Thanks to Katherine E. Young for sharing her thoughts about online publishing.
Katherine E. Young's poetry has appeared in Prairie Schooner, The Iowa Review, Shenandoah, and many others. She has published two chapbooks and was a finalist for the 2012 T.S. Eliot Prize (U.S.). Her translation of Russian poet Inna Kabysh won a share of the 2011 Joseph Brodsky-Stephen Spender Prize.
The Secret Life of Poems
Publishing these days almost always means that your work will end up online; even the most persnickety poetry journals generally publish a digital version. Readership for poetry is limited at the best of times, so who wouldn’t want to find his or her work bouncing around the net, “liked,” tumbled, blogged about?
Having had all those things happen to my poems, I’m not so sure I’m pleased with the results. For one thing, while it’s great that people are sharing the work, nobody ever seems to remember to let me know they’re doing it. A few years back I picked up a neat little “best of the net” award for a poem, but didn’t find out about it until I happened to google myself – it would have been nice of them to let me know. I’ve also had a poem savaged by a blogger somewhere out there – the poem was not very good and deserved what it got, but still. It would have been kinder if he’d let me know, better yet, let me respond. It’s a lot easier to trash someone while hiding behind an online persona. Who are you, Language Hat?
The most interesting experience I’ve had online, though, is with a poem I wrote some time ago about the collapse of the Soviet Union, where I lived off and on for years. The poem is fairly bleak (it includes a suicide attempt) and ends with the line “I’ll become a fish: bones like these.” The poem – sometimes just its final line – has somehow made its way into the community of folks who converse online about eating disorders; I’ve found it on multiple sites that have to do with anorexia. My poem is not about anorexia; I’m a bit unnerved by what others seem to be reading into it. It’s as if the poem has developed a persona all its own, like Gogol’s nose, and is gallivanting about the net without me. I expect to meet it one day at the symphony, whippet-thin and wearing a nicer dress than mine.
Back before the net existed, I found my fifteen minutes of fame in the Soviet Union. It was a rather frightening experience, actually, that included autograph seekers and even a stalker – nothing to do with poetry (although Russians like poetry better than Americans do). So I’m grateful that American poets, even the finest ones, get to live in relative obscurity (I’m not sure our most eminent poets share my gratitude for that, but I digress). I have to ask, though: isn’t my poem still my poem, even if I’m an obscure poet living in greater suburbia? Meaning: why don’t people ask permission to use my work? At the very least, why don’t they let me know when they use it? I’ve got another question, too: what if, god forbid, people are reading my poem as an invitation to starve themselves? Don’t I get a say in how my words are interpreted? What’s a writer’s responsibility in this case? Even if I have some responsibility, can I possibly exercise it on the net?
Of course not. No one can control what happens to work once it’s out there, whether in print or online: that’s my point. In my non-poetry life, I teach first-year college students how to write better papers. Every semester, one or two students choose to write about the internet and recording artists, which requires them to look at things like illegal file sharing. Almost all of my students eventually decide, based on the evidence and the opinions of marketing experts, that letting the music flow freely online is ultimately a smart move for recording artists because it grows their audience. Hm. Maybe I’m looking at this all wrong. After all, any audience is better than no audience, right?
Move over, Kanye and Jay-Z. We misunderstood artists need to stick together.