Publishing, Poetry, and the Future: Reflecting on the 2015 Bear River Writers’ Conference

by Allison Peters on July 27, 2015

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The weekend May sprung into June, I attended the 2015 Bear River Writers’ Conference at Camp Michigania up on Walloon Lake (where Ernest Hemingway used to spend his summers as a kid), 250 miles north of Ann Arbor, a little south of Petoskey.

Sponsored by the University of Michigan Department of English, Bear River is rich with writing workshops, readings, panels (often related to publishing), and craft talks. Directed by University of Michigan faculty member and poet Keith Taylor, the annual conference—now in its fifteenth year—is regularly attended by some of the University’s most prestigious creative writing faculty as well as nationally-bestselling and Michigan-based authors.

Workshop leaders at this year’s conference included: Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Stephen Dunn; The Living Great Lakes author, Jerry Dennis; Michigan faculty member, poet, and fiction writer, Laura Kasischke; Detroit poet, educator, and co-director of the Organic Weapon Arts Chapbook and Video Series, Jamaal May; author of The Good People of New York (Knopf, 2001), Thisbe Nissen; University of Michigan Press author and retired Michigan faculty member, Richard Tillinghast; The New Yorker contributor and author of Funny Once (Bloomsbury, 2014), Antonya Nelson; memoirist and professional speaker, Sue William Silverman; winner of The Great Lakes Book Award, Thomas Lynch; and Michigan MFA alumna and author of Miles from Nowhere (Riverhead Books, 2009), Nami Mun.

I also met many of this year’s 100 participants, including the President of the Board of Directors of Michigan Writers, Daniel Stewart; a reader for the journal A Public Space, Megan Cummins; a graduate student at the medical school who’s interested in the intersection of medicine and the humanities (especially poetry), Ting Gnu; and a number of college and university professors and published authors.

Bear River hosted a panel on Saturday, May 30, called “Writing and Publishing in 2015,” presented by Eric McHenry (the poet laureate of Kansas), Jamaal May, and Thisbe Nissen. Here are four significant takeaways I’d like to share from that publishing panel:

1)      Self-publishing vs. traditional publishing

Building readership is building community, no matter through whom the book comes out. Self-publishing could be an ideal path for someone writing their life story, writing for therapy, or writing in a niche interest area.

Jamaal discussed copyright and how, if you’ve already published a chapbook that’s now out of print, you may be able to self-publish a second edition if copyright reverts back to the author. Moreover, if you self-publish a book that then becomes successful, it’s not unheard of for a press to ask to purchase the rights to re-publish it. Jamaal also revered Creative Commons and print on demand as excellent resources for today’s writers and publishers.

All three panelists referred to publishing as a grassroots effort, in that the community helps to sustain the writing so “the real stuff” can keep thriving. Scholarly publishing functions the same way: course adoption ensures a kind of community-building around a scholar’s book.

2)      Print and digital working in tandem

Over the last decade, many people have commented that the future of print looks bleak in our increasingly digital landscape. Jamaal compared this assertion to similar statements that have been made about the death of poetry: “We know we need it, so we’re afraid it’ll go away, but it won’t go away—because we need it,” he said.

“We need to be open to shift,” said Jamaal. “The things we care about will keep us grounded.”

The digital gives boundless opportunity for collaboration across genres. For example, a poetry book in print could have an online component that offers photo albums, video of a poet reading her work, a podcast with interviews, a place for comments, and other features. This multimedia content gives rich context to the print book, and complements it rather than overrides it.

3)      Social media ethics for marketing art

Regarding writing and publicity in the age of social media marketing, all three panelists agreed that Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have become important channels for writers to build community, share their work, and connect around the world to other writers and publishers.

“People are starting to talk about the growing art economy,” Jamaal said, and social media is one place for that conversation to thrive. Jamaal reinforced the idea that it is writers and publishers who make this community, and that humility—not salesmanship—will make people to want to read your work. “When you make art, you’re just trying to reach people,” said Jamaal, who encouraged writers to approach self-marketing casually.

4)      Poetry and the untapped public

“Poetry is creeping up in the social discourse,” said Jamaal. “Kids love poetry, but they get scared of it because of the way it’s often taught. Imagine a music class where you never actually listened to music—that’s the way a lot of poetry gets taught.” He compared poetry to the violin, noting that it can be deeply studied, but you can also just pick it up and have fun with it.

Jamaal encouraged everyone who owns poetry books to leave them out on coffee tables for guests to pick up and read. He also shared his top three rules for all artists:

1) make good art

2) make it available

3) be decent to people

Thank you to the University of Michigan Press, the University of Michigan Library, and everyone at Bear River for this opportunity to interact with the Michigan writing community in such a magical setting. For more information on the Bear River Writers’ Conference, visit their website; details on how to register for next year’s conference will be made available online later this year.

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