Articles, advice, and ideas for first book poets

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Publicity: How Do I Get the Right Blurb? - Cynthia Arrieu-King

I can’t help but want to say a word about blurbs. I want to talk about the process of deciding who would blurb my book because you think this would be really easy. You’d like to think you know who to ask, that you’ve known for ages. I did anyway. And I made a couple of interesting mistakes. 

The day I sat down to think of people to ask for blurbs, I thought about how I react to other people’s blurbs. Sometimes it’s clear that the blurber was a mentor to the other person. Maybe someone got asked cold. Once I was at lunch with two poets who were pretty much killing themselves laughing with banter about assuming the blurb position and what a bother it is to be asked (granted, these were kind of big poets who probably get asked a few times a week). I also knew the feeling of seeing huge named poets on the back of a brand new first volume of poems and wondering what the true value of that recommendation was worth. Did somebody know somebody? If the book had won a prize judged by that person, the blurb seemed better than the blurber appearing out of nowhere. I also had seen a friend reduced to tears by a blurb probably written in good faith but which was not at all incisive or engaged with her text.

In other words, I was thinking about a kind of social language that goes on below the surface of what looks like an eloquent thumbs up or what might be a branding, even a hazing. Did I want big name? No. I wanted something else but I wasn’t sure what it was. I made a short list. The person I thought would be perfect, I had heard from a former assistant of hers, simply didn’t do blurbs. “But you should ask anyway,” the former assistant recommended. I did not have the heart to do this. I had met her in person. If I’d known this very busy and cosmopolitan poet even a little, or had a decent conversation about poetry with her, I might have dared ask. But the assistant-friend had already asked after working with the poet on a project, and that person’s poems are exceptionally interesting and fine. So I found myself not reaching for the name that had become so important to me. Who else does lyrical experimental work from a multi-racial background? I would have to think about this.

I had more involved conversations and had gone over a few of my own poems at a writer’s colony with my favorite poet in the world. The friend I made at the Vermont Studio Center, Hillary, and I whispered about the fact that this poet was “sighted” in the cafeteria and we were awestruck. I don’t get awestruck. But when I thought about her work in relation to my first book, I felt this was a bad idea. Maybe she would make sense with regards to my second book about women and inner insight to the invisible, but not the first book. It had little to do with what she as a poet does though we might have been mightily informed by William Carlos Williams to the same degree. No, not going to tell you who that was.

I asked a poet whose background seemed like she might be the right person for the job. I wasn’t sure I’d read a bunch of her poems. This felt ill-footed and an insubstantial connection – maybe even the kind of connection my poems refused. The answer came back that she was busy. She has small children. This turned out to be a no.

Then I talked to my friend Juliette Lee, a poet of mighty energy and innovation, for advice (should there be another chapter about knowing who to ask for advice perhaps? It’s trickier than one might think). She said, “Ask a friend who gets your poems. They don’t even have to have a book. Screw that whole system.” Hers is the scintillating point: even if you already know you don’t necessarily need a Big Poet (rubber stamp noise) to stamp his or her approval on your book, I think this is essential: You do need thoughts from someone who understands what you are doing.

I thought of someone whose poems were recently out on a big press and whose poems, engaged with a different culture, in a different language sometimes, engaged with many of the same issues my poems did: family, naming, displacement, cooking, identity. I knew instinctively we were sister poets. We knew a couple of the same people. I didn’t necessarily get radical and ask an unpublished poet or a friend who was not a poet, though opening your mind to that universe does something in and of itself. Instead, I asked someone whose poems I admired and got rid of the idea that I wanted a blurb as a mark of the holy writ. This was an interpretation of the social language of blurb that made sense to me: if someone liked Kristin Naca’s poems, they almost certainly would like my poems. Also, she got my poems one hundred percent. You cannot count on that. After she skimmed the poems, she agreed to write a blurb. I was thrilled with what she wrote. I have never wished it was anyone else’s quote. And I got a blurb from my first teacher in graduate school, full of affection. I don’t know what people think when they see these blurbs, exactly, but I can live with all the possibilities I can imagine. May as well celebrate our new easy access to each other via the internet by asking the mentor and a potential comrade.

Obviously, this doesn’t go for everyone. But if you took the time to think of who would make the most sense as an indicator of what your book is like, rather than who you wish would read and write your book, you might establish yourself in a part of the poetry world as someone who knows what she’s about and never lose a minute wondering. Isn’t that what makes a person and her or his poetry tough and unmistakable and worth reading?

Cynthia Arrieu-King is an assistant professor of creative writing at Stockton College and a former Kundiman fellow. Her book People are Tiny in Paintings of China was published by Octopus Books last year. Her work has appeared this year on the PEN Foundation Blog, in Boston Review, and Forklift, Ohio.

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