The Neurotic-Growling-Self-Loathing Side of Poetry Biz
“Really?!” I mutter to myself, “Norton (or Knopf, or FSG, or Copper Canyon, or…) sees fit to publish this sentimental mediocrity?!” This little conversation with myself not infrequently happens when I get to the bottom of whatever poem I’ve been reading on Verse Daily or Poetry Daily in The New Yorker. I recognize that it is not useful. I even recognize that I might be wrong about the poem/poet in question and that taste in art is profoundly variable. But I have the conversation anyway, often, and gut-wrenchingly, because, of course, the rest of the text has to do with how many years (and contest fees) it’s taking me to find a publisher for my second book, and how many years it took to find a publisher for the first one, and how lousy my acceptance rate is with journals.
And sometimes, I’m pretty sure I’m right, and the poem in question is mediocre, at best—formulaic, predictable, energy-less.
I know I’m supposed to have a thicker skin at this point (40+ years in the biz one way or another). I know this stuff is not rational. I know a lot of it is about networking—at which I am horridhorridhorrid—and that I kind of inadvertantly deep-sixed my best shot at having one and have subsequently proved dirt-dumb and incompetent at getting any others going.
I know I’m supposed to be able to get beyond the gut-grinding desire for affirmation and fame and just write for the love of art and out of some bone-deep sense that this is what I’m supposed to do. But those two things have never, ever been mutually exclusive, ever. And sometimes I get tired of pretending that they are.
I used to want to win the Yale Prize. It was a sad day when I aged out of that possibility. I used to want a little fame—okay maybe a lot, maybe Billy Collins-type fame. Maybe I wanted to be the next T.S. Eliot. I have gotten better. I have made peace with the fact that I don’t have Eliot’s brain (much less Eliot’s Pound), and wouldn’t want much of Eliot’s life. I don’t much care about fame anymore, but I would, dammit, like to find publishers for my books without it taking decades of rejection beforehand.
And I would very much still love to believe that poetry is a meritocracy, and that I have some sort of place in a hierarchy of merit—that I’m at least seriously better than mediocre. And, dear Lord, I would love to stop feeling so effing needy.
Way back in my Master’s program, a couple of my profs took the trouble to make it clear to me that they thought very, very highly of my potential. The third of them seemed to think I was an idiot. They were probably all right. And there is a certain irony in the fact that the guy who apparently thought I was a lightweight, giftwise, was the one whose work I like best. More to the point, the two who were kind enough to be encouraging actually scared me nearly to death, so of course I pretty much quit writing for about 5 years after the M.A. And I learned the danger of even the most well-meant evaluations.
Still. There are days when I wonder what the heck I’ve been doing all these years. Whether it’d have been better to set my sights on being a potter or a maker of ecclesiastical vestments—nice concrete things where you can see the fruits of your labor being used and useful. Or a wedding gown designer, like I wanted to be when I was younger, or a contentedly mediocre landscape painter so I could spend my life staring at scenery. Or I could have gotten a, you know, job, and made a reasonable contribution to the family coffers.
I say, when I’m asked, all the usual-and-true things about believing in art and the making of it. I say I’ve always loved words, which is also true. I say that I am in pretty decent shape if I’m writing and am edgy and off-kilter if I’m not, and that I think this is both an important bit of self-knowledge and sufficient reason to keep making poems.
And I think I’ve paid my dues fairly decently—I’ve taught generations of students to love poetry, and have helped some of them with writing it; I’ve supported other writers by buying their books and reading their manuscripts; I’ve shown up a readings that hurt my teeth; I’ve revised, revised, revised and listened, listened, listened; I’ve read the writing of beginning writers who were looking desperately for someone to tell them that the thing is worth their doing; I’ve collected a bloody mountain of rejection slips: I’ve worked hard at being a pretty terrific performer/reader. I think I’m reasonably (that is, with reason) sure that my poems are at least as good as much of what’s out there, and sometimes considerably richer and more interesting. But they seem to be drenched in editor-repellent. Reeking with it. And the thought that I have spent 40 years learning to be a critical reader and still can’t see what’s wrong (or whether there is anything wrong) with my own work is a serious bummer.
People I respect still, now and again, tell me that I’m good, even really, really good. But I couldn’t tell you whether this is balm or just more confusing oil on the stormy waters of my writerly sanity. Probably both—that tends to be the way of things. I certainly don’t want them to stop.
We are going to pass over in silence the matter of jealousy, mostly because my friends whose careers are shinier than mine universally deserve what good fortune they’ve had come their way—and they’ve uniformly worked their asses off to be available for that good fortune. And I love them and am deeply happy for them.
But it’s not an uncomplicated happiness.
And yes, I do understand that this is a whine from a position of privilege.
A mentor would help. I think I might be too old at this stage, though. Which kind of makes me feel doomed. A mentor would have helped. Someone to put a good word in at, say, Poetry or The APR or…, someone who’d have handed my book off to an editor-friend at a respectable press. And I did kind of screw myself there. So, in some sense, I’m not allowed to moan now.
But if the definition of crazy is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, then I am definitely living in looney-land.
There are no answers here. I’m not looking to be made to feel better. I have a rich, lushly full life–full of everything that is truly important. And I certainly don’t think I’m the only poet out there feeling these things. I’ve known brilliant, honored poets who had trouble getting a publisher for their next books. I suspect that the overwhelming majority of folks in the guild have some or all of these feelings, either constantly or occasionally. I don’t think I’m special in this regard.
I’m just really tired of being so needy, and of that needy-ness helping to make me clumsy and counter-productive on the rare occasions when I have the opportunity to do myself some good career-wise. And of the amount of rejection, about which I am supposed to be mature and knowing and accepting and competent. Mostly I do manage some version of those things. I manage to keep at it and keep the whining to a sort of minimum. I guess what I wanted here was just to have a space in which to speak the confusion, frustration, snarling neuroticism, and just plain pain that goes along with my life with Po-Biz. She’s a fanged, vampiric bitch-mistress is Po-Biz, and I’ve got the bruises and lacerations to show for the relationship. Just like nearly every other artist out there. And I don’t think I will ever understand my own willingness to keep showing up just to be beaten again. Something in me must believe it’s worth it, but most days I couldn’t tell you what that thing in me that continues to believe in the sacredness of the work is called. Unless its name is Just Dumb.