“I felt that in choosing literature as a career I’d placed all my money on a single number and it had lost.
“When I made this melodramatic declaration to a friend, he said, ‘What else were you planning to do with your life? Be an accountant? Civil engineer?’”
That’s from Edmund White’s City Boy: My Life in New York During the 1960s and ‘70s. Ed had published his first novel but no one seemed interested in a second.
As I’m in my 40s now and I’ve yet to publish a full-length collection (o slim volume of verse!), it’s pretty clear I’m not much good at this game. I like my poems. After I’ve read books full of work by others then turn to my own I’m struck again – surprised! – by how much I like my poems. I did a year without poems – 2008. I pledged never to write another poem. After all, I’d written so many. It would take all my writing energy just to go back through them and decide which were ones I wanted others to see. A little cleaning and polishing, and some sending work to magazines and ezines, and I could have that thing that looks so stunted and faded currently in its little pot in the corner – a poetry career!
In Ed White’s case a career at least had the potential to pay the bills. He wanted to write novels.
But the friend who said to me, What else are going to do with your life?, was me. It’s not like I didn’t write any poems at all in 2008. I reworked some old ones (you can see ‘em in the LuvSet blog archives), and I must have scratched a new one out here or there. And the habit of mind that makes poetry kept going on in my head. Choosing not to write any of it down began to seem an arbitrary decision. Nobody was reading the poems I’d written? Nobody was going to read the ones that were scrawling themselves across the inner walls of my head.
What my year off poetry seems to have helped me do is unshackle myself from the worldly ambition that pushed me to very occasional success and a lot of hurt feelings. It’s not that I don’t still want people to read my poems – I sent a batch to Fence Magazine last month with my usual hopeful fatalism – but … But needing the approval of others (editors! publishers!) in order to assign value to the poems was pernicious.
Now, I’m perfectly aware that this insight is banal. Since I was a kid I told myself what other people told me, that the work had to be the thing, regardless of what other people thought of it, and the place a poem would take me, a space of concentration and engagement, was one I rarely approached otherwise, and I liked that place. But delighting in a poem included the idea that others would, too. “Poetry will publish this one, surely! It’s better than anything in the last issue. And they say they could barely find enough good work to fill the last issue.”
I learned long ago that what I think is good and what the editor of Poetry thinks is good often fail to coincide – I know they reject work I would like and were I in their place I would turn back poets long comfortable in the Poetry stable. Nothing personal.
Same goes for every other magazine in the world. Or book publisher, probably.
Yet rejection balks me, hurts me. So I avoid it. I guess what happened during the year off was that the censorious voices I’d internalized gradually quieted. I will send poems out in the future. And I will occasionally take advantage of opportunities to self-publish. Print on demand services are more affordable than ever. Whatever. I’m not betting everything on one number. I’m diversified.