As a lover and reader of poetry, and as a poet and editor, I’m always thinking about how to connect poems (my favorites, my own, poets I publish) with readers. This is no easy task; it’s not as if poems sell by their own weight in worthiness. It saddens me to think how much excellent poetry never gets read at all; even sadder to consider poems that only get noticed after the poet dies. The world of poetry is not dying for lack of quality, lack of writing, lack of publication, or for that fact, lack of readers. It’s not dying at all as far as I can tell; in fact from my vantage point, it looks very much like an overgrown garden of annuals, perennials, low hanging fruit, garden variety weeds, poisonous plants, and medicinal herbs. How can a solo blossom—whether a poem, a chapbook, or a poetry collection—flourish in this teeming garden?
I’m a nurse practitioner who lives and works in a small rural community. I’ve moved around a lot for work and, until recently, I haven’t had a poetry community to turn to for support. I’ve written poems since my teens, but only started publishing in my sixties. I’ve now published 3 chapbooks and 3 full length collections of poetry. However, for the first five publications, while I knew that I would need to do substantial ground work to get noticed, I lacked the confidence needed to push my work into Po-world. I have always sought opportunities to read from my work, and have been willing to travel near and far to do so. Even when audiences were small, I felt the gratification of being heard. Selling two or three books at a reading felt good enough. But those hard-earned books have not found many readers. I certainly don’t regret any of my publications, and I appreciated the amazing care and support for my work from my editors and publishers.
But back to a community of poets—I think this is the essential link for finding an audience. Many poets find this in an academic setting, but it is possible to locate oneself in a community without any academic cred. It’s possible to find poets in your area or to locate a community online. In 2012, around the time I was publishing my first chapbook, I joined Mary Meriam in founding Headmistress Press. We met on an online poetry workshop, where she asked to publish one of my poems on her online zine, Lavender Review. As two no-longer-young lesbians, we commiserated on how difficult it was to get our work noticed as marginalized poets. The first Headmistress publication was Mary’s chapbook, “Word Hot.” Since then, we have published 42 books of poetry by lesbian/bi/trans poets. Take note: I “met” Mary on an online workshop. Odd as it may seem, we’ve run a press together for 6 years, living in different states, without ever meeting face-to-face.
Working outside of the larger poetry community makes it difficult to attend poetry gatherings and readings, but over the years, I’ve gone to as many as possible. I use vacation days to attend writing workshops all over the US and Canada to work with poets whose work I admire. I receive a dozen excellent daily poems in my email and comment positively on poems I like. I buy a ton of poetry, and leave reviews on Amazon or on my own blog. Most of my friends on Facebook are poets. I’ve stayed connected warmly to poets I’ve met at workshops. I’ve made connections with dozens of wonderful poets through running Headmistress Press. I’ve also found a network of regional poets and editors that I keep in touch with. As I labored over my latest manuscript, I made a commitment to see it published by a regional press and was thrilled to have slight faith accepted by Lana Ayers of MoonPath Press, here in the Pacific Northwest. I’m starting to feel accepted as a ‘Northwest’ poet!
Because I had a long lead-time between acceptance and publication of slight faith, there was plenty of time to work on promoting this book. As it happened, the weekend my book was released, I had a radio interview and a reading with two other well-known poets at a nearby bookstore. I have several readings set up over the next several months, including one in Brooklyn, NY. I’ve gotten commitments for several book reviews. Like with so many successes (and I do consider this a success!), the years of work and lack of recognition have laid important ground.
So how did this book cross the threshold of my hopes for it? Clearly, my ambition is not gargantuan, but I’ve employed the tried-and-true methods. Most importantly, I have found the confidence to promote my work and the wisdom to surround myself in community. As anyone whose published with an independent press knows, the author does most of the work of marketing and publicity. Prior to publication, I sent out postcards to friends, family, colleagues, and poets. I’ve sent copies to potential reviewers. I plan to enter it for a few awards. I have a page for slight faith on Facebook, and a “BUY NOW” button at my website. I had 25 pre-orders for it prior to its publication date.
As an editor, I also struggle to find readers for Headmistress Press books. What I’ve learned as a poet, I’ve tried to extend to Headmistress poets— particularly our chapbook poets, for whom this is often a first book. I want Headmistress Press to be that small independent press that goes “above and beyond” the ordinary to promote our poets and their work. We send our books out for awards, sell them vigorously at book fairs and conferences, and work hard to get them reviewed. We coach our poets on the promotional tasks to accomplish pre- and post-publication. Most significantly, we have created a community of Headmistress Poets who together find the confidence and savvy needed to promote their own and each others’ work.
Headmistress Press, a lesbian-identified publisher of books by LBT poets, is proud to announce our fourth annual Charlotte Mew Chapbook Contest. In the phrase “lesbian-identified,” we include both women who identify as lesbians and people who identify with lesbians. In that spirit, we welcome submissions from lesbians, bi, trans, Two Spirit, genderqueer, gender-nonconforming, and non-binary poets. Our judge for this year is Ching-In Chen. Our first-prize winner will receive $300 plus 20 copies of the winning book. All entries will be considered for publication. We will be accepting submissions from May 4 to July 4, 2018 through Submittable and will announce a winner in the fall. Our reading fee is always on a sliding scale, with fee waived upon request.
Do you have something say about poetry? An essay on being a poet, tips for poets, or poetry you love? TrishHopkinson.com is now accepting pitches for guest blog posts.
Risa Denenberg, lives on the Olympic peninsula in Washington state where she works as a nurse practitioner. She is a co-founder and editor at Headmistress Press. She has published three chapbooks and three full length collections of poetry, including “Whirlwind @ Lesbos” (Headmistress Press, 2016) and “slight faith” (MoonPath Press, 2018).