What IS Publication?

Originally posted on July 15, 2010 at 9:12 PM

I have recently been intertwined in a debate over what, exactly, constitutes publication. I won’t bore you with the exact details of the scenario. To sum up: I won first place in a national poetry contest. The poem I won it with had been previously used in the Merging Visions Exhibit that DPA participates in every year. This exhibit displays artwork and poetry as pairings on the wall of the public libraries. Some people outside of DPA–whose understanding as a group was that the exhibit did NOT count as publication—took issue with this. They said that the exhibit counted as publication and that I should be disqualified as winner because of it.

Well! Happy ending is that I get to keep my 1st place spot. *hooray* But the committees for two different poetry organizations now have to specifically define and pin down their definition of “published.” So, it got me thinking: what makes publication publication? Here are the rules, word for word, from the above-mentioned contest guidelines:

“Any poem submitted must be the original work of the contestant, unpublished in any form, including electronically, not under consideration or accepted for publication. (Award will be recalled if a winning poem is found to be in violation of rules before publication in the NFSPS anthology of prize poems, and lower prizes and honorable mentions will move up in classification.)”

So, is hanging a single copy of a poem on a wall in a public library “publication”? The term means different things to different people. On the one hand, the root word of publication is public, from the Latin publicus, akin to Latin populous: people. So you might argue that anything that has been put in front of the public (the general people) has been published. So if I leave my diary open for anyone to look at in the middle of Walmart, it has been published? Really? Can I list that on my writer’s bio? “Publication credits include my personal diary, 2010.”

Well, no. Because obviously, there is a breakdown somewhere between what constitutes something just being viewed and something being published. Root words are just that: roots. Time changes meaning; little trees grown into vast ones, or big trees get struck by lightning to get split and branched into new directions entirely. So what is published now?

My argument is that to be “published,” something must be intentionally put before the general populous with the intent to be distributed. That’s the key: distributed. A book is “published” because someone can buy a copy and take it home. A newsletter is published because it is mailed out to people and they can retain it. A website is published because (it is intended that) people can print it out, email it, and generally share it. An oral reading isn’t published, because the audience can’t reread it later. A poem hung—as a single copy—on a wall in a public library is not published, because the viewers cannot keep a copy, take it home, or send it to anyone. Catch my drift?

Now I’m ’bout to click “Publish Post” on this blog, and I’ll agree with that. Hup! That goes on the resume… 😉

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