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Journal, Day Five

By Janet Holmes

Here’s my least favorite component of the publishing process: blurbs.

AGAINST BLURBS: Poetry books are rarely sold in bookstores, so virtually nobody actually picks up a book, reads the blurbs, thinks, “Hmm! My favorite writer is enthusiastic about this book! I think I’ll purchase it with my hard-earned money!” and carries it off to the register.

ON THE OTHER HAND: Poetry buyers for bookstores want to see them in the catalog. Distributors like them. People shopping on line like them. [Lazy] reviewers like knowing how to categorize a book before they even read it by seeing who’s blurbed it.

AGAINST BLURBS: Nobody really likes writing them. Most published poets will tell me, “I never write blurbs, because if I wrote them for one person, I’d have to write them for everybody.”

ON THE OTHER HAND: Those published poets have plenty of blurbs on their own books. Poets, especially when publishing their first book, need an “introduction” to the market, and published poets could easily support the community by providing it. Is it a lack of generosity, a belief that although they have benefited from community support, they needn’t continue the tradition? Is it sloth? Is it not having the spine to tell a writer one doesn’t like that you can’t fully support the work in the book? Yes, yes, yes. Sorry, yes. If you’re teaching poetry and one of your students publishes a book, who else is going to read it and endorse it?

AGAINST BLURBS: Because they hate writing them, some writers use canned language. “Best writer of her generation,” etc. “Luminous.” Or, my favorite new cliché, “Important.” “The only important book of poetry this [year, decade, century].” Baloney. Say something.

ON THE OTHER HAND: Enthusiasm from a poet who cares about language makes the search for a blurb worthwhile.

BLURB PEEVE #1: A writer promises to write a blurb, and turns in something so generic it might apply to anything. In the past year, I’ve received two or three blurbs from well-known poets that fail to mention the author of the poems, the book’s title, or any detail about the poems in the book. “Sometimes one comes across a book that’s so luminous, so important, that one sighs to read the future books this promising young author will create.” (Oh, yeah? Was this one of them?) Can’t use it.

BLURB PEEVE #2: A writer writes a blurb that is much more about the writer of the blurb than about the author of the book. “I, a well-known poet, have many opinions, and this book has managed to garner my momentary attention.” (This often works in conjunction with Blurb Peeve #1.) Worse: “I, not yet well known (but on my way, by God), am elevating my stature by passing faint praise upon this poor, lesser writer who may someday improve.”

“BLURB WHORES”: I’ve heard this term applied to poets who often write blurbs for books. Frankly, I don’t think there’s a poet in the universe who goes about looking for books to blurb—doing a good job of it is simply too difficult, it’s unremunerative (not usually a goal of whoring), and though the publisher & author are grateful, the job is otherwise thankless. When I see someone’s name endorsing a book of poetry, I know that poet is extending herself or himself to help another writer to an audience. This is a rare thing, my friends.

THE COMPLAINT THAT THE BLURBIST IS A FRIEND OR TEACHER OF THE POET: The situation is such that virtually nobody will write a blurb for someone they have no previous connection with. They prefer to champion people they’ve seen develop. When Ahsahta published David Mutschlecner’s Esse in 2002, I was at a loss to find someone to write an endorsement; Esse was David’s first book published in the U.S., and he hadn’t been studying poetry writing anywhere. I sent it to Cole Swensen because of its themes, thinking she might respond to it, and she generously read it and wrote a wonderful endorsement. With Ed Allen’s 67 Mixed Messages, I sent the book to Sam Gwynn, whose comic formal poems seemed in synch with Ed’s sonnet sequence. I greatly appreciated his enthusiasm and generosity.

That’s where I’d like to end this week: with a call for more enthusiasm and generosity.

Posted in Uncategorized on Friday, January 19th, 2007 by Janet Holmes.