by Corinna Norrick-Rühl, Institute for Book Studies, JGU Mainz
Is there a market for poetry? Poetry is generally considered an outsider in the book industry. But since Jan Wagner received the award of the Leipzig Book Fair in 2015, poetry has been “trending”. This one-day conference under the direction of Alexander Nebrig, visiting professor at the Institute for Book Studies of JGU Mainz, considered the economics of poetry publishing. Stephan Füssel welcomed speakers, guests and students to the event before Alexander Nebrig gave an introduction to the topic. Nebrig identified four phases in the history of publishing poetry in Germany. From 1750 onwards, the market for poetry came into being (first phase), preparing readers and publishers for the 19th century, in which Goethe, Schiller and their peers were read widely and sold successfully (second phase). Part of the sales strategy however was to create a distance between the market and the poets. Around the turn of the century, other leisure activities and media competed with reading prose and poetry and the market for poetry was in crisis well into the 20th century (third phase). Nebrig said that new forms of poetry and new forms of visibility for poets on the social Web are characteristic of the 21st century (fourth phase), citing Alexandra Alter’s NYT article about the “Web Poets’ Society”.
Following Nebrig’s introductory talk, German studies scholar and published poet Dirk von Petersdorff briefly spoke about design, typography, format and structure of poetry collections, citing German poet Stefan George (1868-1933) as an example of someone who had very exact ideas about how his poetry should be made available to the public. There was even a Stefan George typeface which was based on George’s handwriting.
After a coffee break, Holger Pils from the Stiftung Lyrik Kabinett (Munich) shared his experiences with and thoughts on funding and other forms of support for poetry and poets in Germany. To a certain extent, he said, the marginality that poetry and poets have in the book industry (roughly 1-2% of literary publications in book form are poems) is a sign of exclusivity. Poetry can be understood as a social practice. He also emphasized that there is what he calls a “healthy idealism” in writing and publishing poetry. For him, today’s true patrons of poetry are the people who invest their time and energy in making poetry available to the public, such as indie publishers.
Publisher Thedel von Wallmoden (Wallstein Verlag, Göttingen) then gave his impressions of the market for poetry, based on his 30-odd years in the book industry. To begin his talk, von Wallmoden quoted Gottfried Benn’s thoughts on poetry, “Gedicht ist die unbesoldete Arbeit des Geistes, der Fonds perdu, eine Art Aktion am Sandsack: einseitig, ergebnislos und ohne Partner – evoe!” Any serious literary publishing house, contended von Wallmoden, must include poetry in its program. He explained that prose and poetry are two peas in a pod. For instance, he publishes the work of several authors who write poems, short stories and novels – and strongly believes that all of these works should be curated and cared for by one publisher. Using plenty of examples from the Wallstein Verlag, he showed that poetry can be sold successfully. But he admitted that publishing poetry means a combination of publication of hitherto unpublished works as well as rediscoveries and that it requires the publisher to be even more patient and willing to take risks than with novels.
After lunch, the emphasis changed with talks by former publisher and active poet Michael Krüger as well as indie publisher and poet Daniela Seel (kookbooks). Among other topics, Seel gave insight into the conflict of interest that poets live with, for example regarding prizes and poet-in-residence programs. These funding sources are necessary to survive, but they are not family-friendly and often make demands on the poet’s time and energy and thus do not give him or her the solitude and peace needed to produce new poems.
The grand finale of the day was Michael Krüger’s talk about why poets exist and what they do. He noted that in Germany, reading poetry seems to have lost its broad appeal. Much of the poetry today is consumed passively in form of music, which is why Bob Dylan has repeatedly been mentioned in connection with the Nobel Prize for Literature. But Krüger wishes that readers would take a more active stance regarding the poetry they consume. He directed his observations and thoughts towards the students of Book Studies and Publishing at JGU, challenging them to “practice, practice, practice”, that is, read more poetry (he prescribed at least one poem a day, at least for a week; in addition, he encouraged students to translate a few lines of foreign-language poetry once a day).
Nebrig brought the conference to a close with a brief summary of the day’s papers, and all were in agreement that it was a worthwhile and interesting day, offering widespread perspectives on (the economics of) poetry. It certainly motivated members of the audience to read more poetry and keep their eyes peeled for poetry in the bookstore of their choice.
Some photos of the event can be found here.