The occult art of the poetry book blurb

furious blurbOn taking up writing it had not once occurred to me that one of the tasks of being a writer might be to come up with those concise, quippy phrases on the covers of books. You know, the ones that readers use to choose the book they want to read next (or throw on the pile beside the bed where, among the shadows and dust bunnies, they breed with lusty and secretive abandon, generating towering piles of the unread).

My initiation into the world of the blurb came when I was about to have a poetry collection published. Poetry-world is an alien place where the laws of culture and commerce operate a little differently. For example, if you are a novelist, your book blurb is essentially a succinct yet dramatic summary of who the main characters are and the challenges those characters will face as the plot unfolds. Marketing graduates will argue there’s far more to it than that (and I’m sure I’m disrespecting an entire field of  research on the psychology of successful book blurbing) but really, readers look for reassurance that the plot sounds interesting and that the book will resemble in some way other books they’ve enjoyed. For a poet, whose book generally does not contain a plot, protagonist or narrative arc, the situation proves a little trickier. For both novelist and poet, the blurb is a marketing tool, the objective being to pull the reader in, convincing them that this is the book for them. Yet without the ability to easily explain what the book is about the poet has to resort to other means to find something useful and marketable to put on their back cover.

Those other means generally entail using their relationships with other poets. Now, I don’t mean relationships in a nasty, sleeping your way to a good book blurb sense. I mean that by the time you are in a position to have a book of poetry published you have presumably been a citizen of poetry-world for a while, attending readings and open mike-nights, going to workshops and submitting work to literary journals. Hopefully, you’ve been shopping your work around at least long enough to know a few poets sufficiently well to be confident that a) they like your work and b) will be happy to say so publicly. So getting back to my use of the word relationship – you get a blurb for a book of poetry by asking poets that you know and respect to read the proofs of your manuscript and write something complimentary about it, along the lines of what they think your poetry is trying to say and how brilliantly you’ve said it.

I was really lucky when it came to finding blurb-willing poets. Mike Ladd, the producer of Radio National’s Poetica program, one of Australia’s most esteemed poets and just all-round lovely guy, had mentored me when I first started trying to publish poems. Jill Jones, collector of the nation’s most prestigious poetry prizes just happens to be my PhD supervisor. Then, just as my book was about to go to print, I met Mark Tredinnick at a workshop in Victoria and he agreed to take a few minutes out of his hectic schedule of winning international poetry awards and being interviewed by the likes of The Poetry Foundation to write a blurb for me.

blurbTheir blurbs are quite amazing and generous and I’m immensely grateful to them. As a poetry reader, I know both the power of a good blurb and the equally potent effect of a good name on the back of a book. The market for poetry is overwhelmingly other poets. Generally, only poets shell out good money for slim volumes of poetry. So, the work of promoting poetry collections to poetry-buying poets is achieved by other poets writing blurbs and reviews. Yes, novelists also write blurby cover comments for other novelists. However, it is primarily professional critics who review novels and these critics are generally not novelists themselves. Poetry reviewers are overwhelmingly other poets. See? Poetry-world works according to slightly different laws to the other spheres of the literary universe.

So, to get back to my point (yes, it was a while ago but don’t bother scrolling back to the top as I’m about to remind you) part of the job of being a writer, particularly a poet-type writer, is learning the art of blurbing. When I was first approached to do this I was honoured for about five minutes before the terror kicked in. I’d never done this before. I’d only recently met the poet in question, Kathryn Hummel, and was a little perplexed as to why she’d singled me out among all the other Adelaidean poets. The paranoia faded as soon as she sent me her manuscript. I loved it. Now the problem was relaying that in a form that neither she nor I would cringe at seeing on the cover of her book. Fucking brilliant was probably not going to cut it as insightful literary critique. I madly pulled poetry collections off my shelves, trying to absorb the lingo of other, more experienced blurbers. This just made the situation worse. Trying to channel Simon Armitage or Judith Beveridge while simultaneously doing justice to Kathryn’s poetry was a recipe for broad scale embarrassment.

Once I’d calmed down and tidied away the remnants of the poetry tornado on my office floor I made a list of what I wanted the blurb to express.

  1. My genuine opinion of the collection.
  2. What I thought were the themes of the collection.
  3. How well the poetry expressed the themes.
  4. What I appreciated most about the poet and her writing.

This is a severely truncated version of what I said –  Poems from Here – Kathryn Hummel (Walleah Press, 2014).

Kathryn Hummel turns each moment of experience in her hands, examines it with keen intelligence and then conveys her insights with an elegance of language that leaves the reader breathless.

These poems trace a path across the globe, delving into experiences with luminous intensity and gentle self-satire. Kathryn Hummel is deeply engaged with the world and conveys her insights with a perceptiveness that is at once brilliantly precise and sumptuously lyrical.

When the book came out I was very chuffed to see the publisher had used the second paragraph as the first quote on the back cover. (Unfortunately, my name was spelled incorrectly. Gah!) Kathryn then used the first paragraph as the top comment on the page of her website that lists responses to her work so I was both relieved and proud. Nailed it.

Kathryn cover

A few months later rob walker, whose book had been accepted by Five Islands Press (the publisher every Australian poet dreams of publishing their work – well, after Faber & Faber, anyway) asked me to write a blurb for his book. This was a complete surprise as rob is an extremely well connected poet. Les Murray wrote one of his blurbs. Les Murray. rob’s book Tropeland is being launched in June and I have to admit to feeling a little thrill to see my comment there on the cover alongside The Les Murray, Mike Ladd and Aidan Coleman.

Tropeland cover

A couple of weeks ago another poet hit me up and I’ve just sent off a blurb for Jules Leigh Koch, a brilliant imagist poet whose collection Stripping Wallpaper from the Sky is forthcoming from Interactive Press later this year. The whole business still makes me nervous and I’m a little at sea as to why they choose me to do it – but it feels lovely to be asked and I’m honoured that my name and opinion is something they want on something as important as the cover of their book. Thank you Kathryn, rob and Jules – your faith in me is mysterious yet very much appreciated.


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