A Struggling Poet

Several people have commented recently on the subtitle of this blog: “Poetry Editor and Struggling Poet.”  Tim, they say, how can you possibly be a struggling poet when you have a book that’s just been published by a good press and a full-time job in the poetry industry?  Or as G. Tod Slone puts it, “Why would you be a ‘struggling poet’? Hell, the machine is paying you a salary, isn’t it?”

Obviously that tag isn’t referring to money — anyone who’s seen my gut lately knows I’m not struggling to eat.  If I cared about material wealth I wouldn’t be here — I graduated at the top of my class and could easily be a molecular biologist at some pharmaceutical company pulling down six figures right now — but that doesn’t mean I’m starving.

I’m not struggling at my career, either.  American Fractal is doing as well as a first book of poetry can be expected to (sold three copies this week, wow!), and Rattle is growing fast and furious.  The age of 30 is breathing down my neck, but it isn’t here yet, and already I’m feeling pretty cozy in this niche.

What I’m struggling with is poetry itself.  I haven’t written a poem in three months.  In the last 18 months I might have written a half dozen.  It’s been two years since my book was accepted for publication.  It’s been two years since I’ve submitted work to another magazine.  It’s been two years since I’ve cared to.

I still love good poetry, and I still love the meditative process through which good poetry is composed.  I still think poetry is an incredibly meaningful part of the human experience — I think it’s endemic to the way our minds work, as important an evolutionary tool as the opposable thumb.  It’s poetry that not only helps us communicate new ideas, but lets us form new ideas in the first place; it’s through poetry that we experience the nuances of the world.  Simple language produces simple thoughts.  Poetry is banned in 1984 for a reason.  Poetry is a garden for reflection, contemplation, awareness, empathy — all the things that are missing or deficient in this modern life.

And yet poetry as an industry is just as ridiculous as any other industry.  Just as much a game: CVs, MFAs, bios, blogs, open mics, cover letters, conferences, colonies, grants, awards, networking, politicking, policing…  I don’t care if you’re an academic poet, a street poet, or an underground poet.  I don’t care if you’re the Poet Laureate or the Poet Lariat or the poet Harriet, who has a 160 poems in four different themes in a three-ring binder on her desk.  It’s all a joke.  It’s an egotistical, megalomaniacal, self-aggrandizing, back scratching, crotch-stroking, fist pumping joke.  When I see a bio listing 104 “credits,” including Poetry and Triquarterly and the New England Review, I don’t think, Wow, that’s a real poet.  I think, Wow, that’s a lot of postage.  When I see the same poet reading the same poem over and over again to the same audience at every open mic in town, there’s no room to wonder about the transaction — the only one gaining something is you, gaining a captive audience for content that wouldn’t hold up through a dinner conversation.

You want fame, you want attention, you want respect.  That’s all the game is about.  It’s 28,000 submitters and 2,800 subscribers.  It’s an audience of 30 at a poetry reading, and 20 of them thinking only about the poem they’ll read when the host calls their name.  It’s a new book every four years because that’s what tenure calls for.  And every faction, from the most amateur to the most erudite, thinks they’re the one that’s doing it right.  It’s all the same silly enterprise.

Yes, you’re all poets.  But only because we’re all poets — every human being is a poet from birth.  We live in language, we enjoy language, we use language in interesting ways.  Only 10% of us are writing poetry, but 100% of us should be.  That’s what really matters.  Good poetry isn’t about linebreaks or imagery or avoiding cliches.  It’s not about books or applause or MFAs.  It’s about having a genuine fucking experience within language.  If you have an actual experience writing the poem, I will have an actual experience reading the poem, and we’ll all be better off for it.  If you aren’t doing that, then I don’t want anything to do with you.  We might as well be talking about the weather, or sports, or Dancing with the Stars.

And if you want to learn how to write poetry, if you want to teach it, then teach how to have a meditative experience within language.  Don’t workshop me, don’t writers’ group me, don’t line-edit the vapid into mediocrity.  If it’s not a genuine experience, it’s a waste of everyone’s time.  I’ve had a handful of teachers who have taught poetry the right way, sometimes without even knowing it, but so many others who are nothing more than foremen at a plastic factory.  I’ll love the former forever, but I’m done with the latter and all the empty molds they spawn.

When I call myself a struggling poet, it’s because I’m struggling with how poetry is treated, how poetry acts.  But I had a revelation last night:  I’m done with it.  I’m done with taking this industry so seriously just because everyone else does.  I’m done pretending Best American Poetry matters.  I’m done pretending 200 people reading my poem in some journal is better than the 200 people who would read it if I posted it on this blog.  I’m done with trying to be successful.

All that matters is the actual poetry.  All that matters are the real poets, who actually exist as real poets for the hour or two that they’re living within a real poem.  All that matters are the actual people, who actually enjoy reading real poems. All that matters is the joy of creating them.

That’s how I felt five years ago.  And five years ago I didn’t consider myself a “struggling poet.”

20 thoughts on “A Struggling Poet

  1. “It’s about having a genuine fucking experience within language.” I’m going to print that out and frame it over my desk. Well said. There’s poetry here. Anger, too, but I think that’s needed. Thanks.

    I think there’s also another essay on language within experience here–meaning, experiencing life, and the struggle between how to have a contemplative life within it.

  2. Thank you for this reminder of what is essential and for being appropriately angry at how easily and frequently it is forgotten.

  3. Tim, that had some passion in it! I liked it, felt it and agreed with most of it…You’re not even thirty yet, plenty of time for you…I’m forty and just now getting a couple books out…and I still don’t really “understand” poetry, don’t ever hope to.

    I do agree about “genuine experience” being the key, but the experience has to be more than genuine, it has to be emotionally charged, for the poem to be very interesting.

  4. I agree with the above comments. Great essay! To hell with the poetry industry. To hell with academic poetry journals. Don’t worry about being a poetry machine. Quality is important; not quantity. And quality means it must have something to do with actual human existence. (So much modern poetry has so little to do with real life situations. So much of it merely fills a page.) All true poets should be “struggling” poets. Writing a poem should be as hard as giving birth, and as glorious. (I’m a guy so – for me – I’m speaking hypothetically.) Elizabeth Bishop published only 4 volumes of poetry (about one a decade). T.S. Eliot’s collected poetry could fill maybe a hundred pages. (And he basically stopped writing poetry in the last 30 years of his life.) This didn’t hurt their careers, did it?

  5. Poetry for me is a series of journey’s…like a big road trip with many side roads to meander along…. I explore the landscape of this journey sometimes with a wide angle lens and sometimes with a macro lens… and through my poetry I seek to learn more about me and how I interact with this planet and its inhabitants.

    I write for noone but me… the best reason to write… is because you cannot NOT write…

    Nice blog…

  6. “All that matters is the actual poetry. All that matters are the real poets, who actually exist as real poets for the hour or two that they’re living within a real poem. All that matters are the actual people, who actually enjoy reading real poems. All that matters is the joy of creating them.”

    I think we all need that reality check. It gets way to $*%*% serious and then I want to unplug from it all and can’t simply because I am at a computer each day for my work.

    Well…you’re on KPFK this Wednesday and here’s one poet who is tuning in to hear some of my favorite works read on radio by the author.

    Lois

  7. Mather–I’d argue that an emotional element is inherent to genuine experience. That’s not to say you have to be angry or happy or sad to write a poem, but rather, you have to have an experience and be reacting to it on some emotional level.

    Cafais–My thinking is just the opposite, actually. I don’t want to write less, I want to write more. Because fuck it. Who cares if anyone thinks it’s good. That’s how I used to feel, and somehow professionalization made me start taking it too seriously.

    Nicole–Maybe there is an essay there. I think it’s building an experience with language, words like bricks or like strokes of an artist’s brush.

    Lois–Excited about the interview!

    Sorry for being slow to reply, I forgotted.

  8. Great blog topic, Tim.

    I don’t think I could ever see myself as a “struggling” poet in the classical sense (the concept nauseates me, really), but in the way you describe it, I definitely feel much the same.

    Very few people who know me personally (casual friends, co-workers etc.) know that I write and publish poetry…and I don’t particularly want them to. You know why? It’s because the very idea of “poet” brings to mind snooty bohemians with tams, spewing pseudo-intellectual jargon. And that ain’t me…by a long shot.

    At the end of the day, we have to do what we must to garner some artistic fulfillment, and for my own part I realize, as I’m about to turn thirty, that I’m open to any audience who is open to me and the type of poetry I write. I think that if we all do that, there will be less artifice in our published output. At least, I hope so…

  9. Tim, thank you for writing this. It is a well written reminder to all of us. The struggle for me is the feeling that something is missing in my life when I’m not creating a poem or visual art. Art is an essential part of my spiritual connection with life. It is the magic, the beauty, the discovery that lifts me from routine, boredom and the mundane. This is what David Huerta’s words mean to me when he writes: ” We are missing ourselves” I struggle to feel a connection with myself when I’m not writing, painting, planting seeds, teaching children art, or whatever the creative act may be. I agree that the meditative process it essential to any good poem and I believe that by striving to reach a deeper place the creative process leads us to a greater understanding of ourselves, our relations to others, and the whole of life. When an poet/artist has been successful, that gift of incite can be shared with others.

  10. It’s so heartening to read this. I have nothing to do with the poetry “industry,” but I love to hear people say, “Fuck all you self-important, pretentious, snobs — I’m doing what I do because I love it, and I don’t care whether or not you approve.”

  11. I have been a struggling poet since 1985 and have many poems to be published. The book I am tring to publish (long story) is DiVorce, Dole, and Schizophrenia. 101 poems by Simon Dainty. It is so nice to be a struggling poet though!

  12. Interesting, soon as I studied poetry form, meter,rhythmn and the million other posey descriptives,my writting came to a stand still, as I was enlightened as to what I was writting wasn’t poetry atall, it was infact free verse, therefore utter shit. I haven’t written a single poem in months, used to wrtie all the time and have been left somewhat downcast by it all so I’m still studying form etc to try and morph all my pretend poems into actual poems.

  13. Tim wanna ask one Question to you? What is the real definition of a Poet?
    I am an Engineering Student from India, I love to compose poems and it seems it has become a part of my life . Just suggest me what shall be my steps further for my poetry future??

    • If you love to compose poems, then you’re a poet, I think that’s all it means. Congratulations on being a poet! Just keep writing, and maybe send them to magazines that publish poetry.

Leave a Reply