Hardly anybody was reading Buck Downs’ poetry anthologies. Even his friends, Downs says, were intimidated by the prospect of getting 80 pages of bound verse. So the D.C. poet and editor has gone postaldirect-mailing small poems to his audience on postcards.
“You get home and you pull this junk out of your mailbox. There’s the phone bill, the Safeway coupon book, and this card,” says Downs. “It’s another piece of information in your life. You read it and you move on.” Downs likes the quick takes on his work better: Compared with little magazines and books, the digestible package meets the reader with just the right amount
Experimental poets have a tougher time than most finding readers. On Downs’ latest card, an attached plastic bubble contained a little chapbook filled with haiku: “a grreen littl chiminy/huffing chiba up unto/the very skies/but its not/pluralthere’s only one/of the sky above us.”
After three years, he now has 150 people on his mailing listenjoying the reach of a very small lit rag with none of the aggravation. Many publishers end up with boxes of unsold copies stuffed under their beds. “It’s not cheaper than a box spring, but it certainly takes the place of one,” Downs quips, but he’s been there. In 1988, he took over the publishing and editing of Open 24 Hours, started in the early ’80s by Chris Toll. The journal skipped 1997, but it will be back this fall with Issue 13, guest-edited by Heather Fuller, literary editor at the Washington Review. Downs also put in a two-issue stint as poetry editor for Articulate, and from ’93 to ’96, he organized the In Your Ear readings at the District of Columbia Arts Center with Joe Ross and The Aerial’s Rod Smith.
Downs’ postcard project was inspired by mail art and conceptual art, and reflects his mission to connect poetry to everyday life. “There’s an ethos of professionalism in poetry today that I find distasteful,” Downs says.
Nonetheless, his anti-professional attitude has helped him professionally. The postcards have acted as a kind of publishing springboard. His book Marijuana Softdrink is due this fall on Rod Smith’s Edge Press; about a third of the collection has previously been issued by mail.
“When I was going through the typical young poet thing of sending out poems and getting rejections, that didn’t seem to be a particularly rewarding way of finding an audience or a community,” Downs recalls. “There’s a very real question of who is your audience. Well, I know who my audience is.”