Towards the end of the comments on our article on poetry reviews, a discussion arose on how people found poetry and decided to buy it, which seemed like an important topic in itself.
As little as ten years ago, my poetry book buying habits were easy to pin down. I’d go to the new flagship Waterstones in Glasgow (it seemed a benign development at the time with the café, comfy chairs scattered around, and extensive stock) and peruse the poetry shelves. There were plenty of them. I hadn’t read much at the time and I remember finding an American edition of John Ashbery’sThe Tennis Court Oath, one of his most difficult collections, and feeling a mixture of shock, intrigue and impatience. The point is – Waterstones had a copy on the shelves. They stocked loads of poetry volumes. I leafed through books and found poetry, by trial and error, that appealed to me.
A decade on, things have changed completely. I still stumble across some fantastic collections in the shrinking poetry sections of bookshops, but not often
How do I find books these days? I decided to examine the last five poetry collections I’ve read (other than those I’ve been asked to review). How did I come across them?
1. Chronic – D.A. Powell (Graywolf Press, 2009)
This was recommended on a poetry board. It’s a book I would never have come across in pre-Internet days. In fact, it wouldn’t have been readily available because it hasn’t (yet) been published in the UK. I found some work online and read a review. It sounded really interesting, and so it proved.
2. Nights in the Iron Hotel – Michael Hofmann (Faber 1983)
I hadn’t read much Hofmann before last year. I was browsing in Borders bookshop and picked up his Selected Poems. I only had time to read two or three poems quickly, but was taken aback by how good they were. I mentioned it to a friend who found it in a bookshop and bought it. He then emailed me to tell me I had to buy it, so I did. I’ve now read all Hofmann’s individual collections. This one, the first, was hardest to find at a half-reasonable price, but I persevered and bought it second-hand online.
3. MUDe – John Redmond (Carcanet 2008)
I found this one through a Facebook status update. A poet whose book I had enjoyed mentioned how good MUDe was. Online, I read a little information about it. It certainly sounded different and I decided to take a chance.
4. Fruitcake – Selima Hill (Bloodaxe 2009)
I’d read ‘A Little Book of Meat’ on a personal recommendation, and then read a fair bit of her Collected Poems, ‘Gloria’. On an online poetry discussion forum, people were discussing what poetry books they were looking forward to for 2009. I tried to check what was forthcoming and found, at the Bloodaxe website, that a new Hill book was due. What stuck in my mind was that it was over 250 pages long – very long for a collection. Of course, most of the poems are very short.
5. Sills – Michael O’Brien (Salt 2009)
I found this selected poems at the Salt website, during the ‘Just One Book’ campaign. It is a bit like browsing a bookstore there. I had never heard of Michael O’Brien, but I could see the cover, blurbs, and a selection of poems. Blurbs do help if they’re the right kind – August Kleinzahler calling it a “large event: our first comprehensive look at a neglected American master” certainly got me interested. Yes, I am obviously a sucker, but the book is pretty good.
So what makes YOU buy a poetry collection?
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