting to sell as many books (print or digital) as possible---the most exciting development must be the rise of online social networking. Even before the newspaper and magazine industries began their decline, it must have been tough to get one's book reviewed. And the spark ignited in a reader by a review might be counted on to spread by that longer-for thing, word-of-mouth, only so far. Now, word-of-mouth is suddenly possible on a new scale, and all but instantly, thanks to online social networking. Friends sharing with friends writing that moves them is always the best bet for passing the fever along in a way that results in a sale, it seems to me. Serious, informed and formal, evocative reviews can start it of course. But it doesn't matter how this sort of enthusiasm gets started---reviews, blogs, a lucky find browsing a bookstore or library shelf, "Today's Poem" on Poetry Daily---social networking has changed the subsequent possibilities.

FSG: I'm sure you see many literary journals and online sites as the Co-Editor for Poetry Daily. Any favorites for finding exciting emerging poets?

DS: As to poetry resources generally, I visit Poets.org (Academy of American Poets) quite often, I realize now you ask. And The Poetry Foundation site is very rich. As to sources, print and/or online, for emerging poets specifically, the perennial editorial task for us it to try not to have favorites in looking for authentic contemporary poetry to share with our readers. This doesn't mean that we will select something from every source, needless to say. But is does mean that we work hard at taking a fresh approach to our reading every year.

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