Bard to Tears

Baltimore magazine, January, 1995

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Who says poetry doesn’t pay? Owings Mills publisher Jeffrey Franz has found a way to capitalize on the frustrated bard in all of us. Every week his Watermark Press, home of the National Library of Poetry, receives about 2,000 poems in the mail. Most will get printed in a bound anthology. There's no price for submission. The book, on the other hand, costs $50 bucks.

Franz started watermark in 1980, publishing “Who’s Who” directories out of his home. In 1985 he turned his attention to the creation of a national poetry anthology, a kind of multi-entry vanity press. Today his staff of 25 works solely on cramming verse into books, tapes, plaques, and a quarterly magazine, as well as running contests advertised in publications from Parade to Teen.

If it’s true that any publicity is good publicity, then Watermark received a boost when syndicated humorist Dave Barry devoted a recent column to mocking the poetry factory. Barry claimed that he received a form letter from the National Library of Poetry (Franz denies this), then bragged of submitting a sarcastic poem and speculated as to the enormous profits made by the books.

Actually, Franz claims that the profits aren’t quite as high as Barry might thinks Only about 20 percent of the poems published result in book orders from the authors. Still, it’s a nice chunk of change, once you work the math. Each of a volume’s 700 pages holds six to 12 poems (of 20 or fewer lines apiece). The most recent book contains more than 5,000 poems. Watermark produces seven different volumes of these sturdy hardbacks a year, which sell by mall order, mostly to the individuals whose poems are published.

Of course, the book’s 85 to 90 percent acceptance rate assures that quantity is valued over quality. A sample line of verse:

“Autumn so colorful leaves/they all fall down off the trees.”

“Who are we to say what is good and what is not?” Franz counters. “The people who write these poems take them very seriously and we’re providing a service for them”

Will they publish Barry's deft piece of post-modern reflection? Franz laughs nervously, looks over a copy of Barry’s column, and ponders doubtfully, “Well, oh, I don’t know. I guess so. That is, if there’s no profanity.”

--Joab Jackson

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