I wrote last time about the importance of audience for my work, a position I find myself not infrequently asserting in response to writers who come to workshops, retreats, and conferences where writers discuss and learn about craft and publication, but deny having any interest in a readership (or listenership). All the same, the problem more writers face is the one suggested by Eric's comment:
<<I imagine having an audience for one's work would be important. If you have any idea where I might obtain one, please let me know. :)>> -- Eric Nichols
How does one find one's audience?? A ten-million-dollar question, certainly. I'm not setting myself up here as an expert on anything -- well, except maybe my primary scholarly field of African American literature -- so I don't think I have "the answer" to that. But, to speak from what I've discovered for myself, as a poet, on the journey thus far, I would say that rather than conceiving of an audience as a thing that's already out there, a thing you must locate, it might be more useful to think of your audience as a thing you must create, in some of the same ways you create your literary works: virtually from scratch. Of course, Eric's phrasing was facetious; he doesn't actually believe that pre-packaged audiences are stored in a warehouse somewhere or itemized on a website to be clicked on and acquired! But if he is anything like I was just a few years ago, before I published my chapbook, he might be thinking of groups of people who already comprise the market for a certain author or genre with which his work is in conversation as the audience he'd like to have, if only he could reach them.
There are definitely ways of reaching large groups of potential readers efficiently, by placing ads in journals or on websites where those groups do their reading, and the like. But I have found that, rather than simply plugging into another author's (or a large generic) audience, what I needed to do, when I first began to emerge as a poet, was to build my own, slowly but surely. How? By doing readings, whenever possible, especially local ones, which enable you to build up name recognition. By publishing individual poems in the "little magazines," print and online, especially ones which cater to the readership you believe your work will speak to most readily. By attending gatherings of writers, where you can get to know others who can offer advice and perhaps recommend your work to readers and editors they know. And by attending gatherings of readers -- literary festivals, bookstore events, university/college talks, wherever the literarily minded are likely to be, with a focus on events that relate specifically to the kind of writing you do. (Not necessarily in that order!)
There's a lot of work involved in taking any of those steps that I'm not talking about; I'm not saying it's easy. But I was able to develop a strong local base of support for my poetry in my then home-state of North Carolina by taking some of these steps. That led to my shot at publishing a chapbook, which increased my ability to undertake those steps again (and again and again), which led to my first full-length book, which increased my ability to undertake those steps yet again (with a widening geographical focus, as I happened to move away from NC at around the time the book came out), and so on. My audience consisted first of a few very close friends who were also poets. Ten years later, I continue to be surprised to learn that I have readers whom I have never met, though I hear from and about them increasingly. Having developed an audience is a great gift -- and also a serious challenge! Will they like the next poem as much as they liked the previous one? Will the development of my politics and aesthetics (two closely related aspects of writing, as I see it) draw people into or push them away from my work? What is important to people who read (or might read) my poetry and what do I have to say about those important issues?
These questions tie back into the book I'm currently reading -- the biography of Langston Hughes, as I mentioned last time. Hughes struggled with these questions constantly as a young writer with a highly engaged social consciousness. And for him, as for me, issues of race played a serious role in this thinking about audience, and not in any simplistic either/or way. (Did I mention that I highly recommend this book -- not to mention his poetry? Read both, to get a sense of the complexity of these questions and concerns as they played themselves out in his life and career.) The picture illustrating this blog entry captures this, in one way. It is of him with a group of young black artists and intellectuals who were invited to visit the USSR to write and appear in a movie about labor issues facing black and white workers in the US. Needless to say, this type of "communist sympathizing" did not go over well with the more conservative citizens of the US, even a couple of decades before McCarthy . . . But communists and socialists were taking seriously the exploitation of black laborers (not to mention the travesty of justice that surrounded the Scottsboro 9), when others were not, which was more important to Hughes.
Your audience is your creation, and you continue to create it with each new piece of work you circulate -- it shifts and changes over time, never becoming static, and (one hopes) continuing to grow. That conversation a writer has with her readers (which is not as one-sided as it might seem to be) is a significant chunk of the joy of writing, for me. The other part is the creation of the work itself!