Poetry is Dead; Long Live Poetry

Editors' note: We asked Sandy Longhorn, runner-up in 2013's poetry chapbook contest, to give her thoughts on the diverse readership of Heron Tree. She's also provided a sampling from Heron Tree's archive. Enjoy!

Let’s face it, a best-selling volume of poetry may be dwarfed in terms of numbers of copies sold when compared to a best-selling volume of literary prose, be it fiction or non-fiction, and even literary prose will continually be dwarfed by mass market books found in the hands of most Americans.

However, every time someone brings up the “poetry is dead” argument and talks about how “poetry is only read by other poets,” I have a visceral response in opposition. If this “someone” happens to be nearby, I’ll jump up on my soapbox right then and there. If this argument comes up in print, I usually end up on my soapbox anyway, proclaiming my side to the screen or hand-held magazine, to the great distress of our cats.

Let me prove it to you. On May 26, 2012, I received an invitation to join two of my friends in creating and publishing Heron Tree, an online poetry journal publishing one new poem a week online with an annual print edition. My two friends, Rebecca Resinski and Chris Campolo, had just co-founded Heron Tree Press and wanted a poetry journal to be their first project. Rebecca and Chris are, in fact, not poets. What they are, though, is incredibly well-read with backgrounds in classics and philosophy respectively.

Believe it or not, Rebecca and Chris had long been readers of contemporary poetry before they even met me. They actually (gasp) subscribe to literary journals and read them for pleasure. In fact, Heron Tree, has proven to be well received by poets and non-poets alike. One of the great advantages to being an online journal, and to using social media for promotion efforts, is that we, the editors, can easily share the publication across our set of friends, be they writers or not. Given the speed of information transfer these days, those friends will often spread the word to new readers, who will pass it on the same.

Meanwhile, the writer of each week’s poem may be doing just as we are, expanding the circle of readers in ever widening rings.

Actually, one of our most loyal readers is a gentleman from the U.K. He happens to be the friend of the wife of a poet-friend of mine, all connected via Facebook. This U.K. reader is not a poet himself, but he is interested in poetry, especially the sounds of poetry, and he often comments on our Facebook page with his thoughts about the current poem on the journal’s homepage. With one click, the journal jumped the Atlantic Ocean, and no one had to pay postage. In this way, we’ve built a readership that is varied in background and geography, and some of our most ardent cheerleaders come from the non-poet, even non-writer side of things.

Of course, the vast majority of poetry is read by other poets, but let’s not make sweeping claims about such readership. Instead of proclaiming poetry to be dead over and over, let’s work to continue to broaden the reach of poetry. Let’s talk poetry with our non-poetry family and friends; let’s bring poetry into the community in new and interesting ways. Let’s show people that in today’s poetry there is room for all the voices, and that listening to those voices can be a rewarding and enjoyable experience.

Heron Tree

When asked to provide links to some of my favorite Heron Tree poems, I hesitate. Our editorial process is perhaps at the far end of the continuum on selection. We are three co-editors, and we read all of our submissions blind. A poet’s position or previous publications don’t really enter our discussions. In order for a poem to be published in Heron Tree it must be a “trifecta,” meaning we must all three vote “yes” for the poem’s inclusion. During our editorial meetings, we discuss any poem brought forth by any of the three of us. Sometimes, the poem has an immediate consensus, and sometimes through discussion that consensus forms. What this means is that we are not choosing poems on an issue-based system, where we might be considering how all of the poems work together. Instead, each poem has been selected for its own strengths, making it incredibly hard to single out just a few.

In any case, rather than call these poems my favorites, and I am speaking only for myself here, not for Chris or Rebecca, I will say that these links will provide a representation of what we have published. For those interested, our archives are cumulative and freely available as well.

“The Ornithologist Searches For a Shared Ancestry” by Carol Berg

“Closing the Book” by Robert King

“The Kindness of Ravens” by Jennifer Saunders

“Earl Scruggs and Adrienne Rich Share a Cab to the Afterlife” by Amorak Huey


Sandy Longhorn is the author of The Girlhood Book of Prairie Myths, winner of the 2013 Jacar Press Full Length Poetry Book Contest and Blood Almanac, winner of the 2005 Anhinga Prize for Poetry. New poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Crazyhorse, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Hotel Amerika, The Southeast Review, and elsewhere. Longhorn teaches at Pulaski Technical College, where she directs the Big Rock Reading Series, and for the online MFA Program at the University of Arkansas Monticello. In addition, she co-edits the online journal Heron Tree and blogs at Myself the only Kangaroo among the Beauty.

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