Please, sir, could I have some blurb?

I have a new book of poems coming out in the spring, so that means I’m working with the publisher on cleaning up the poems, finalizing their order, and dealing with the cover, which includes the dreaded task of seeking blurbs for the back cover. I thought it might be useful to other people facing the same task to share how I went about it.

Who on earth to ask? You want to have as recognizable names as you can get, so people picking up your book will say, “Oh, I’ve heard of Blinky. If Blinky likes this, it MUST be good.” (Of course, reality check: Few people pick up poetry books at all and even fewer would recognize ANY name on the back. So you can’t sweat this too much.) So first I scrolled through my mental addressbook for better-published friends. They would be the easiest touch. But this is my second full-length collection and third collection overall, so I’ve already hit on many would-be blurbers already. I had two or three friends left on that list though, so I chose one of them.

I was fortunate enough to attend an MFA program, so I had a few people left from that experience whom I hadn’t already hit up for blurbs for the other books. (I had previously asked one of the people I worked with closely for a semester, but that person said “No, I don’t write blurbs for anyone.” Meeting faculty who will help you get your work out, including by writing blurbs, is one of the understood functions of MFA programs. So that person’s unwillingness, to me, is a violation of the understood contract of these expensive degree enterprises. Certainly, it could have been an excuse not to write a blurb for work the person did not believe in. But I really don’t think so. He/she had never been anything but supportive of my work. I would rather have been told “I’m too busy” than “I don’t do that.”) So I was left with: a mentor who had given me the impression he/she didn’t really think much of my work, the second reader for my thesis, and the program director, neither of the latter of whom I’d worked with directly at any depth. And I finished my program 5 years ago — would they even remember me? So I chose the latter two, figuring one of the two would be too busy, or I’d never hear back.

Then I thought, what current poet would I love to have see my work? Could I be ballsy enough to reach out to a stranger? Why not? What — I’ve never heard “no” before? So I found contact information for a poet whose book had come out to much acclaim and which I had greatly admired (and written a book review about), and sent off an email.

What on earth to say? I kept the emails brief and light. I gave them the option to opt out on the request entirely if they were too busy; and I requested only that they give the manuscript a read to see if they were inclined to write a blurb. I didn’t want to act presumptuous that if they read it they would automatically begin to spout praise. I wanted to at least offer them the option, however awkward, of begging off after they had seen the work. I thought this was important. I wanted to recognize that not all work speaks to all readers, and to make that okay. This was especially important for the person who didn’t know me at all. I also wanted to make sure I asked early enough that I could give them at least a month, preferably more, to read the ms and write the blurb.

I am happy to report that they all said yes. I was able to give them all plenty of time. I only had to gently nudge two of them, who responded immediately.

I now have an embarrassment of riches of blurbage, and am now negotiating with the publisher and book designer about how to fit them all or some portion of them all on the back cover. This is a good problem!

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