Interview with Thomas A Williams

The author of Poet Power talks about his book, a poet’s duty to publish, about working for free, about “selling” poetry, about the best, and worst poetry readings, writing online, poetry contests, and his next book.

Magdalena Ball: What inspired you to write Poet Power?

Thomas Williams: My love of poetry, and my deep feeling that poets, of all writers, were the least well informed about the real business of publishing. I thought that my long, very practical experience both as a writer and a publisher could make a real contribution.

MB: In your book Poet Power, you say that a poet has a duty to publish. Why is that?

TW: Because without art, we all live in separate, encapsulated worlds. It is only through art — and perhaps love — that we can share those worlds.

MB: Why is it in a poet’s best interests to publish?

TW: Publication helps build a community of like minds. It is a lonely life when we can’t share our deepest feelings and insights with others. On a more practical level, publication can build the reputation of the poet and give him or her an opportunity to become a force for aesthetic awareness in the world.

MB: What about working for free? Bearing in mind the low commercial value of poetry as an enterprise,should a poet allow his or her works to be published in order to be read, get his or her work in the public arena and for name recognition, or should he or she insist on publishing only in paying publications (even if that means that publications are much less frequent).

TW: It is not so much a question of payment as of quality. Even the finest literary reviews may offer payment in copies only. What the poet must do, however, is take care to publish only in those publications where peer review is as much of a guarantee of quality as is possible. Your poetry will be known by the company it keeps.

MB: If so many people are interested in poetry, why doesn’t verse sell well?

TW: There is no question that there are no “best-selling” poets. But poetry can sell, if the poet takes into consideration the requirements of the literary marketplace. The first requirement is that the poet do most of the selling himself or herself through readings and presentations. The second is that the poems collected in
a book be slanted to a market. This is not difficult to do and does not entail any lessening of quality. I give details in some of the most useful chapters of Poet Power.

MB: Tell me about some of the best poetry readings you’ve been to? What did the poet do to make them exciting?

TW: The poet was well prepared, gave details about his work, sprinkled anecdotes through the reading, encouraged reaction and participation.

MB: What about the worst? What things should a poet never do when doing a reading?

TW: Apologize for his presentation, mumble, and practice any form of self-deprecation.

MB: You mention (p.171) that the Internet is not a good medium for poetry publishing. Can you elaborate
on that?

TW: First of all, no one can find your work. Second, there are tons of bad verse out there that you don’t want to be associated with. Third,the look of a poem on a page is an important part of its message.

MB: What about the many nicely produced well frequented on-line poetry journals? (NG, Pif and ZuZu Petals, just to name a few)

TW: When I read this question I went to ZuZu’s [sic] Petals. The verse was not particularly good, though not awful. The bold face, sans serif type in which the poems were set was a real turn-off. A good poem requires a printed page. Poets would be better served to produce their own, self-published books or chapbooks. That’s why I discuss the how-to of this so thoroughly in Poet Power.

MB: You provide a brief caution about poetry contests(the ones that Writer’s Digest advertises for example). Should poets be prepared to pay for poetry contests?

TW: I have never seen a poetry “contest” that was not in some way a scam. W. H. Auden, visiting a college campus, was asked whether he thought a certain poet was better than another one. He replied, “Poetry is not a contest, young man.” I go along with Auden.

MB: Are you working on something at the moment that you can tell us about?

TW: I have three projects under way. Sentient Publications will bring out two books next year: “Freelance 101” and “What Happens When Your Book is Published (and What You Can Do about It.) I am also writing a series that I call “Little Blue Sourcebooks: for Writers and Self-Publishers.” These will be available on my web site, The Sourcebooks a brief, nuts-and-bolts handbooks. Titles include “How to Get an Agent,” “Will They Steal My Idea?” and “Success Secrets of the Freelance Masters.”