What It’s Like to Release Your Debut Poetry Collection During A Pandemic: 20 Poets Respond

Cover of What It’s Like to Release Your Debut Poetry Collection During A Pandemic: 20 Poets Respond

edwin-hooper-Q8m8cLkryeo-unsplash.jpg

It’s an incredible accomplishment to release a debut full-length poetry collection and for many poets, it’s years worth of dreams and hard work finally becoming a tangible reality. Usually, a book release will come with a launch, signings, readings, maybe even a tour. It’s no doubt a time for celebration. 

With the COVID-19 pandemic, however, so many poets whose books were released in 2020-2021 had plans that were taken away in mere seconds. Instead, they were met with social isolation, frustration, and so much uncertainty that hasn’t gone away.

See what 20 poets had to say about releasing their debut collection during the pandemic, from the disappointments to the hopefulness:


Kimberly Quiogue Andrews, A Brief History of Fruit (University of Akron Press)

My book, A Brief History of Fruit, came out at the end of February 2020, so quite literally at the very start of the pandemic proper in the US. I’m going to throw myself a little pity party here and say that of all the times to release a book during this historically crap time to be alive, Feb/March 2020 was in fact the worst. Zoom readings weren’t a thing yet. When they became a thing, people didn’t know what they were doing (my first reading got Zoombombed, which was super). AWP was only half-full, though I had a really excellent time hanging out and selling books with my press’s director, Jon Miller, who is the best. Bookstores were closed, and while people were indeed buying books online in apparently record numbers, who wants to read a book about being sad over the Pacific during a pandemic? So in short, it sucked a lot! I already have a problem with publicity: I do not have the gene that drives one to set up book tours, cold-email reviewers, etc. In a sense, the pandemic was sort of a boon in that regard, as it meant no one expected me to be asking them to do a reading at their venue or whatever. But it also meant that I didn’t really have it in me to “innovate” my way into plague-times publicity. I am beyond grateful to have been approached by several folks for readings for Filipinx History Month, university workshops, Southeast Asian poetry showcases, and more, and have done quite a few virtual events over the past 18 months. Those events kept me going, and will hopefully keep me going in the months ahead. But here’s hoping that history is much kinder to my next book.

Khalisa Rae, Ghost in a Black Girl’s Throat (Red Hen Press)

I was super lucky to have a big support team for the release of my book – Jennifer Huang, my assistant, and Dawn Hardy, my publicist. In just two months we were able to put together a 22+ stop book tour and organize 30 appearances, interviews, reviews, and podcast spots. The events we put together were well-attended, had a diverse crowd, amazing talent, and were so damn fun. The biggest issues and challenges for me were marketing. We didn’t have a strong/comprehensive marketing campaign for my events because we organized events so fast, and budget was limited. Before my book release, I had a huge following and community support in North Carolina/the South (especially in the art and poetry slam arenas), unfortunately, when everything went virtual, I lost a bunch of regional support because the online platform didn’t translate for much of my local fan-base. Also, for many people that used to support me in person, virtual events were too cumbersome to navigate and not easily accessible. With so many events on my tour, virtual reading fatigue set in really fast because everyone was doing them and we were all marketing to the same people. Lastly, sales were hindered because of the lack of ability to do physical events, but also because of economic hardships. In-person events are huge for spoken word poets and those whose work lends itself to be read aloud. With my poetry, my biggest selling tool is live performances. The virtual space isn’t the ideal platform for my book to shine, honestly. So, I saw a huge decrease in sales because of that lack of interaction with the public. All in all, we did an amazing job with the resources and the time we had, and I learned to transition and be flexible. I am on the second leg of my tour and have a new support team, and I’m excited to see success grow. 

Roya Marsh, dayliGht (MCD x FSG Originals)

My book dayliGht was released by MCD X FSG publishing on March 31, 2020. Not only was my book launch cancelled, but the following book tour dates were also eliminated due to the pandemic. The book launch event was to be held at Powerhouse Arena in Brooklyn on 3/31. This event was going to feature stellar artists, writers and performers eager to shower my debut collection of poems. Subsequent readings at Middlebury College, Pen America World Voices Festival, Bluestockings bookstore and several other featured events were canceled. 

It was heartbreaking to know that such a monumental occasion was going to have to take a backseat and even more devastating that the world was suffering. The shift into the virtual space offered some solace as I was still so eager to share my work. I was able to process this experience and create new work relative to the time whilst promoting my debut collection. Although the pandemic greatly impacted the launch of dayliGht, the change of pace left time for people to sit and engage with the project. I will forever remember launching a book in the time of COVID-19 and what that meant for writers.

George Abraham, Birthright (Button Poetry)

Releasing Birthright in the pandemic was especially difficult, as a poet from a spoken word background, given that so much of the joys of book releases in my community come from in-person engagement at live poetry events. The pandemic also made the cycle of book publicity (e.g. reviews, listicles, etc.) even more difficult, especially for a longer, more experimental project like Birthright. Explicitly anti-colonial projects, which also resist white + western aesthetics, already have a hard time breaking through the publicity bubble; the pandemic has merely exacerbated what was there all along. But amidst all this, I’m grateful for the way my people have showed up and (capital S) Seen my work despite all of this. To everyone who’s spent time with my work, and the community members who have gone through creative and extraordinary lengths to celebrate poetry amidst the pandemic, I cannot thank you enough.

lukas ray hall, loudest when startled (YesYes Books)

I like to joke that all debut authors should get a do-over when the pandemic has ended. We all get to rerelease our projects, get to have grand launch events, people congratulating us in person, hugs, the whole experience and excitement surrounding this incredible achievement. That sense that it’s real. Instead, for the most part, we got splintered attention, zoom trolling, learning the in’s and out’s of the USPS shipping system, this feeling of throwing your poems into a sea of isolation & anxiety & exhaustion. So, I like to joke that we get a do-over, but really, I think our books came out exactly when they were needed.

Kelly Cressio-Moeller, Shade of Blue Trees (Two Sylvias Press)

My first book was released in June, this year – and despite being vaccinated, do not feel comfortable with public readings/launches, etc. because the variant cases are going through the roof. I’m grateful to be able to do Zoom readings with my local poetry community and a Zoom launch with my press. I really feel for those who released their book early last year when Zoom was just beginning to be established. Fingers crossed that things start to shift for fall releases and 2022.

Sumita Chakraborty, Arrow (Alice James Books)

The wildly unexpected silver lining for me is that I had the opportunity to reconnect with the sensation that brought me to poetry in the first place: the feeling that a single voice had reached through the ether to find me when I thought I’d never be found. Every individual reader who engaged with Arrow helped remind me that I now have the opportunity to do precisely that for others. I’m truly not trying to be Pollyanna-ish or overly redemptive; the last year and a half has been excruciating for reasons that stretch well beyond re-organized book tours. That said, I have found that my attention has been freshly refocused toward cherishing anyone who has felt, through all of this chaos, that my poems have reached toward them, and this refocusing feels like the most fundamental and genuine place from which I could possibly write and publish.

Todd Dillard, Ways We Vanish (Okay Donkey Press)

It was really hard releasing Ways We Vanish right as COVID-19 began ravaging the country. Publishing a book of poetry had been my dream for decades, and seeing years of work, book tour plans, and all the tangent little hopes I’d pinned to my debut sort of evaporate–it was devastating. But, at the same time, the book’s done well, and because of it I’ve been able to make numerous donations to organizations in support of Black Lives Matter, bail organizations helping those arrested during the summer protests, organizations which support queer poets of color, and directly to other poets in need. Publishing a book during the pandemic really made me reassess what “success” means as a poet, and I’ve come squarely down on the side of “success means the ways you support your community.” In a way it seems fitting that my book, which is about grief and the life you build after, became a way for me to help others during this impossible and difficult time.

Dara Elerath, Dark Braid (BkMk Press)

As a naturally shy person who struggles with social anxiety, releasing my debut collection, Dark

Braid, during the pandemic has been a mixed blessing. On the one hand it’s allowed me to avoid the anxieties of giving readings in public and to remain fairly hidden even as I promote my work; on the other hand, I can’t help but feel that I’ve missed out on opportunities to share my book and make new friends. I’ve had to be creative in my promotion tactics, as well—I’ve written book reviews and made flyers to provide exposure to other poets; I’ve attempted to build an online presence and even created a short film to accompany one of the poems in my book. These approaches have worked, to a degree, but I can’t understate how essential the support of other writers has been. Other poets, often much more established than myself, have helped to spotlight my work in ways I haven’t been able to on my own. It’s made me realize just how much I depend on being in community with other writers; it’s highlighted the fact that I can’t do it by myself and, fortunately, don’t have to, though the constraints imposed by the pandemic often lead me to feel alone on this journey.

Benjamin Garcia, Thrown in the Throat (Milkweed Editions)

More than ten years of labor went into publishing my first book, THROWN IN THE THROAT. All of the regular fears of publishing a first book (will anyone read it? review it? like it? etc.) were not just compounded by the fears of a pandemic, they fused to create a sense of guilt. How could anyone be so petty as to care about book sales when people are literally dying? So, I took the advice of a friend and wrote down everything that I wished for this book down on paper with the understanding that no one is owed anything. I searched for community with other writers (Joy Priest, Michael Torres, Jihyun Yun, Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers) who also released a book during the pandemic and let the book have the life it was going to have. A year later, I do think I received my top wish, which was for this book to reach a BIPOC and LGBTQ readership.

Samantha DeFlitch, Confluence (Broadstone Books)

I found a lot of quiet meaning releasing Confluence during the pandemic. My book came out in March 2021, and March in New Hampshire is still very much winter. So in the middle of winter, a year into the pandemic, and dealing with a chronic health issue, I received a small moment of joy when my box of books arrived. I did a few Zoom readings and sent out some copies to friends and family, but I’m a pretty private poet and person to begin with, so I actually appreciated the time to sit quietly with Confluence and discover wonderful moments of joy and revelation that had previously escaped my notice. While I’m excited and grateful for the chance to give some in-person readings this fall, I do feel that I was given something of a gift in my mid-pandemic, snow-bound launch.

Michael Torres, An Incomplete List of Names (Beacon Press)

Since I was scheduled to launch early October, I spent the summer putting together online readings. I have good friends and fortunate connections that helped in shaping a launch I was excited for. The timing of the pandemic coincided with my wife’s pregnancy, and our daughter was born a month and a half before the book dropped. What that meant for me was that 1. I was able to stay home and not travel while I had a baby at home. 2. I was, in a way, happily distracted by her so that it wasn’t the worst to be in isolation. There were lots of walks to the park, though, that’s for sure. Maybe the most difficult part was that after particularly emotional events, it would take a while for me to wind down. I imagine this happened because, after an in-person reading there’s usually a book signing and meet-and-greet type things. Over Zoom, though, it was just about okay, thanks everybody, bye, and end meeting. Those times I was left with myself to handle all those feelings built up during the event.

Rachelle Toarmino, That Ex (Big Lucks Books)

When That Ex came out, it was anticlimactic, lonely, and sort of a bummer. But in the year since, my friends and community have helped me find ways to celebrate, including a drive-in book launch, a few virtual gigs, some extended-release publicity opportunities, and a few IRL readings this summer. Slow is how I’d describe it. Everything takes much longer than it would in normal times.

Daniel B. Summerhill, Divine, Divine, Divine (Nomadic Press)

My experience releasing my debut collection, Divine, Divine, Divine wasn’t completely abnormal because I had not previously released a book; however, learning new ways to share my work was the challenge. To the opposite affect, I must say, releasing a book “virtually” allows for more participation and for a wider community to celebrate with you. However, above all, I am pretty estranged from the poems in Divine(x3) as Ocean Vuong would say and in some ways releasing a debut in a pandemic compounds that phenomenon. I feel equally as distant from the poems as I have people (because of social distancing and all)  and I am still working though how I feel about that.

Quintin Collins, The Dandelion Speaks of Survival (Cherry Castle Publishing)

My manuscript was accepted at the start of the pandemic, when everything about the future was unclear. However, the lit scene rallied quickly, with virtual events and threads promoting debuts in abundance. Then, my book launched as more people were eligible for vaccination. All of this gave me a positive outlook on what was possible for The Dandelion Speaks of Survival despite the public health crisis and resulting economic strife. Given I didn’t have a comparable experience, I can’t say for sure if the launch met my expectations pre-COVID, but I am happy to see the writing community still gave the book a warm welcome.

Courtney LeBlanc, Beautiful & Full of Monsters (Vegetarian Alcoholic Press) and Exquisite Bloody, Beating Heart (Riot in Your Throat)

Publishing during a pandemic is both heartbreaking and uplifting. My first full length collection, Beautiful & Full of Monsters was published 10 March 2020, the week the pandemic shut down the world. I had to cancel my launch party and one-by-one, every reading I had scheduled was cancelled. I was sad and mad and anxious and upset. But things soon shifted to virtual events and I was able to share my book with people from around the world – friends from Alaska, Hawaii, and New Zealand were able to join readings, and normally they wouldn’t have been able to do so. When my second collection, Exquisite Bloody, Beating Heart, was published in July 2021 I was a little more prepared and knew what I was getting into and so I was able to focus my energy on virtual events and a few, small, in-person, masked events. The benefit to the pandemic has been everyone’s willingness to focus on virtual, accessible events, which has been a great shift in mindset. While I do miss reading to an in-person crowd, I’m grateful that virtual spaces have kept poetry alive during these trying times.

Han VanderHart, What Pecan Light (Bull City Press)

Writers and readers online came through in supporting What Pecan Light‘s April 2021 release. You don’t need a review in the NYT: you need readers you connect with. Bull City Press also has a warm social media presence, and they have been a great support!

Kelly Grace Thomas, Boat Burned (YesYes Books)

Having my debut collection, Boat Burned (YesYes Books, 2020)  come out during a pandemic is both a blessing and a curse. Yes, there was huge disappointment. Huge. I didn’t get the much anticipated experience, the debut author AWP buzz, or get to go on tour. But the blessings were endless, and were often. I got to read with poets who live in other states and countries, poets who have mentored me on the page and in person, poets who are my heroes, all because of Zoom. All because of the internet and love and support. My family who lives on the East coast, and in the middle of the country, got to hear me read for my debut collection. I don’t know if that would have happened without COVID. I’m of the belief that any circumstance is what you make of it. I remain eternally grateful to YesYes Books for believing in me, to everyone who bought my book, took a workshop or helped me promote it. Especially grateful to all the literary magazines who ran features or interviews when Boat Burned came out. I had one huge takeaway from my first book coming out during the pandemic and it was that I am so incredibly grateful for poetry and the amazing community it’s given me.

Kate Baer, What Kind of Woman and I Hope This Finds You Well (HarperCollins)

It’s hard to quantify [how the pandemic affected the launch and promotion of WKOW]. There were obvious things, like all in person events being cancelled – interviews, book tour, etc. Then there were the harder-to-name feelings of unease around publishing, book buying, and selling poetry during a pandemic. Everyone was nervous and trying not to make me nervous but that just made it worse. I lost a lot of sleep over how to pull this off without wallowing in self pity and self doubt. There were a few months in the summer when I was very depressed. Of course it wasn’t just the book; it was motherhood, childcare, and career during a pandemic as well. Then in the fall, I kind of snapped out of it and got into pub mode and tried to enjoy the ride. 

The response to WKOW was an incredible and very unexpected surprise. It was great! Maybe if I had a non-pandemic publishing experience to compare it to, it would have felt less-than. This is all I knew/know. There were a few lonely moments, but overall I felt very loved and supported. I owe most of that to my incredible support system of friends and family. 

Last year I was frustrated and sad, but there wasn’t much anyone could do beyond stay home and keep each other safe. It was an “unprecedented time” and while I wanted to do a proper book launch, I wanted to keep my family alive more. This year [as the second book launch approaches amongst so much uncertainty] all I feel is a blinding rage at how cavelier some Americans are treating a pandemic that is mutating and still spreading. I would give up 1,000 book tours to keep our children healthy and safe in school.

Jihyun Yun, Some Are Always Hungry (University of Nebraska Press)

The most salient part of my experience debuting during the pandemic was the sense of strong camaraderie I felt with the cohort in my debut year (and actually beyond since the pandemic doesn’t seem anywhere close to over). Before the lockdowns, lots of us had been planning on arranging in-person readings together, but once that became impossible, I feel like so many 2020/2021 debut poets sought creative ways to uplift and support one another. There was a feeling of ‘we all rise together’ that was a comfort and a gift during the whole experience.

Responses have been edited for clarity


 


About Erica Abbott

Erica Abbott (she/her) is a Philadelphia-based poet and writer whose work has previously appeared or is forthcoming in Serotonin, FERAL, Gnashing Teeth, Selcouth Station, Anti-Heroin Chic, and other journals. She is the author of Self-Portrait as a Sinking Ship (Toho, 2020), her debut poetry chapbook. She volunteers for Button Poetry and Mad Poets Society. Follow her on Instagram @poetry_erica and on Twitter @erica_abbott and visit her website here.

Share this