The Unpublished: Getting Your Debut Book of Poetry Published
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Twenty-five years ago a poet named Archie paid a vanity press, Dorrance Publishing Company in Pittsburgh, to publish his first book, “Ommateum.” His short collection of terse, evocative poems did not do well at all. In five years only 16 copies were sold.
Today Archie has published nearly 30 books and won many prestigious awards including two National Book Awards. His name, A.R. Ammons. Ammons died in 2001 at age 75. Critic Harold Bloom wrote of him that no other American Poet is more likely to become “a classic.” According to W.W. Norton Ammon’s debut book, “Ommateum,” has already attained that status.
For those poets who have recently been published or are still awaiting the opportunity, this anecdote could either be uplifting or disheartening. Some authors are not recognized early in their career. Even if they hawk their wares by using self-publishers will their poetry stand out? The tastes and attitudes of readers often determine what the poet will write. Ted Kooser, former Poet Laureate and author of twelve poetry collections spoke about his debut book, “Official Entry Blank,” published in 1969 by University of Nebraska Press.
“My first book, which seemed to me at the time to be so wonderful, is, thirty-five years later, an embarrassment. Of the poems published there I might find one or two I would bring forward into a tombstone collected-poems volume, should there be one, but I’m not even sure about that,” he says. “But of course, it was an important step.”
Quincy Troupe, who published seven poetry collections admits his first book, “Embryo” wasn’t perfect. But he was thrilled when it was released in 1972. “I have never been ashamed of “Embryo,” he says, “because I realized it was only the seed poetry of what was to come, which I hoped could be better. In poetry I write today, I still draw from some of the best, most rooted, and truest elements of the poetry in that [first] book.”
Brenda Hillman’s debut, “White Dress,” (1985, Wesleyan Univ. Press) appeared ten years after she had written most of the poems in it. “My poems certainly went in many other directions over the years; I don’t think people should disclaim their early work but see it in the context of the time and their circumstances. Besides, there are poets whose first books are actually the most interesting.”
And that is what it’s all about. This is the one major impetus for unpublished poets to keep writing. Publishers are always looking for undiscovered talent. Hopefully there’ll be a growing number of them.
Graywolf Press, an independent publisher based in St. Paul publishes nine to ten books of poems each year. Graywolf published Lanis Everson’s debut, “Everything Preserved,” in September of 2006. Everson is an 80 year old poet who was a significant figure in the Berkeley Renaissance. His group disbanded in 1961 and he stopped writing for over 40 years, until he was persuaded to get published this year.
Susan B.A. Somers-Willett whose debut, “Roam,” won the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry. She submitted her manuscript to more than 100 contests over a period of seven years! She says the waiting was to her advantage. “The wait, however frustrating or full of dark hours, proved a time of exploration and self-investigation.”
For all of you unpublished poets waiting for that debut, the experience will change your lives. You will develop a new perspective on the business of writing. The work of a writer is never finished. After that moment of celebration, holding your first finished book in your hands, the celebration lasts a short time. It’s on to the next project and the next triumph. The best of luck to all aspiring authors.