"I read your book. That was cool, being published. Are you going to do it with a real book some day?"
"This is a real book. See? Cover, pages, words..."
"You know, like a story."
"Oh, a novel? No. I choose not to write prose. I'm a poet."
This is the conversation I've had a few dozen times, mostly with family members or people I've met locally. Oddly enough, never with poets...
Now, I could write an academic essay on the narrative tradition and how the novel as we know it is a relative newcomer to the scene compared with thousands of years of poetry; I could delve back through history and cite examples of poems that have been so completely integrated into the collective psyche that we don't even realise they were poems in the first place; I could complain that people have lost their ability to think beyond surface level in any text anymore and I could whinge that poetry has been destroyed by emo kids writing their cliches about deep dark black despair and crimson blood. All of those would be valid responses.
Instead, I'm going to accept that the popular definition of "a real book" has shifted to the light paperback that is easily reimagined for cinema. This is part of the same phenomenon that has seen the decline of the beautifully-made, metaphor-rich film -- no thanks, says Joe Public, I just want to see a comic book come to life. This is not because audiences are getting dumber, as is the popular catchcry among artistes; it is because that's all they have available to them. Or rather, readily available at affordable prices with minimal time invested. Every Joe is on a tight budget.
Publishers, movie makers, TV executives, music producers -- once these were entities who were prepared to take a risk. They were dealing in smaller volumes then, new media, and a less jaded audience. Now art, like everything else in the world, is commodified and packaged for maximum profit. There is no intrinsic value to a work unless the marketing team gives it one. Every advertiser is out there competing for those few dollars that Joe has left over at the end of each week, and every corporation is doing its best to make sure that Joe isn't thinking about long term investments into his intellectual or cultural wellbeing. They're peddling instant gratification, because a dollar in the hand now is far more important than contributing to some intangible legacy or heritage.
That's the reality, and a poet has three clear choices:
1. Sit in the contemporary garret -- i.e. wherever there's an internet connection -- and complain about it while cultivating an air of vague disinterest;
2. Figure out what's popular now and churn out masses of that, making sure to promote it well; or
3. Learn to write poetry to the highest standard, accept it as a dynamic art form, provide an example for new poets, and just get on with it.
A smaller, more thoughtful audience that reads and appreciates poetry because it's poetry is far more satisfying than a mass market who will consume it only for the quotable lines, put them on bumper stickers and reduce your work to a collection of aphorisms to try to make themselves seem more intellectual.
I love prose. I read novels often, and they make me very happy. But I write poetry, and will always write poetry. To me, it is the distillation of what it is to be human -- maximum information, minimum words. There is no greater pleasure than the perfect metaphor: the phrase that redefines the world and opens a window you never imagined was there.
It's highly likely that I will never publish again, but I will write. And one day, those who misunderstood will come back to poetry and know that it's the reality they just weren't ready for, but still desperately need.