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There is no money in poetry...

Food For Thought

So wrote poet Robert Graves, but then he went on to say there is no poetry in money, either. Only the most naive, inexperienced poet expects to make his fortune through his published verses. About all that can be hoped for is a little prize money gleaned through contests, or perhaps a small check from Reader’s Digest for a particularly clever snippet of rhyming wit. Other than that, most poetry is published at the poet’s own expense and purchased mainly by the poet’s friends and relatives.
For a good many years, the majority of published poetry came through what was known as the vanity presses; publishers who would publish anything for a price. Generally, these presses printed exactly what was submitted to them, with neither editing nor promotion included. In other words, the poet paid to have his poems put into book form and ended up with a garage full of books to sell door to door, or use as Christmas and birthday gifts for the next 12 years.
From my earliest childhood, I was in love with books. Any books; story books, comic books, cookbooks, picture books– you name it. If it comprised a bunch of pages fastened together and enclosed by a cover bearing a title, it qualified for the designation Book. To my mind, Book was the destination I aimed for as I wrote my little stories, drew my little pictures, labored over my little poems. Only when my brainchild was safely enclosed in a Book did the creative process feel complete.
Later, when I studied art in college, I was gratified to learn most of my instructors considered the viewer to be the final step in the creative process. Exhibiting the paintings I created validated me as an artist. I later came to understand the same was true of the written word. Only when my written ideas had been read by others was the creative process brought to its necessary conclusion. And that required, to my mind, that magical vehicle known as the Book.
In my adult years, I no longer attempted to make my own books by joining pages with staples and Scotch tape but tended to settle for blank books and artist’s sketchbooks which I painstakingly lettered and illustrated by hand. Once I discovered my husband had a copy machine in his office, I turned to the typewriter and loose-leaf binders, satisfied it was possible to turn out multiple, more or less identical, copies of cookbooks, poetry and short stories to give to friends and relatives. Never happy with the limitations of the typewriter, I was delighted to discover the options available to me on a computer. The many choices offered for typefaces and sizes were exciting, but the most gratifying feature was that little button identified as “justified.” Now I could print pages that looked exactly like the pages of even the most expensive commercially published books.
When a friend asked if I could reproduce a small book of poems her father made for her during her childhood, I taught myself, through trial and error, a few tricks that enabled me to turn out a reasonable facsimile of her little hand-lettered book. (The original had been hand-lettered and illustrated in a small blank book, probably one of the then-popular autograph books girls cherished.) I tore apart an old French textbook to learn how to construct and attach a hard cover for the book, and knew I had crossed some sort of threshold.
Since that time, I improved and refined my skills and developed methods for printing and binding booklets of my stories, poems and essays to share with friends and relatives, and have even sold a few to strangers who discovered them by word of mouth. I’ve conducted a few workshop sessions to teach others how to format, print and bind their own paperback books and booklets using their home computers. While my methods might be considered tedious or time-consuming compared to having them printed and bound commercially, they save a lot of expense when you want only a few copies, the cost of materials is negligible, and the results are a unique and personal gift.
Now imagine my surprise when I discovered Emily Dickinson, who wrote in the mid-1800s, did much the same thing as I did. Having commercially published only about 10 poems during her lifetime, she self-published about 800 of her poems in the form of 40 manuscript booklets, copies of which she bound and sent to more than 100 of her friends and acquaintances over many years. Emily has me beat, hands down, with her 800 poems (and most of them no doubt far better than mine) but she didn’t have access to computers or copy machines and must have written each copy by hand. I doubt I’d have had the patience.