In late 2013, Patricia Lockwood’s brilliant and confronting poem, ‘Rape Joke’, went viral – just hours after being posted on The Awl, it had over 10,000 Facebook likes. According to The Guardian, Lockwood’s piece ‘casually reawakened a generation’s interest in poetry’.
Clever as Lockwood’s work is, I’m not sure if we can rest this resurgence of poetic enthusiasm entirely at her feet. The New Yorker recently noted that ‘more than 30,000 people follow [Lockwood] on Twitter – but the source of her fame is almost entirely owing to her tweets and not to her poetry’. In fact, Australia could well be ahead of the curve when it comes to appreciating poetry – according to writer, editor and poet Bronwyn Lea, ‘Despite continued problems associated with distribution, marketing and sales, many poets and critics have observed that interest in poetry, oddly enough, is booming.’
So how much of this current popularity is due to digital means? How is poetry surviving in a lean market where few collections see the light of publishing day, and those that do are slow to shift from shelves? According to Lea, over 250 poetry books were published in Australia each year between 1993 and 1999, and this number had dropped by around 100 books a year by 2006. Part of the problem is that most poetry titles are published by small presses without enough resources, distribution and marketing for their output to be noticed by readers.
Sales figures inevitably reflect this: a poetry book that sells 200 copies has ‘a really good sales rate’, says Krissy Kneen (above), author, poet and winner of this year’s Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize. ‘Publishers will print up to 500 copies of a poetry collection. Any more is kind of radical. A poetry book that sells 1000 copies is a resounding success.’
Not unexpectedly – especially considering Lockwood’s online fame – it’s increasingly evident that print publishing is just one way for contemporary poets to make their work known. Alongside the various respected Australian literary journals that continue to publish poetry – including Overland, Meanjin, The Lifted Brow and Going Down Swinging – poets are continuing to combine their writing with other platforms. Innovation, it seems, is the name of the survival game, and probably always has been – ‘In many ways, we are all just doing what poets of the past have done’, says performance poet and musician Pascalle Burton of her profession’s penchant for creative fusion. ‘Sometimes we write, sometimes we perform and sometimes we combine our poetry with other mediums.’
Performance poetry is a particularly rich subgenre with a variety of approaches and disciplines. ‘For instance,’ says Burton, ‘Amanda Stewart is a sensational experimental sound poet; Kaitlyn Plyley, Eleanor Jackson and Betsy Turcot perform evocative poetry plays; Scott Sneddon incorporates physical theatre into his poetry; Chloë Callistemon incorporates her filmmaking; Sean M Whelan performs his poetry with the electronic musician Isnod; Adam Hadley is a rambunctious slam poet cum faux-gypsy music raconteur. And on and on and on. We are many.’ Kneen agrees – ‘There are a number of people doing very exciting things in poetry,’ she says, ‘and the poetry slam world has certainly raised the profile of poets.’
Technology has allowed performance poetry to straddle stage and screen by opening up a raft of new opportunities for emerging and established poets alike to find audiences. ‘Poetry fits well with social media,’ says Kneen, since it’s ‘small enough to read online quickly and easily.’ Thanks to the ubiquitous smartphone, you’re likely to have poetry at your fingertips all day long: you can watch and listen to Australian slam poets such as Omar Musa, Luka Lesson and Maxine Beneba Clarke on YouTube and SoundCloud; you can read Cypriot-Australian Koraly Dimitriadis’ blog and see videos of her poetic rants on her website. For these poets in particular, whose work tackles topical issues such as race, sexuality and politics, putting work online is likely an ideal way of reaching a larger and more diverse readership.
Taking things a step further, technologically speaking, are digital poets such as Jason Nelson and Mez Breeze, who create ‘electronic literature’ that combines words with multimedia elements such as sounds, images and video. ‘When Emily Dickinson says, “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry,” I can’t help but think she would be stupefied by the possibilities of digital literature,’ says Burton.
Nonetheless, these digital possibilities – whether they take the form of tweets, interactive poems, blogs or performance clips on YouTube – shouldn’t give us cause to add fuel to the ‘print is dead’ fire; it’s worth noting that Musa, Lesson, Beneba Clarke and Dimitriadis have all had poetry collections published in recent years. While technology is clearly a wonderful way to give poetry a louder voice and a wider reach, it’s not singlehandedly propping up the genre. ‘Rape Joke’ wasn’t the first poem to go viral online, and it certainly won’t be the last; whatever form poetry takes and however it reaches us, it always has the potential to make us feel as if the tops of our heads were taken off.