Wednesday, April 30, 2014

“The question of publishing is always the question of facing embarrassment”

In an interview the Icelandic poet Sjon says, “The question of publishing is always the question of facing embarrassment.”

Sjon published his first book as a teenager and recently came out with a collection called Complete Poems. The interviewer asked about the decision to include those early poems. Sjon replied:

My first poems were written when I was fifteen and published in the summer when I was sixteen, so [my first book] is really something that was written by a fifteen-year-old teenager. I actually decided to print them all, to just let them out there, because you can find them in the library. … [W]hy don’t I just acknowledge … them[?] … I am not sure I would have been so relaxed twelve years ago or so. Today, now, I am approaching middle age, so I’ve got no problem with that because the question of publishing is always the question of facing embarrassment.

The Sjon quote puts me in mind of those who advise writers not to send their work out too quickly. You might not realize it’s bad, these advisors say, so keep it back until you’re sure. There’s nothing you’ll regret so much as seeing embarrassing poems in print. Bad poems will haunt you!

Hmf. When a publisher chooses your work, they are usually choosing it over the work of others. Publishing is a lot of work - and not much reward. So if they like something trust that they like it, that they saw a value in it, something worth their trouble and expense. If you decide that, after all, the poem was lousy, well, so what. Lots of lousy stuff seems to get into print. Maybe the publisher put it between covers (or into pixels) for extra-literary reasons - because you paid them to, because you’re their friend and they didn’t want to hurt you, because you have a big name they hoped would help with marketing, because reasons.

A poet’s collected poems rarely includes everything they’ve published. Even a Complete Poems will exclude poems. I recently read through all of Alicia Ostriker’s poetry books yet did not find a poem I copied out from an anthology a few years ago. I copied out a couple poems from her books, too, but clearly Ostriker did not agree with me that the poem in the obscure anthology was superior to so many she chose over it for her collections. Was she embarrassed by the poem after its publication? Should Ostriker’s opinion of her poem (or her publisher’s opinion) influence mine?

source: Gulf Coast: a journal of literature and fine arts v.24, issue 1, winter/spring 2012