Academic journal article Chicago Review

"Cultural Capital"

Academic journal article Chicago Review

"Cultural Capital"

Article excerpt

They burn everything I have, or what little

I have. I don't care, etc.

The poem supreme, addressed to

emptiness--this is the courage

necessary. This is something

quite different.

Robert Creeley, "The Dishonest Mailmen"

As has often been observed, poetry offers publishers "cultural capital" or prestige; in other words, it is not really a viable commodity. If such is the case for poets who have received accolades and developed their own modest audience, it is even more so for those just starting out. Given the paucity of readership--at least, according to the units in which publishers typically tally their sales--it would be difficult for a press to justify publishing a first book except as an act of generosity.

As a solution to this quandary, publishers have relied increasingly on first-book awards, and the advantages of such a system are fairly clear. In the first place, the publisher collects "entry fees" to offset the production expense. In the second place, a prestigious judge raises the visibility of the book selected, and absolves the editors of the drudgery of reading manuscripts themselves. Finally, the award may itself gain a reputation for excellence, and thus an audience.

Because such advantages render the publication of first books a viable proposition, they cannot be easily dismissed. However, it is worth noting the corollary disadvantages that have accompanied this system. Most significantly, it divests the publishers and editors of first books of much investment in--or enthusiasm for--their own products. One would imagine that when celebrity laureate X chooses the groundbreaking manuscript of astonishing young poet Y for editor Z of whatever press, the latter may confront Y's text with apathy, bewilderment, or distaste. And though the said editor is nevertheless obliged to publish and distribute the manuscript in a specified period of time, no provision can be made for the care and sensitivity with which this is done. …

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