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.”