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I recently left Barnes & Noble with a problematic view of the position of poetry in the store. The poetry section in Barnes & Noble in Fresno is located towards the back of the store, right up against the children’s section, right in between bookshelves that host children’s books and children’s games, right next to the 9 to 12 age group and the 5 to 9 age group of kids. Not only is the poetry section here but also the section on Shakespeare, theater, and performing arts. Each of these sections are surrounded by the children’s section, nowhere near the other literary offerings. The other literary section offerings include fiction titles, nonfiction, travel, California, science fiction and others, this area of the store is some distance away from the selections on poetry as if poetry does not belong with literature but is for children.
Seems difficult to me as a publisher of poetry to recommend Barnes & Noble given that they give so little attention to poetry. In the poetry section most of the poetry is selected from well-known poets many of them from the past, very few contemporary poets. There are people like Maya Angelou, Mary Oliver, Billy Collins but most of them are names that we know historically as very good poets and very good poetry and I have no problem with that but there is a dearth of contemporary poets and poetry. As a publisher of small press poetry by contemporary poets I find Barnes & Noble’s support of small press poetry essentially nil, contemporary voices that are not well known essentially nil, that makes it difficult for me to openly support Barnes & Noble as we don’t see anything on their part that would lead us to believe they care a great deal about contemporary poetry. Barnes & Noble does support poetry in their online offerings and we appreciate that and would like to see much more offerings in the store. Barnes & Noble is currently under pressure from Amazon and other online stores, and we’ve seen Barnes & Noble’s impact on community bookstores in the past.
We’ve seen the effect that Amazon particularly has had on even the big box stores like Borders and Barnes & Noble. Borders is no longer with us, we watched the poetry selections in Borders dwindle from a large share of the literary section to virtually nothing before they eventually closed doors and we’re not suggesting that if you don’t sell poetry you can’t be successful but it shows a lack of love for one of the higher arts that any culture puts together. We would hope that Barnes & Noble sees the value of poetry and spends more cachet on promoting poetry and selling poetry; poetry from less well know but equally valuable contemporary poets.
The role of poetry in any society is as a gauge to where that society has been and where that society is going. Whether or not poetry is essential to society brings to mind the famous quote by William Carlos Williams, “It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” We need to take poetry out and support poets and poetry and poetry books within our own community and encourage independent bookstores, Barnes & Noble, Amazon, all booksellers to put a real effort into this promotion of poetry.
To presume that this idealistic and romantic space in poetry doesn’t need to be sold because it is right there, that all we need do is place it out, “build it and they will come” but truly we also have to recognize that we live in a contemporary society where the vehicle is selling, producing and putting it out as part of our culture and we poets participate in the culture every day. To consider that we are not part of our culture but sit in some secret space is absurd; we drive cars, we go out to eat, go to movies, we buy food, we pay bills, have bank accounts just like anybody else in the society. If we are writers, if we are poets, we are also part of what it takes to sell books, to play them out where members of the populace can pick them up, read them and gain whatever beauty, truth and love might be in them.
Small poetry presses like Poetic Matrix Press are essential to the literary life of a culture. We showcase new, unknown poets. We provide them with a means of presenting their work to a wider world. We are part of a long, important history of literature. The list of small press and personally published work goes on (Stephen Crane, e.e. cummings, Benjamin Franklin, Rudyard Kipling, D.H. Lawrence, Thomas Paine, Edgar Allan Poe, Ezra Pound, Carl Sandburg, George Bernard Shaw, Gertrude Stein, Henry David Thoreau and Mark Twain, to name but a few. This is the way new work and new ideas enter the world. We will continue to do our part, it would be nice if Barnes & Noble would do more to advance this most important cultural form.
John Peterson, Publisher Poetic Matrix Press