John Darr | Tuesday, February 7, 2017
“Certain types of institutional recognition (people writing articles about you, winning awards, etc.) don’t necessarily even lead to that many people seeing your work. … I decided I’d rather seek a bigger living audience over prestige or institutional respect.” – Steve Roggenbuck, internet poet
Notre Dame’s only copies of “AGNI” volumes 80-85 have been sitting on my dorm bookshelf for the last three months. AGNI is one of the world’s most respected literary journals; its memorable title, intriguing cover design and forward-thinking work make it the sort of book which sells itself from a display shelf.
Apparently, nobody wants to read them.
As a periodical, I need to renew AGNI constantly and yet not once has a copy been recalled for someone else’s use. The same goes for the latest volume of the “Pushcart Prizes,” a collection of the best work from small English literary journals around the world. Though it hardly comes as a surprise that very little of the public reads poetry, it’s a bit shocking that even when narrowing down the population to an academically elite institution, the readership is close to nonexistent. I’m not kidding myself either. I barely read poetry even though I’m writing poetry from my thesis. It’s clear to me that even if I ‘make it’ in the world of poetry by selling verses to top-tier journals, very, very few people will read my work.
Even so, poetry survives. In some areas, it’s actually thriving. Hip-hop has long been a stronghold for poetry in the mainstream. Yet even more hopeful than Kendrick Lamar reigning on the billboard charts are the handful of artists who are taking social media by storm. The afore-quoted Steve Roggenbuck has racked up over 200,000 views his joyful video-poem “make something beautiful before you are dead.” Patricia Lockwood’s timely poem “Rape Joke” went viral as its text circulated the internet. Rupi Kaur’s powerful, short poems created a whirlwind on Instagram that eventually lead to a collection titled “Milk and Honey,” which spent 25 consecutive weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.
Is poetry destined to make a comeback through the web? It’s certainly possible. Most poetry on the page is fading away unread on one bookshelf or another. Steve Roggenbuck’s populist statement on the state of academic poetry publication rings truer every day. People around the world still want to discover poetry.
We just have to start publishing it in places where they will actually look.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.