Friday, April 13, 2012

BlazeVOX vs. the NEA, or: Ezra Pound's Shilling

Those of you residing in the little teacup that is the contemporary American poetry scene may have noticed something of a tempest a while ago, when the National Endowment for the Arts issued a statement saying that it would no longer consider books published by BlazeVOX legitimate items on the curricula vitae of writers seeking grants.  In the eyes of the N.E.A., BlazeVOX was nothing but a vanity press.  There's a sliver of truth to the charge, in that BlazeVOX had, in some limited instances, asked authors to fund a portion of publication costs — but this didn't apply to all books, and not all authors asked for funding ended up having to contribute in order to be published.  The situation is complicated, really, and Anis Shivani has done a service to all of us teacup-dwellers  in publishing an interview with BlazeVOX's Geoffrey Gatza at the Huffington Post.

A more energetic inquirer than I would want to ask, and answer, a number of questions arising from the situation. Should all BlazeVOX authors be tarred with the same brush?  Doesn't the now-common fee paying contest model of publication amount to a kind of subsidy publishing system, since all authors submitting to the contest pay a small fee, collectively covering the cost of publication?  Does it matter that Tennyson, T.S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, Walt Whitman, and a host of others were first published under what amount to vanity press conditions?  Should decisions about financial matters really be taken into account when judging art, or is this just a way to make the N.E.A.'s job easier?  Should we look into the way universities sometimes subsidize the publication costs of their faculty?

I'm not the energetic inquirer we need.  But I do want to note that a simple comparison of BlazeVOX's publishing model with the model of Elkin Mathews—who published many modern greats a century ago—reveals that, technological differences aside, the models are essentially the same.  Here's BlazeVOX's Gatza describing how his press works:
I would like to make it known that in our offer to publish books with a co-operative donation, if the author did not want to participate in this we also made an offer to publish their work as an ebook in Kindle and EPUB and PDF format and have it available on and iBooks. And if that was still not acceptable, we could wait until our financial outlook was stable and we would then publish their book without a donation. I think that this is a fair arrangement, as do many writers. I think that this is a very successful program and we were able to promote good writers.

Compare this to the time when Ezra Pound, freshly arrived and friendless in London, took the manuscript of Personae to Elkin Mathews, whose Bodley Head had published Yeats’ The Wind Among the Reeds and the two anthologies of the Rhymer’s Club, the most important documents of British aestheticism.  Pound dramatizes a “touching little scene in Elkin Mathews’ shop” this way in one of his letters:

Mathews: “Ah, eh, ah, would you, now, be prepared to assist in the publication?”
E.P. “I’ve a shilling in my clothes, if that’s any use to you.”
Mathews: “Oh well.  I want to publish ‘em.  Anyhow.”
In both instances the publisher asks for help.  When it isn't forthcoming, he does what he can for the poems he admires anyway.

I don't think the juxtaposition of Gatza and Elkin Matthews answers any of the big questions about the BlazeVOX/N.E.A. tempest, but I do hope it gives a little perspective on what it means to be a publisher of innovative poetry, and on the importance and generosity of such people.


  1. Anonymous9:54 AM

    Hi Bob,

    As you know, I've published two books with BlazeVOX. One aspect of the situation that gets overlooked a bit is that BlazeVOX has only and always charged me about $3 a book for author's copies and has set me up at SPD gratis, as well as provided free review copies. Presumably the same deal applies to those authors asked to contribute a little dough up front. Compare this situation to my first publisher, in which I was charged $12 a copy. Seems pretty clear to me which is the more exploitative model. Plus, it's hard to imagine another publisher brave enough to take on my silly anagrams.


    Mike Smith

    1. Yeah. There are more publishing models than are dreamt of by most N.E.A. administrators. Scholarly presses like Ashgate, for example, don't take money from authors, but sometimes demand as a condition of publication that the author guarantee a sale of, say, 100 copies (often very pricey copies -- 60 or 80 bucks, say). Of course the scholar is meant to work his network, getting his prof pals to have their universities buy copies, but he or she may end up buying dozens of copies and effectively providing a subsidy to the press.

      The really interesting thing, to anyone stepping back from the situation, is where the source of shame is really located: if your book isn't somehow successful as a commodity, it is questionable as art or scholarship too. I mean, it's come to this: the logic of the market dominating all other logics.

  2. I had a free ebook of poetry published by BlazeVox some years ago. Presumably because this cost nothing to produce, I wasn’t asked for any money. There was some talk by BlazeVox about doing a print version at some stage but it came to nothing. I don’t think BlazeVox, in those days, were asking authors to subsidise costs, so had my ebook gone to print, it would have done so without money having to change hands, I’m sure.

    As your post mentions, Bob, and as does Geoffrey Gatza in his interview with the Huffington Post, the publishing scene now is complicated, and there are probably no right or wrong ways to ensure that work is made available to the public. It seems to me, that only in literature do questions about “vanity publishing” and, indeed, “self-publishing” still matter. I’m sure this is not the case in the music and film industry.

    Of course, all such “ethical” problems could be obviated by poetry being made available as free ebooks. But that might be a conceptual bridge too far for some publishers.

  3. Jeffrey, surely it's been cool to self-publish in the music scene since the punk era!

  4. and:



    1. Yes! Silverpoints! Elkin Mathews learned how to publish on the cheap with that book, using odd, narrow paper that was actually leftover scrap from more commercial enterprises.

  5. Andrew, that's exactly my point: only in poetry does this seem a problem. I know lots of musicians who do this all the time, and it's an accepted part of their business, with no stigma attached.

    1. In fact, I'm going to join the ranks of those self-publishing musicians soon.

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

  7. Speaking as a musician and composer, the do-it-yourself self-publishing in music, or for that matter in visual art, is quite common and accepted. As a composer I am also the publisher of my own scores, and CDs, for example. People accept it as normal especially now that the digital media makes DIY so much easier to connect directly with your audience, rather than having to go through a distribution company.

    I agree that I think it's remarkable that only in literature (I would say not just in poetry but also in fiction) does this seem to be a problem. But then I think of Whitman being his own publisher. I've actually taken that as inspiration to self-publish some of my own chapbooks—because like Whitman I've been a printer, typesetter, book designer, etc., so I had the skills to do it.

    LOL Maybe I should offer my graphic design and typography skills to poets who want to put out chapbooks. At least I could get them to look good.

    I have a fairly large collection of early Copper Canyon Press chapbooks and poetry books. A lot of those were handset on small press by the folks who founded the press, Sam Hamill and his group. (A lot of those early books were set in a beautiful typeface called Deepdene, BTW.) That's the kind of dedication to poetry that I find thrilling, that willingness to do the press yourself so the poems can get out there. I also think of William Everson's work as printer and poet, with his letterpress editions.

    I think there will always be room for aesthetically beautiful chapbooks for poetry. I think that people just need to get over their problems with feeling one kind of publishing is less legitimate than another. Isn't the most important thing that the work gets out there so it can find an audience, and stand or fall on its own merits? It's weird that people get so upset about all this. Isn't that some kind of power issue at root?

    1. I think some of the stigma attached, in some quarters, to self-publishing comes from a perception of the low cost of entry into writing. That is: musicians tend to have an overt technical skill, and people like arts administrators, who are afraid of being made fools of and getting in trouble with the higher-ups, can point to that skill and say it separates the serious from the dilettante. I don't mean to defend this practice, but my guess is that something along these lines accounts for the different treatment of literary things from music or the visual arts.

    2. I think that could be a factor, sure, reflected in the common belief that "anyone can write a poem." Granted, there is the demonstrable skill in music (which requires some practice in learning to play and instrument and/or sing) that you're talking about, while everyone who's ever been in school is told they can write, and do, at least somewhat. So the low cost of entry is that no demonstrable skill is required in creative writing relative to many other arts—but isn't that also just the reasoning the traditional gatekeepers (editors, publishers, etc., not just arts bureaucrats) use to justify limiting access?

      The flip side of this is how technology levels the playing fields. Is the renewed complaints about self-publishing in poetry/fiction partly just the complaints of the gatekeepers who have lost their exclusive control of their domain? Sometimes it sure seems that way.

  8. The only question should be quality.

  9. On the Setting Up Mr Butler's Monument in Westminster Abbey

    While Butler, needy wretch, was yet alive,
    No generous patron would a dinner give;
    See him, when starved to death and turned to dust,
    Presented with a monumental bust!
    The poet's fate is here in emblem shown:
    He asked for bread, and he received a stone.

    —Anonymous (attributed to Samuel Wesley)