On May 20 in the United States, Amazon publishes a surprising press release. At least seen from France. The online sales giant announced the creation of a “Poetry Fund” in collaboration with the Academy of American Poets.
Amazon also says the company will already disburse more than $1 million in grants to 66 nonprofits dedicated to authors, many of which are dedicated to poets in particular. A sudden surge of generosity that is not likely to be to the taste of the famous Button Poetry company.
If this sum represents almost nothing for the American monster (but is all the same almost equal to the totality of the annual aid of the French State, via the CNL, to poetry) and that it is undoubtedly part of a large communication operation aimed at restoring the image of the company – which is accused, among other things, of killing bookstores – this kind of financial and private support for poetry is rare enough to be noticed.
Obviously, the initiative does not come out of nowhere. In recent years, English-language poetry has been selling better and better (the United Kingdom, for example, observed a growth in book sales of 66% between 2012 and 2017). A dynamism to which a name, a label – a brand, one would even have to say at the risk of shocking the purists of the genre – has particularly contributed: Button Poetry.
Button Poetry is neither more nor less than a company, and is therefore not one of the 66 organizations supported by Amazon. Like any box, the label makes a profit and reinvests a large part of it in production, innovation and the salaries of its employees, in this case the poets.
Rhymes in tune with the times
Button Poetry’s story begins in 2011 around Twin Cities University of Minnesota, located in the twin cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul.
This is where several poets and slam champions (including Sam Cook and Sierra DeMulder) will unite to create the company whose first activity will consist in the organization of a recording party, an evening open to the public where various poets, beginners or confirmed, will come to declaim their texts while being recorded. The party will lead to the release of a CD sold by Button Poetry.
At the same time, Button Poetry co-produced its first videos for YouTube. Modest but captivating beginnings, like this performance where the poet Khary Jackson recites his text while moving to the rhythm of it.
Something almost unusual for poetry already appears: from the text itself to the diction via the dance, the audio recording and the editing of the video, this is professional work.
While it should be noted that certain similar projects are beginning, somewhat belatedly, to see the light of day in France, in particular the YouTube channel Call me poetry and its series of videos of often young poets reciting one of their texts, the difference is made quickly feel between the work of a company and an association, and this beyond the quality of the productions.
In 2012, another slam poetry specialist, Dylan Garity, joined the Button adventure as Assistant Director. Alongside Sam Cook, he breathes new “strategy»which he describes as “a repositioning of Button Poetry, with a stronger focus on video and social media».
Seven years later, Button Poetry is followed by two million people on Facebook, 350,000 on Instagram and one million on YouTube, whose videos currently have 222 million views. An astronomical figure which therefore shows that if we put in the forms (and the means) we can quite seduce the crowds with objects that we call poems.
The secret of this success obviously lies in the relevance of the said “repositioning», to the quality of the poets employed and to the general professionalism mentioned above. The attachment to slam diction also played its part in broadening the potential audience.
Point on which it is necessary to notice a difference of approach between France and the United States: on the other side of the Atlantic one does not speak about slam, but about slam poetry. Contrary to the French trend, the English appellation therefore refuses to consider slam as an entity apart or alongside poetry. The nuance is important, especially because through this inclusive vision, Button Poetry has followed the most natural path when it comes to poetry: that of publishing books.
The company even does more than publish collections of poetry, it sells them. One of those bestsellers, On Numbered Days by Neil Hilborn (2015), sold more than 100,000 printed copies. This, beyond the intrinsic quality of the work, is explained as much by the success of several videos by the author, produced by Button Poetry, as by the company’s solid presence on social networks, allowing it to engage in promotional campaigns worthy of the name.
An efficiency that Amazon is not alone in benefiting from. On its website, Button Poetry also takes care, when purchasing books that the house publishes, to refer the user to the page of IndieBound, a label of independent bookstores created by the American Booksellers Association. .
This is how the success of Button Poetry turns into a benefit for each player in the poetic circle. Thanks to a strategy that is not only deeply contemporary, but rooted in a more timeless logic of the economy. Poetry is a business like any other.
A reality that Button Poetry assumes but which necessarily earns him some criticism. In reaction to their strategy based on social networks, and to the success of this one, certain poets of the old guard criticize the company for producing instapoetry.
Term dropped as an insult and referring to very watered-down poets such as the Canadian Rupi Kaur who owes her success to Instagram where she is followed by more than 3.5 million people.
For Sam Cook, one of the co-creators of Button Poetry, this criticism stems from a difficulty in getting out of the logic of “niche» to which the genre had become accustomed. “Our critics fear that the naivety of Twitter and the egotism of Instagram are diluting the power of poetry and turning its canons into taunts.» In the same spirit, the American star of literary criticism Harold Bloom went so far as to qualify these “meaningless diatribes judged by the applause meter», real “death of art». One more.
Hard to believe that no form of poetry, however far from the canons, appears in 35 published works and more than 1,500 videos of recited poems on YouTube or on the brand new Button TV, a kind of poetry Netflix that has just been inaugurated. Or, to put it another way, hard to believe that no poetry has been felt in 222 million views and several hundred thousand books sold.
Especially difficult to find, in the United States and even more elsewhere, such a company that has considered poetry as we consider all the other arts. That is to say, like something which, in order to exist, must do everything to be seen.