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Poetic profits

Liu Zhihua
Updated: Sep 17,2014 12:41 PM     China Daily

Poetry fans attend a reading event in Qingyuan, Guangdong province, in 2013.China Daily

The success of Poems Selected for Children is surprising to some but not to deputy chief editor of China CITIC Press’ third branch Qin Tiantian.

The collection of 101 poems by 57 poets from around the world has sold more than 50,000 copies since its July 5 release. Most poetry books are lucky to sell a few thousand copies.

The works were selected and edited by Chinese poet Bei Dao, who has been nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature many times.

“We knew the book would sell well because it reaches out to a wide range of readers, including parents and poetry lovers,” Qin says.

“It’s not only about poetry but also education and childhood. Poetry is one of writing’s most literary expressions. It is indispensable to everyone.”

Poems Selected for ChildrenChina Daily

The book’s success attests to the genre’s rejuvenation. So does the fact that the publisher, which produces troves of best-sellers but typically focuses on business management and social sciences, even considered releasing its first poetry book.

China is globally acclaimed for its ancient poetry. The 1980s and ‘90s were a golden time for modern verse, when a collection could easily sell tens of thousands of copies, says literary critic Gao Xing. It was during this period that talented wordsmiths, such as Bei Dao, Shi Zhi and Gu Cheng, rose to prominence.

But modern poetry’s appeal began to diminish after the 1990s. Sales declined and publishers concluded poetry didn’t make money.

Previously popular series, such as Hunan Literature and Art Publishing House’s Shiyuan Yilin, (Translated Works from the Poetry World), ceased publication, Gao says.

But the last two years have seen a revival in interest and, consequently, publication.

Gao believes one reason is the success of Everything Stands Silent and Puzzling: Poems New and Selected, a collection of 75 poems by the 1996 Nobel Prize-winning Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska published in 2012. Everyone was surprised when the book sold more than 100,000 copies a year.

“Poems were considered a curse in the market,” Gao explains.

“But that book’s popularity showed there is a market for great poetry. As long as publishers pick the right poems, readers will buy their collections.”

In January 2013, Chongqing University Press published New Continent Translated Poetry, a collection of established foreign poets who are not well known in China, such as R.S. Thomas, a leading modern Welsh poet.

And in June 2013, Shanghai People’s Publishing House came out with Silent Classics, a series of works by famous foreign writers and poets, such as Russian poet and novelist Boris Pasternak.

Yilin Press, based in Jiangsu province’s capital Nanjing, in 2009 published My Loneliness is a Garden, a collection of poetry written from the 1950s to 2008 by Syrian-born poet and perennial Nobel Prize nominee Adonis. Last year, it also published a selection from celebrated American poet Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.

These collections have sold well. Some, such as My Loneliness is a Garden, have been reprinted several times.

The company plans to issue collections of foreign and domestic poets whose works haven’t been widely published in China.

Another reason for poetry’s resurgence is that publishers have identified a mature and faithful readership, deputy director of Yilin Press’ foreign literature branch Yao Yan explains.

While this base is smaller than in the 1980s and ‘90s, it is dependable. Gao says this audience ensures that even when poetry books aren’t immediate hits, they sustain long shelf lives with steady sales over longer periods.

The country’s poetry fans turn to such literary websites as to comment on poems they’ve recently read and to recommend readings to others. Published poetry collections can quickly accumulate thousands of comments.

“One Poem before Going to Bed”, a public account on the WeChat social media platform that sends followers a poem with comments and recommendations at 10 every night, has gained 400,000 followers since it was created in early 2013.

Gao points out there are also more poetry events, such as festivals. But while poetry is undergoing a revival, he says it isn’t exactly a resounding one—at least not yet.