Self-publishing & slamming: an interview with poet Bill Abbott

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Everything interests me. Tornadoes, politics, pop culture, computers, wildlife, domesticated life, etc. Pick a topic, and I'd love to learn more about it. As such, I set up this interview with Bill Abbott, who is a poet with a long history of involvement in slam poetry and self-publishing his own poetry. And I'll be the first to admit that I'm not too "cutting edge" on either topic.

So this interview was set up with the hopes of educating myself as much as anyone else. Hopefully, other poets get some useful information as well. I know I learned quite a bit from Bill, who recently published a history of The Southern Fried Poetry Slam from the years of 1992-2000 called Let Them Eat Moon Pie! (from The Wordsmith Press). It's filled with stats, photos, quotes, history, and more. He's also self-published seven books of poetry. In addition to his involvement with Southern Fried, Bill also created and hosted the Rust Belt Regional Poetry Festival in 2000 and 2001.

Here's the interview:

What are you currently up to?

Currently, I’m up to promotion. I know I plan my next book to be a history of the Rust Belt Regional Poetry Slam (since this was the history of Southern Fried while I was there). I started the Rust Belt in 2000, and while I missed a couple of years (moved away briefly for family reasons), I’m back again. Other than that, I’m trying to find enough time to write more poetry (I’m sure I’d have enough for another book) or to pull together a CD of my works (I’d just have to mix it) or a CD of Southern Fried poetry (I have old tapes to mix) or some such. But most of my time these days goes to my three-year-old and teaching college composition.

In your book Let Them Eat MoonPie, you cover the Southern Fried Poetry Slam from 1992-2000. You include slam scores, pictures, fliers, and lots of other very specific information. This gets me wondering, what were your intentions with this book?

I started writing it because Southern Fried has been around for so long now; 16 years. Looking around, I realized that there aren’t many people who remember what came before the last two or three years, and I thought we needed some record of the event. It was record keeping, it was a yearbook, and it was a sort of memoir for me as a poet. It talked about the greats and the not-so-greats. I wanted a history of that part of poetry, of the earlier days of slam, and I had the information to write it. Maybe academics would be interested, but there are still some anti-slam feelings in academia.

I, of course, want it to sell widely, but I don’t think there’s a wide audience to this. I do think it’s important, but not to the average bookstore shopper who might grab a copy of the latest Sue Grafton or the like. And I do believe there’s more audience in the Southeast, since that’s the part of the country that’s geographically covered.

Oddly enough, at the same time, Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz released Words in Your Face: a Guided Tour Through Twenty Years of the New York City Poetry Slam, and A Bigger Boat: The Unlikely Success of the Albuquerque Poetry Slam Scene (by a few different authors) is also just out. It seems that slam is ready to chronicle its own history without even coordinating the effort.

You've self-published 7 books of poetry. Why have you chosen self-publishing as opposed to traditional publishing?

I started self-publishing a long time ago as a way to get my work out. I’d read a piece, and people would want a copy. I liked the idea of sharing my work but didn’t think I stood a chance of getting published, so I printed them myself. I never really sold many, and I keep thinking of publishing real books of poetry someday, but it’s intimidating, especially with my schedule, to think of publishing for real. Do I need to get more individual poems published before a book publisher will consider me? Who’d actually want to buy my book? Would it just be another remaindered copy or sit on the sales table all lonely?

There’s a certain amount of either academic or pop culture popularity before your book will be picked up, after all, unless you’re selling directly to people who like what you’ve written. Since I’ll probably never be performing in most of the country, I don’t think my books will sell in most of it. How do you make that happen? You either have to be terribly clever in your promotion and design or you have to be well known.

With the popularity of blogging, do you anticipate more poets going the self-publishing route?

With what I’m reading lately, poets and writers are trying to blog some quirky ways and trying to get book deals out of it. If that works for them, then go for it. But I know of some poets who publish their works through a self-publishing website here and there, and there’s one piece of advice for them specifically: hire a proofreader before you publish there. It lowers the public’s opinion of your writings (and poetry in general) if you have typos all over them.

A student handed me a book of poetry her cousin had written, and it was just awful, but it looked like what most people who weren’t exposed to poetry would think was a book of poetry. Badly rhymed stanzas about the family dog and God’s love and every other poetic cliché out there. And what do you say to that? I simply had to tell her that it wasn’t the sort of poetry I would write, but I congratulated her cousin for (I suspect self-) publishing it (I didn’t recognize the publisher even remotely), and I hoped it sold well. It probably did, but mostly to family and friends and church members.

I see a big problem for poets wanting to be published these days. Either you get a real publisher and get distributed, which is quite hard to do, or you get a small-press or self-publishing company and you get no promotion help. The big bookstores don’t want to carry your small press book, and there are less and less independent bookstores. The really good independents are bought up by the big ones, and then you still can’t sell your book. Of course, there’s the internet, but really, do you think the majority of book buyers use the internet to get their literary fix?

Small press is great in the amount of control that you have over parts of the process, and you know you’ll actually get published, but what do you get for it? Pros and cons to the whole scenario, I know.

Who are your favorite poets?

Wow. It depends on what you’re asking me. My favorite poets that I learned in classes? My favorite poets I’ve seen on stage? Great stage poets (who also are great on paper) for me include Jeffrey McDaniel and Dan Roop. My God, Dan Roop made me realize what you could do with poetry. Dan was inspiring and interesting and a great organizer and a generous person and so much more. Jeff can do things with words that I only dream of, and I really need to get his books in my collection. Allan Wolf. Patricia Smith. Ray McNiece. Scott Woods.

The “real” poets? I’ve gone through stages as I got my MA in English, but there’s always interesting stuff out there. Linda Pastan has always fascinated me. Sharon Olds can lead my mind down new pathways and really make me think. James Tate. And these names barely even scratch the surface. I don’t really want to just read one movement, though. I like to read all different kinds from all different times.

I've seen many great live performances of poetry that don't seem to move me the same way when I read them in print. Have you ever noticed this? Do you think slam poetry offers something that can't be re-created in print?

Some poetry sounds better than it looks, sure. Some of it really relies on the performance and the sound, but some of it doesn’t. It’s one of those pigeonholes that slam deals with: everyone should be heard and not read. How ridiculous is that? Some great slam poets are equally as good in print as they are spoken. But some of them…I know certain members of the slam scene who believe we should never release books of poetry, only CDs, or better yet, only DVDs. After all, we’re nothing if we’re not being appreciated on stage. I disagree, though. At least, I don’t think we should all be releasing videos.

If you could pass on one piece of advice to other poets, what would it be?

I’ve often heard poets say they don’t read poetry because they don’t want to be influenced. That’s the wrong attitude. I say you can’t be a poet unless you actually study poetry. Not necessarily academically, but you have to get your hands dirty in poetry. Read lots of works by lots of different poets. Listen to lots of music with poetic lyrics (and that doesn’t exclude any sort of music that has lyrics – if you want to listen to instrumental music for inspiration, go for it, but the lyrics are worth close study to see why they work). Someone once issued a challenge to me: read a book of poetry every two days for 60 days, then write for 15 minutes on each one. If you miss a two-day stretch, start over. Read, absorb.

If you write poetry without knowing what else is out there, how do you know you’ve come up with something original? What if you’re working with a real cliché in poetry, but you don’t know it because you don’t read it? The same thing applies to listening: If you go to readings just so you can read, then you’re doing it wrong. You listen to everyone else later. Poetry readings aren’t just set up so you can read, but so that everyone can. If you’re not listening, then you’re not learning. Learn.

Another thing I did to learn to be a poet was to sit down and work out every exercise in Arco’s How to Write Poetry several years ago. Learn about structure and form before you swear you’ll never write that way. It’s part of learning to appreciate what came before you, and oddly enough, this advice all ties back to my book:

You have to know where you came from before you can move forward. It’s important to know some history of what you’re doing so you can do it better.

*****

For more information on Bill Abbott and his book Let Them Eat Moon Pie!, go to www.thewordsmithpress.com or www.southernfriedhistory.com.

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