Well, I really mean cannibalizer. A poetry colleague/friend just emailed that, in her opinion, I cannibalize my work. She meant it as a criticism. I’d never heard of that phrase so I googled it—“cannibalizing one’s work.”
Merriam-Webster gives several definitions of “cannibalize”: “To deprive of an essential part of element in creating or sustaining another facility or enterprise”; “To use or draw on material of (another writer, an earlier work) ”; ”To take (sales) away from an existing product by selling … a similar but new product usually from the same manufacturer.”
I get the idea. “Cannibalize” usually refers to a business, but I suppose it can refer to the writing “business.” And my friend’s disclosure correlates with something she said a few years ago, that she believed a poet shouldn’t publish more than one book a year. By “a poet” she meant me. Because I have, in some years, published more than one book. One year three, another four. But another year none. It depends, not so much on how much I write but on how many books I can place with publishers.
What, I would ask my friend, am I supposed to do with the more-than-one-book-a-year that I write? If I save it for next year, I will by then have written further books. So I cannibalize.
Besides, at age seventy-six I’m running out of years. There might not be enough left to publish, at the rate of one a year, all of my as yet unpublished books. I have a queue of ten, and counting. And they all seem important, meaning universally and politically important. There’s Harmonizing: In Memory of a Wonderful Friendship, a friendship with a singing partner who eventually succumbed to dementia, probably Alzheimers. Some of that writing draws from my past experience of being the well spouse of a husband who was not well, and not able-bodied; paralyzed from MS, he lived with our young children and me. It’s important to know when to withdraw from the toxic situations that can develop from chronic illnesses which include dementia; whether with respect to my first husband or with respect to my friend/singing partner. There’s We Who Merely Know, about how the world’s too-many atrocities; while not being experienced by me, they’re things I still have to know, and spend sleepless nights knowing. There’s Lessons from the Back Pain Book, which is what it sounds like. Even other poets say “Oh, EVERYONE’s had back pain; that book will be much appreciated.” And there’s Negative Aspects, a sort of sequel to New Heights in Non-Structure; in noninvasive ways, my husband points out, it argues for my rather radical views on education, in particular unstructured home-schooling. E.g., “Negative Aspects of Performances ‘for’ Children” doesn’t mean to insist on the abolition of such performances, but it does give warnings, things that parents, teachers, and adults can/should keep in mind. And there’s My #Me-too Poems, which are about harassment and seduction and oversexed culture, not only rape culture. I give warnings in there that I haven’t seen anywhere else. That book was just published, but not at the time I began writing this essay. I keep having things to say and I would like people to at least have the opportunity to hear them, in time.
I figure I might live, maybe work, another twenty years. That means future books. For I’m what is called prolific. That’s not meant judgmentally, in particular not judgmentally against writers who are not prolific; every writing MO is different. But my repertoire is vast; I don’t try to write; a reviewer once said, “rather, the writing has found her.” I first think/feel, then write down what I’ve thought/felt. Or experienced – I’ve had some experiences that most people haven’t – the above-mentioned spousal chronic illness with its resultant at-home caregiving, newborn loss (as well as four miscarriages in a row), and passion for math. I seem to process the experiences in ways different from others, in ways that reflect and express, for example, my radical politics. “There are many caregiving memoirs,” a reviewer once wrote, “but this is the one I want.”
Back to cannibalizing. I need arguments against my friend’s pronouncement. First, I don’t entirely think of my writing as a business (although my tax accountant does). I don’t think of one “product” taking away from another, sales-wise or any other -wise. I don’t believe that a new book takes away from the old, or vice versa. It’s not a matter of one or the other.
Second, my ideal druthers for a writing career is for more than a handful of people to want to own all of my books. One Marion Cohen book is not like any other Marion Cohen book. What I would want is a readership large enough to make a difference in the world (as well as my finances). Besides, one would think that a new “product,” when the product is a poetry book, would not, as Merriam-Webster says, take away from the old product but would instead enhance it. My books are meant to enhance one another. For writers, I like to think, cannibalizing is enhancing.
Also, my druthers are for my books to appear in real time. Meaning, I’d like them to be published soon after I write them. It’s too late for Not Erma Bombeck, a collection of essays written when I was a ‘70s feminist mother with strong feelings that mothers constitute an oppressed class. And it’s too late for The Fuss and the Fury, written thirty-three years ago, about the existential aspects of and feelings from having my youngest baby. But it’s not too late for the manuscripts I currently write. My druthers are for them to appear – well, currently. I’d like my readers to be kept current. And if I write more than one book per year, as I pretty much always do, I want readers to know that I wrote them during the same year..
Third … my friend said “You’ve wondered why your books don’t sell ….” She says it’s because I cannibalize. But the other poets I know, their books don’t sell either. In the words of my co-reader this past January at our Drexel U. reading, “People don’t buy books.” So while what my friend said about my cannibalizing too much did of course push some of my buttons, and while I needed to spend half a day processing the things she said, those things won’t come close to causing me to reevaluate my life and life choices, meaning writing choices.
About “people don’t buy books”: Yes, most people don’t buy books. A well-read friend (in fact, a retired librarian) said, “People don’t buy POETRY books” – big emphasis on “poetry.” In particular other poets. I for one don’t usually buy the books of other poets. I don’t want the fact that I have enough of a writing career to get books published (twenty-nine so far) to mean that I spend, rather than earn, money. Not earning money from a writing career is one thing; spending money on that writing career is another.
What poets often do is trade books, a wonderful experience, which I partake of only when I truly want to own a particular book by a particular poet. And that, of course, can be something to negotiate.
Who does buy books? Relatives, sometimes, depending. In my family, my daughter buys all my books. One of my sons bought my latest book. Another is a minimalist, doesn’t want to own too many things, doesn’t want objects cluttering his existence. He didn’t even want his free copy of the book he did the cover art for. And my youngest son is the one who has done the cover art for, so far, about seven of my books. So he gets free copies. Okay, so at least one of my kids buys all of my books. Likewise my oldest and dearest friend Freda. Likewise my Scrabble friend Susan, and Karen the flea market vendor and Nancy at my bank. But not the violinist friend who comes over every Thursday to play Beethoven and Mozart sonatas with me; she knows a lot of my thoughts and feelings but not my poems.
And maybe newbie poets, teenyboppers or late bloomers who happen to be at one of my readings and who get all-impressed and -excited about meeting an actual published poet, and of possessing a souvenir of the reading. Also, every once in a while, somebody I meet at a party, or even in a thrift store.
But a person of the last-mentioned ilk doesn’t buy more than one book. Whether or not I cannibalize. It doesn’t seem to matter when the books were published, in particular whether more than one of them appeared within one year. If I dribbled them out at the rate of one per year, they’d still figure “I already have a Marion Cohen book.” I want people to want more than one Marion Cohen book.
I used to be surprised that publishers, meaning my publishers, don’t buy my other books. I used to assume that those who were interested in an author’s writing would want to see all of it. The grandeur-issue part of me (in which I’m therapied and on which I’ve got a hold, but the issue never goes away) wants people to be interested in the whole Marion Cohen. Marion Cohen qua Marion Cohen.
So, again, what’s a writer supposed to do with her “residual” books? Is she supposed to not publish them? Not, for example, publish Off-Topic, a sort of sequel to Truth and Beauty, both chapbooks about the interaction in my course, Mathematics in Literature. That book expresses communication, humanism, opposition to sexism, things about what’s wrong with the way society presents math to its children and students, all the things about education that I don’t agree with society about. I say different things in Off-Topic from what I say in Truth and Beauty. Am I supposed to not-publish Off-Topic just because Truth and Beauty appeared just a couple of years ago?
I have been called “a poet of ideas.” I think they’re good ideas. I’d like them to have a chance in this world. I’d like them to at least be available. All of them. The truth, the WHOLE TRUTH, maybe then-some … And so I say to the dear friend who correctly dubs me cannibalist: I have no choice but to plan to continue publishing as many books a year as publishers will take. I have no choice but to plan to cannibalize my work as much as I possibly can.
Marion Deutsche Cohen is the author of twenty-nine collections of poetry or memoir; her latest poetry collections are The Project of Being Alive (available from newplainspress.com) and New Heights in Non-Structure (dancing girl press, IL, available on the publisher’s site), as well as the just-released The Discontinuity at the Waistline: My #MeToo Poems (available through https://rhythmnbone.com/discontinuity-at-the-waistline) and The Fuss and the Fury (available through https://tinyurl.com/y2fkratz, published by Alien Buddha Press, NM). She is also the author of two controversial memoirs about spousal chronic illness, a trilogy diary of late-pregnancy loss, and Crossing the Equal Sign, about the experience of mathematics. She teaches a course she developed, Mathematics in Literature, at Arcadia and at Drexel Universities, as well as a new course she developed, Societal Issues on the College Campus. Other interests are classical piano, singing, Scrabble, thrift-shopping, four grown children, and five grands. Her website is marioncohen.net.
See other work by Marion Deutsche Cohen in The Disappointed Housewife here.