If there is one thing that Jason Blakely has, it’s heart. That heart is behind everything he does at Poetry Is Life Publishing (PILP), his independent publishing company. Inspired by a dry, impersonal rejection he received after submitting a manuscript he had poured his soul into for publication, Blakely felt a calling to buck the standards of the traditional publishing industry. He started Poetry Is Life Publishing in 2004 to give voice to poets whose voices are often unheard.
Poetry Is Life Publishing is a unique small press. Unlike other publishing companies, there is no slush pile, no folder full of backlogged submissions, no pile of writing that is unread or unappreciated. Every piece of writing submitted to PILP is carefully reviewed and handled with respect.
“Poets take the time to be vulnerable and share parts of their lives with me. Just because I’m an editor, [that] doesn’t give me the right to ignore their experience like it didn’t exist,” Blakely says.
No one’s story is ignored at PILP. All writers have an equal opportunity to publish, giving the company an impressive record of diverse authors. From a compilation about the Black experience to a chapbook inspired by the loss of a child, PILP publishes the work of real people. If you look around the PILP website, you’ll likely run across the line, “Now! They will listen to us!” When I ask Blakely what that’s about, he explains, “Where I come from, there’s an idea of who gets to say what and whose voice matters and whose voice doesn’t.”
According to the 2019 Diversity Baseline Survey by Lee and Low Books, in the writing world, white people make up 76% of published writers. Blakely, however, opens his arms to all writers, including writers without industry connections, without formal education, and without polished, perfect manuscripts. He dedicates his services to “…People who are grinding, who are honest, sincere.”
When I say that Blakely dedicates himself, I don’t say it lightly. Blakely spends one-on-one time with writers who approach him, helping them shape their work into something they are truly proud of by the time he prints. As he says, Blakely offers writers “Genuine connection…They can call and ask me about anything, and I’ll answer. I always want to be accessible to the people who trust me with their work.” He goes above and beyond to, as he says, honor artists. This is evident, especially when he tells me he once rode his bike in the snow from one side of Akron to another to answer a writer’s questions about his process and make sure she felt heard. The respect and support that Blakely gives to writers is unmatched in an industry known for callous, cold rejection.
Poets who choose to take their writing to PILP work directly with Blakely himself. They don’t need an agent to connect with his company, nor do they need to figure out how to take their Word document and make sure it’s properly aligned for printing. Poets who approach PILP work with Blakely to establish a budget for their project and determine the services they want PILP to provide to them.
From editing to cover design and marketing, Blakely offers writers a complete publishing package with a rare personal touch. Blakely takes his time to talk through the poet’s manuscript with them, making sure he understands their vision for their work and even helps them through their writing before guiding them through the final steps of the writing process. Blakely offers writers another set of eyes and ears to make sure what he publishes is exactly what they want.
Poets taking the traditional publishing route are expected to submit flawless manuscripts that are ready to print, and poets choosing to self-publish only have the support of themselves. Poetry Is Life Publishing offers writers a third option with built-in support.
The publishing industry is brutal and can take a toll on a person who is unfamiliar with what to expect or how to navigate the system. Rejections are a big part of a writer’s reality, but the blow can be lessened when a response to a submission is personalized. However, personalized rejections are rare, and most rejections are the same: A “Thank you for submitting,” and a “Good luck.” Sometimes, there isn’t even that. As Blakely says, “No response is a response.” With PILP, there is always a response. When rejection must happen, Blakely takes the time to contact the writer personally and explain his decision.
The passion Blakely has for publishing is evident through our conversation. His involvement in the local writing scene is heavy. Poetry Is Life Publishing holds several annual poetry contests, features poems of the month on the website, and even sells a calendar that features several of Akron’s own poets. Being a writer himself allows Blakely to appreciate and respond to the trials writers face when pursuing publication.
Blakely believes that Akron’s writers have the potential to make big changes, to say things that people need to hear in a different way that may open them to doing things differently. However, before this can happen, all artists’ voices must be welcomed in Akron. He says, “There was no Black history poetry, no national women’s month poetry, but April is National Poetry month—and I bet there’s going to be a ton of poetry then—but what about the rest of the year?” From what I can tell, Blakely tries to answer that question, using PILP to celebrate diverse voices year-round.
Most publishing companies are focused on financial gain, which is directly impacted by the satisfaction of their readers. Poetry Is Life Publishing, however, is focused on writers, giving them a different path to get their words out into the world. Blakely says that the writers he works with are “People who fall down and stand up stronger and keep moving forward.” They’re people who are all too familiar with rejection, and instead of serving them up more of it, Blakely offers them a hand, asks them about their story, sits beside them as they write it, and, when they are ready, he puts it on pages so people can read it.
Marissa has been writing for the Devil Strip since 2015. She’s an instructional designer / technical writer by day, creative writer by night, and really loves popcorn.
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