The Poets’ Publishers –
Maria Teresa Carbone
Maria Teresa Carbone writes about publishing, literature, photography and cinema, holds journalism courses at the University of Roma Tre and for UCEAP (University of California Education Abroad Program) and is involved in literacy education. She has coordinated the editorial staff of Alfabeta2, edited the Arts section of Pagina99, and worked on the Culture section of il manifesto. Her most recent books are Che ci faccio qui? Scrittrici e scrittori nell’era della postfotografia (Italo Svevo 2022) and the poetry collection Calendiario (Aragno 2020). She has translated works by Joseph Conrad, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Jean Baudrillard, Virginie Despentes, among others.
An instapoet is defined as “someone who publishes his or her poetic compositions, usually short and accompanied by images, on social networks, particularly Instagram”. This is how the Treccani dictionary explains it, under the “neologisms” heading, adding the following clarification: “Books of poetry – contemporary or from past eras – sell very few copies and are considered a publishing product aimed at a rather cultivated niche”. It’s a cruel fate that this new generation of authors seems to be getting away, as publishers vie with each other “at a time when poetry seemed to be dead, they bring with them an audience of stars” as Costanza Rizzacasa d’Orsogna wrote in 2017, in La lettura, the cultural supplement of Corriere della Sera.
But is this really the case? Can the internet be seen as a gigantic breeding ground for young poetic voices? And more generally, what does it mean to publish books of poetry when the web abounds with verses that are just a click away? “The network seems to have solved the individual problem of publication. Today, anyone can put his or her poems online in the hope that someone will read them”, notes Nicola Crocetti in the introduction to his “anthology of universal poetry” Dimmi un verso anima mia, only to warn that it is just “an illusion”, “a message in a bottle” whose outcome cannot be counted on.
And apparently, there are many who think like Crocetti, despite the fact that we live in the age not only of the internet, but also of “multimodal hyperpresence”, to quote Renata Morresi, who, for the small publishing house Arcipelago Itaca, runs Lacustrine, a collection of “difficult” poetry, as she herself defines it somewhat ironically: “difficult, as poems ‘normally’ are, a challenge to the lazy imagination, to linguistic habits, to opaque thought.” According to Morresi (herself a poet, like almost all the editors of poetry collections), “there have never been never so many books printed as there are today”, despite audio and visual adaptations, public readings and collective projects: “The enormous range of readings offered by the web is by no means a deterrent. Writers still want, and greatly so, to print on paper. Danilo Mandolini (the publisher of Arcipelago Itaca) receives twenty or thirty requests for publication a week: there is a great fear that by writing off the book as a relic – a piece of the body of the holy poet that radiates its spiritual effects – we will lose everything that poetry can represent and do.”
Marco Giovenale, the head of Ikonaliber’s Syn collection, also suspects that the importance of the web is being exaggerated, arguing that in Italy the role of the old media (TV, radio, printed newspapers), remains central for the dissemination of poetry, not to mention awards and festivals: “The closer we get to poetic performances and general publishing, the less direct the internet appears, although it certainly retains its relevance”. As for the hypothesis that publishers spontaneously scout authors on the internet to publish, I have the impression that this remains to be verified, and that it could perhaps be reversed. The manuscript and the author’sknowledge of the material come first.”
In any case, in talking to publishers and editors of poetry collections, you get the feeling that the boundary between the internet and the “real world” is less rigid than we tend to believe, and that it is precisely – as Giovenale rightly points out – knowledge of the texts and the people who write them that counts. “Manuscripts arrive at the publishing house or we look for authors because we know them from previous publications, perhaps in online magazines”, explains Agnese Manni, director of the publishing house that bears her name. And Michele Zaffarano, who edits three collections for Tic (ChapBooks, UltraChapBooks and Gli Alberi, the first two on creative writing, the third on literary theory), reiterates the point: “The authors I publish are authors that I know first-hand, or whom I find somewhere because I have already read them, or authors whom people I respect recommend to me.”
Franco Buffoni (who also edits the LyraGiovani collection for Interlinea) has been an infallible spotter of new talent for more than thirty years with Quaderni italiani di poesia, and can’t help but notice the transformation brought about by the web, “which makes things easier, costs practically nothing and cuts out a lot of red tape”. However, even for him, there is a line of continuity: “Twenty years ago, the filter was the printed magazines: from there came the names on which we could begin to work in depth. Today, that function is fulfilled by the web. Perhaps then, in essence, nothing has really changed. What is certain, and what is as true today as it was then, especially when the choices are made collectively, by a reading committee, as in the case of Quaderni, is that “the person who coordinates has to mediate, mediate, mediate”.
Mediation is not an easy exercise, yet it is based on a confrontation that produces richness. Gian Mario Villalta, one of the editors of the two collections Gialla and Gialla Oro, produced by the Pordenonelegge festival in collaboration with Samuele Editore, is convinced of this: “More than the criteria, what counts is that many of us choose, and I’m not just talking about us, the editors, but also the many friends and poets who talk to us and make suggestions. In my opinion, the real vector of poetry today is the relationship between people, their ability to create a living, participatory network. As Vittorio Sereni said, ‘you don’t read poetry, you live with poetry’. Tommaso Di Dio, who edited the vast anthology Poesie dell’Italia contemporanea for Saggiatore and who, with Vincenzo Frungillo and Ivan Schiavone, oversees the Adamàs collection for La vita felice, expresses a similar position: “Our space is a space for dialogue between three editors who have a very different vision of poetic writing. This already heralds a style: we will certainly try to publish texts that do not have a narrow genealogy, but which are convincing for all three in terms of their refinement of craft, their ability to innovate and to open up new frontiers for the imagination”.
Similarly, Maria Grazia Calandrone sees the “i domani” collection – which she runs with Andrea Cortellessa and Laura Pugno for the Aragno publishing house – as “a happy balance between many modes, moods and solutions of poetic creation”. Diego Bertelli, who for Le Lettere is responsible, with Raoul Bruni, for the Novecento/Duemila collection, speaks of a “more ‘dynamic’ alternative to editorial choices based on a specific orientation” and of a “canon ‘in the making’ (in the conviction that a canon is only possible in this way)”, without excluding – hence the name – the re-proposal of “forgotten” works and authors of the twentieth century.
In short, the movement in the panorama of contemporary Italian poetry publishing is great and beneficial, even if Maurizio Cucchi, for many years Mondadori’s advisor for the most “historic” of poetry collections, Lo Specchio, warns that “the fundamental criterion of evaluation” must be “quality, which is an absolute literary value, beyond any belonging to a school or current”, especially “in a historical moment when language is no longer created, but rather suffered”. Quality is a concept on which everyone agrees in theory, but which, when translated into concrete terms, takes different, even opposing positions. Vincenzo Ostuni, director of the poetry collection at Ponte alle Grazie, which is devoted almost entirely to authors of the past, highlights the presence of “a flourishing circuit of excellent project publishing houses, medium-sized but above all small and very small ones, whose collections of poetry and ‘hybrid’ writing are often directed by some of the best critics and poets”. To these publishing labels, which “despite suffering from a lack of visibility in bookshops, are doing their utmost to disseminate the best new voices”, Ostuni contrasts the big publishing houses’ “desperate flattening and thinning of poetics and rejection of any even vaguely experimental option”.
Mauro Bersani, director of the highly regarded Einaudi ‘white’ collection, takes a completely different view. He is convinced that “the more poetry is published, the better it is for all publishers”, whatever their size, and is prepared to admit that small publishing houses constitute “a precious reservoir of young poets to ‘steal'”. This comes as no surprise to Fabio Pusterla and Massimo Gezzi, who handle poetry publications for the Marcos y Marcos publishing house, trying to take into account “the different types of contemporary poetic language”: And while Pusterla’s main aim is for “schools to train future readers – of poetry and, more generally, of good books”, Gezzi points out that “especially among young people, the names that stand out really emerge from below, from publishing houses that are less well-established than the big brands but undoubtedly more attentive to the poetry that is being created, to new developments, despite the difficulties of distribution”. That’s why, he says, “choosing a book of poetry published by a small or medium-sized publishing house can be a significant gesture – culturally and politically”.