Commerce and Poetry - A VRB News Report
Redknott’s Art Leaves Profit Watchers Edgy
By Boniface Himmelforth
A Vrzhu Research Bureau Exclusive
Lobscouse Island, Maine — Paul Redknott has never released a book of poetry that was not a commercial and creative triumph, and his 10th book, “Waywardscape,” is looking to be no exception — at least artistically.
To the extreme irritation of the Knoughlin-Hifflin, however, two important business camps — Wall Street and Anaconda, the online shopping behemoth — are notably nervous about “Waywardscape.”
The book, by the 78-year-old Redknott, features dazzling poems that evoke the works of Hopkins, Geoffrey Hill and Barrett Watten. Like Redknott’s American Book Award-winning “The Limestone Wall,” there are stretches of fragmented words, even phonemes. A few poems are rendered in white on white typeface.
Some poetry watchers, a few of them still griping about the hefty $2 million advance that Knoughlin-Hifflin paid Redknott for “The Limestone Wall,” are fretting about the book’s commercial potential, particularly when it comes to benefiting other Knoughlin-Hifflin efforts.
Robert Bluespan of Galactopoesis Research downgraded Knoughlin-Hifflin shares to sell last month, citing a poor outlook for “Waywardscape” as a reason. “We doubt the average reader will be that excited by the book,” he wrote, adding a complaint about the lack of a poems with sexy themes.
Mr. Bluespan is alone in his vociferousness, but not in his opinion.
“People seem to be concerned about this one,” said William Oscars, who follows Knoughlin-Hifflin at Casusbelli & Company. Brad Yogsothoth of Eldritch and Company, a business affiliate of Anaconda, said qualms ran deeper than whether “Waywardscape” will be a success — he thinks it will — but rather whether Redknott can deliver the kind of mega-success he once did.
“The worries keep coming despite Paul’s track record, because each book he delivers seems to be less accessible than the last,” Mr. Yogsothoth said.
Tony Eigersanction, Knoughlin-Hifflin’s chief executive, responded, “We seek to publish great poetry first. If a great poet gives birth to a franchise, we are the first company to leverage such success. A check-the-boxes approach to creativity is more likely to result in blandness and failure.”
The print run for “Waywardscape” is about 500,000, on par with other Redknott titles. “Waywardscape” will not arrive in bookstores until April 30, 2009, but Redknottistas — nudged along by the publisher, which has been posting poems on its site — are already effusive.
“Sophisticated, mature, poignant,” wrote Red Sky At Knott, a blog that chronicles everything Redknott. The New York City Tribeca Literary Festival is so excited about “Waywardscape,” that it slotted a reading with Redknott on its prestigious opening night, a huge promotional platform that has never before gone to a poet or book of poetry.
Adjusted for inflation, Redknott’s books have generated a combined $2.65 million in domestic sales, a spectacular showing. “Binge and Purge” in 2003 was the high point, generating 905,000 in hardback sales.
Redknott’s last two books, “Limestone Wall” and “Wankel’s Engine,” have been Redknott’s two worst performers according to Poetry Mojo, a tracking service. Sales of Redknott’s books have dropped sharply over the years, suggesting that price inflation helped prop up overall dollar figures for “Limestone Wall” and “Wankel’s Engine.”
Knoughlin-Hifflin marketers had hoped to curtail the it’s-not-commercial reaction to “Waywardscape” by breaking with past practice and widely publishing individual poems from the book online, and in newspapers and magazines. Inside the publishing house, executives are bullish on it, particularly because focus groups have responded favorably. The company added that it does not expect every Redknott book to become a franchise.
Perhaps Wall Street would not care so much if Redknott seemed to care a little more. Redknott said in a recent online question and answer session with reporters that the book’s commercial prospects never crossed his mind. “I write poems for myself,” he said. “I’m kind of ornery and selfish that way.”
Arthur Frockpru, head of Knoughlin-Hifflin’s poetry division, routinely says in interviews that marketability is not a factor in decisions about what books and authors to pursue. Instead of ideas that feel contemporary, he aims for poems that are rooted in the ages.
“Quality is the best business plan” is one of Mr. Frockpru’s favorite lines.
“We wanted more Eliot and less McKuen,’ ” Mr. Frockpru said. “In certain parts, it’s more of a feeling we’re going after than linear narrative and accessibility.”