Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Big book seller poetry selections suck. The oldest tale in a poet's book.

My Aunt Shawn read me much of my first poetry. And she didn't pull any punches. It wasn't Shel Silverstein, (which is good stuff, don't get me wrong). It was the poetry that she was still interested in as an adult.

She read, and still reads, better than almost anyone I know, and that is extremely important when introducing poetry to a skeptical or impatient audience. I can't say that the first time I heard Gunga Din that I understood with certainty what the story was about, but I felt the rhythm, and I was entranced by the exotic-sounding turns of phrases. And I'd go back to read it again.

So when my Aunt Shawn told me she had sent my poetry to a friend, and that she trusted this friend who had in return sent a list of poets I should read, I immediately wrote the names down, and drove to the bookstore.

Claudia Rankine, A. Van Jordan, Gary Lilley, and Sherwin Bitsui. And I have read A. Van Jordan, loaned to me by Frank X. Walker, but maybe not with discerning enough eye.

The closest bookstore to where I live is a Barnes and Noble. It's a decent sized bookstore, not the smallest one around these parts, but not one of the bigger ones either; it's just one floor. I spent some time scouring the two book shelves confusedly before realizing that the store had apparently given Poetry slightly more significance than essays, and had allowed them to run well into the Essay shelf as well.

But it didn't matter. They didn't have any of my four poets, not a single book by any of them. I wasn't surprised by Sherwin Bitsui, who is a Native-American author, and one I suspected might be easier to find in Arizona, where my Aunt Shawn is from, than here in Northern Kentucky. But I hadn't given up. On to the newer, bigger, bookstore: Borders.

Borders was a huge disappointment. A single row of shelves for poetry, and when you fill up the space with the inevitable poetry reads such as The Aenid, Edgar Allan Poe, and Langston Hughes, that leaves very little room for anything else. But here, the rest of the space was filled with anthologies of poetry.

Where would we be, those small tribes of us wandering around in the dark reading our poetry, without the advent of the internet? There is only one more bookstore that is within a reasonable distance to where I live. I really don't think that A. Van Jordan is so obscure as to be so difficult to find.

I understand that I can order these books at any of the bookstores I visited, but that's also asking quite a bit of commitment from a patron, isn't it? I happen to be interested in buying these books, but with nothing new on the shelf that isn't by a US Poet Laureate, how am I to decide if I want to drop 15-25 dollars on a book that isn't even 100 pages long?


  1. My forearms get tense thinking about this. I hate it. I hate this impediment almost as much as I love poetry.

  2. There are a couple of B&Ns in Manhattan with better than average (for B&Ns) poetry sections, but even here many of them have only the Aeneid/Poe/Hughes selection you describe....

  3. I hardly even bother with poetry sections in mainstream bookstores anymore. If I happen to be in one, I'll gander over. If I sample what I like (usually online), I order it online. It's usually cheaper on Abe Books or Amazon, too.

  4. It's interesting, because the poetry section seems to be there for people with only the most fleeting interest in poetry. I'm not sure if there's any section of the store alike in that way. Though I'm sure there must be.

  5. That's a good point you made in your comment about the poetry section being for those with a fleeting interest. You are so right that no other section of the store is really like that. I know I just repeated exactly what you said lol. But I hadn't considered that. I guess the way to build a good poetry section would be to have sections within the poetry section, maybe separated out by aesthetic or something.

  6. Thanks for the heads up, Keith. I've written the names down.

  7. So true. I hate the large booksellers, though I'm lucky to have a great small local bookstore. Unfortunately, the large ones cater to what the majority of people want...crap. It's all about the almighty dollar for them.

    Are you near a library? I've found some treasures in library booksales. On my last search, I managed to fill up a grocery bag with awesome poetry books for a dollar. Some were a little dog eared, but that's okay. Of course, that doesn't solve your problem when searching for a specific title, but it's a great way to find good reads.

  8. I actually live within walking distance of a library, and while it's a very nice building, they have very few books. I live on the very edge of where the suburbs start to drift into the boonies. hahaha.

    But that's a good idea, I can keep an eye out for the bigger/better library sales.