Friday, May 1, 2009

Poetry is a Gift Community: An Interview with Reb Livingston

You are the founder and editor of No Tell Motel and No Tell Books. What need did you see in the industry that you wanted to fill with No Tell Motel?

I don't think I'd use the word "industry" to describe poetry publishing and don't consider it to be some sort of capitalist venture. I don't approach publishing with a supply/demand model. If I approached it in those terms, I never would have done any of it. In those terms there's a poem glut and a dismal demand for them. In those terms there should be 2 publishers putting out 5 books a year and maybe 4 or 5 poetry magazines. Publishing poetry means you're very likely to lose money. Publishing poetry books generally means sales numbers in the low hundreds. Success is selling over 500. Any "industry" person would pick anything other than publishing poetry.

Luckily poems aren't widgets. There were then (and are now) hundreds, if not thousands, of individuals contributing to the poetry community by supporting (i.e. publishing) the work of other poets. I wanted to be one of those contributors. To me it wasn't enough to just write my own poems. I wanted to do my small part to contribute. Poetry is a gift community. People who care about and are dedicated to poetry make sure poems get out there. They're not profiting, they're likely spending their own money and they're definitely donating their time and work. I do think that anyone who is serious about poetry is responsible to contribute in some way to the community, whether that be publishing/editing, curating a reading series, writing book reviews or essays, translating foreign-language poems, etc. That is how poetry thrives and I don't care what any studies or reports declare about poetry, it thrives and will continue to do so because it is not an industry. As other art forms come and go based on industry and market demands of the century, poetry will continue to exist because it does not fit into such models. Poetry won't become popular or profitable, but it will endure.

Tell us about the books you publish. What are you looking for in a poet?

Our most recent title is Rebecca Loudon's Cadaver Dogs ( . It's been described by readers and reviewers as evocative, spiritual, primal, bittersweet, unconscious, outrageous, titillating, brutal, lustful, crisp and musical. You can probably use those adjectives to describe other titles from No Tell Books, but the books are VERY different from one another, but on closer look, similarities abound. In 2008 the three books I published each had spiritual undercurrents -- and I didn't even realize that until one of the authors pointed it out. The upcoming title PERSONATIONSKIN by Karl Parker is really unlike any book the press has published, yet there are links.

There's not a particular style or subject that I'm specifically looking for. Basically I publish books that I love and think are wonderful. Usually these books don't fit easily into a specific style category. You can get idea of the range of types of work I like by reading No Tell Motel ( and the books I publish.

As a publisher, what I look for in a poet is someone who's responsible, responsive and easy to work with. Someone who will contribute to the process, not hinder it. I have very limited time to work on these books and have little tolerance for hand holding or drama. When I'm working on other poets' poems and books that's time I'm not using for my own writing, or my family for that matter. I consider my time precious and expect the poets I publish to respect that.

What's the most difficult thing about publishing poetry? What should poets understand about the business side of things?

The first thing to understand is that publishing poetry really isn't a business, or at least not in a capitalistic sense. As I mentioned in the first question, poetry is a gift economy. Very few poets make any kind of a living from publishing their poetry. Sometimes people can get jobs or grants, like teaching positions, based on their poetry publications, but that too is a small percentage.

So remember that people who work to promote poetry whether through publishing, writing reviews and essays, curating reading series, translating, etc. are contributing to poetry's existence. While they are certainly providing service, they do not exist to serve -- and in most cases, they're poets too.

What I find most difficult is explaining the above to poets who look to me as someone who can help them. Now, I help lots of poets and many poets have helped me in all sorts of ways (gift economy in action). But I don't exist to make things happen for anyone and everyone. First of all, I'm just one person (pretty much like anyone else) who can only do so much. But also, there are a lot of poets who I have no interest in giving any kind of hand. For instance, poets who ask me to consider their manuscripts without ever reading or buying a single book my press has published. That's wasting both of our time and more importantly, it's incredibly self-centered and disrespectful. If I had a quarter every time that happened, I could afford to give away books for free. This is why there are things like reading fees and contests. Many people who most want to be published don't support the presses they wish would publish them, in fact, they often know very little about those presses or the work they do. So presses have figured out that while they might have a hard time selling books, they have a very easy time selling the *hope* of publication. I think that's a very defeating situation, for all involved.

How has running No Tell Motel affected your own poetry? Are you working on something now?

Running a magazine and a press has opened my eyes to a range of poetry and poets that I was before unfamiliar. It's been a rich education, at least as valuable as any MFA. It's taught me that I am not helpless to the whims of others, that there is no one who will make or break me or my poems, no one except myself.

I'm finishing my next book, God Damsel, which I'll be publishing with No Tell Books in early 2010. Coconut Books, my publisher for my first book, offered to publish God Damsel and although I have a very good relationship with the editor, Bruce Covey, I'm choosing to do it myself. Why? Why not? I must know something about publishing books because people keep asking me to publish theirs. Most of the poems in the book have been published in magazines, so other editors must see quality in the poems. Why not take control of my own poems, take control of my art? Why don't more poets take back control of connecting their poems to an audience? I know the standard answer to that question and find it all a rather foolish "business."

About Reb Livingston:

Reb Livingston is the author of God Damsel (forthcoming, No Tell Books, 2010), Your Ten Favorite Words (Coconut Books, 2007), Pterodactyls Soar Again (Whole Coconut Chapbook Series, 2006), among other titles. Her work appears in literary magazines and her poem ”That’s Not Butter“ appears in The Best American Poetry 2006 (Scribner). She has Creative Writing degrees from Bennington (MFA) and Carnegie Mellon (BA).

She keeps a poetry blog that is updated on a regular basis.

Reb and Molly Arden edit No Tell Motel, an online poetry journal devoted to meaningful and discreet poetic encounters, and The Bedside Guide to No Tell Motel anthology series.

Reb is the editor and publisher of No Tell Books.

1 comment:

Serena said...

Another fantastic poet who I met this year in person for the first time at the writer's conference in d.c.! Reb was lovely and I bought her book and hope to review it soon.

Thanks for sharing her thoughts about the poetry "industry"