Michael Lista, has most recently been telling poets, who wish to be published poets, to publish less. This is a strange message coming from a poet who publishes, but his argument is that when we publish a lot there tends to be a lot of crap published. This is no doubt a terrible situation for a reader of poetry; to actually have to read poetry that isn’t amazing (even if the authors feel differently). Lista’s commentary on the publishing industry, “Canada’s Literary Industrial Complex”, is insightful in that he’s quite correct that a lot of lesser works are published each year and some of them may, in fact, be painful to read (I know my own early poems were quite nasty), but I’m not sold on the idea that this is an undesirable outcome.
To practice art is a noble pursuit. To create something of whatever “quality” and in the process destroy it many times over and in the end produce something with a glimmer of beauty in it is humbling and immensely satisfying all at once. The how’s and why’s of this process will vary greatly from one writer to another, but in the end there is creation and expression of ideas vital to understanding of the human condition, to reflect on whatever reality we individually or socially experience. In a sense, this reflection helps us save us from ourselves (to borrow Lista’s sentiment) as we gaze into the mirror of collective circumstance.
This is a romantic view of authorship and I have no qualms stating it. Every poem, no matter how it is crafted (whether in 50 minutes or 50 months), is a contribution to the collective circumstance of being what we are and, as such, I believe there is space for it in culture. Literary culture, and I extend this to mean culture in the broadest sense, is never fully ideal. It can harm us, it can shame us, it can bore us to death, but it also gives us life, builds character, and excites. Writers are not the makers of culture, as I once thought them to be, but mirrors of it.
Lista is not suggesting that those who write poorly shouldn’t write at all (that would surely be too foolish an idea to entertain), but he is saying that publishing early and publishing in quantity are negative things and should not be sought after. But the act of publishing requires practice, just as the art of poetry requires practice. The processes involved in editing, in manipulating thoughts and expressions, in understanding another person’s understanding of your understandings is invaluable and must be sought at whatever age, time, and frequency possible if a writer is to improve and if that writer’s writing is to improve. We learn by making mistakes and reflecting upon them. You can tell the youth of the nation to avoid the mistakes you made in your growing up, but they will learn best through experience, through doing, and not being told.
As poets in this country, it is our responsibility to create a wide variety of poetry. It is also our responsibility to read and discuss the poetry that is produced here. To discourage young writers from publishing when they feel they are ready, and to call for a reduction in the amount of poetry published in Canada, seems backward. We should feel fortunate to have such a collective body of work to read and love or hate. When we start restricting the volume of publishable books, we run the risk of cultural engineering in terms of what is acceptable.
Publish. Publish the heart out of your heaving chest.