Monday, January 03, 2005

Marketing and Sales of Asian-American Poetry

I feel like I'm already taking myself a bit too seriously. Some issues are tough not to take seriously, but I want this blog to be a light, funny, and entertaining read as well.

In one of my undergrad classes, somehow the discussion turned to how hot and sexy Li-Young Lee is and how that sells his books. (Wasn't my idea, but hey, I can go where the conversation takes me.) Actually, especially since Li-Young Lee's poetry books have been the best-selling books in Asian-American poetry for seemingly the longest time, it has made me think more about how the physical appearance of the poet, at least on the book jacket but sometimes in person, can affect the sales of poetry. It is one of those fluffy, gossipy, popcorn issues that, IMHO, has some real substance.

We so-called serious aesthetes and intellectuals of poetry like to think of ourselves as immune to such trivialities. And I suppose some of us are. But Li-Young Lee visited our undergrad, and I saw the reactions. Please, I'm not that ignorant. His book jacket itself could fetch a fair price. And I would say that, beyond the circumscribed world of poets, the vast majority of buyers and readers of poetry are women (and gay men?). Perhaps 70% or 80%, but I'm just taking a wild guess here. So if you want to expand your audience beyond poetry afficionados, I imagine that a good looking photo could definitely help.

I think that a slightly different set of issues may exist for women Asian-American poets than for men Asian-American poets. (The conversation could turn serious here, but I don't want it to turn that way.) Basically, and Asian-American studies people have probably heard this argument a thousand times before, the argument is that Asian-American males have historically not been portrayed, and are not sociologically viewed, as good-looking or desirable or sexy by a white-dominated media. Asian-American females, on the other hand, are either dragon ladies, or more frequently, exotic sex kittens with pouty lips and submissive bodies for white men to control. Really, I think that it's more complex than this telling, but I'd say that it does have some truth to it.

Anyhow, I think that Asian-American women poets might have a more difficult choice to make here, as elsewhere, over whether to conform to an exotic, sexualized, stereotyped eroticism in order to sell books or to go for the plainer, more demure photograph that screams, "I'm an intellectual, get me out of here!"

I don't want to overplay the importance of the physical looks of the poet her or himself. Or do I? I know most of America's "leading poets" aren't exactly going to pose for GQ or Vanity Fair any time soon. Or are they -- are they more good-looking than the average population, and if they are, do their relatively good looks sell their poetry? Or should our leading poets get Maury Povich makeovers? BUT I will say -- and perhaps elaborate upon in the next post -- that Asian-American poets, and poets in general, should wake up and smell the latte and realize that they must at least consider this question. Our "leading poets" and the "poetry establishment" must more vigorously pursue commercialism. Finally, I've said something provocative here! :) You might respond, as I've responded in the past, with a "But I don't want to poetry (art) to be commercialized!" But, my friend, it already is, and we need to consider reforms to the publishing industry that may need to be taken to encourage and increase the numbers of intellectually engaged readers of poetry.

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