The other day I was eavesdropping on a conversation between two stage actors behind me on the bus, both of whom had apparently just met on their way to a side-hustle brewery promo they were both working. They mentioned right before they got off the bus how awesome it was that they could meet and not be weird about competition for parts, because they varied greatly in age and body type and type-casty sort of qualities. It came on the heels of a comment during our Art Empire panel last Thursday that stressed how important community and support from other artists played in forging a career. How one person's successes didn't take away from any other person's because there was room for everyone--the art & illustration world being big and the trick being to connect with your audience however you could.
These conversations always strike me as vastly different from the poetry community. Or maybe not my opinion of the poetry community now that I know better, but the one I had going in and through my first decade or so of publishing and submitting. The economy of scarceness vs. abundance. That there are only so may journal slots, so many presses, so many contests or residencies or fellowships that we were all clamoring for and more of us everyday. That the bandwidth for American Poety (tm) was so tiny that were all bottlenecking into it hoping to rise to the top One person's successful win of a first book contest was sort of on the backs of all the other contestants who didn't win. It disillusioned me, especially while getting my MFA to be told that certain presses "mattered" and others did not, that certain journals were worth submitting too (mostly print, mostly academically tied) That, like Ivy league schools, the acceptance/rejection rate mattered more than whether or not your work actually fit with other poems in the journal That small upstart publications weren't worth it and you should aim for "top-tier" . Otherwise, you were "wasting" your poems. It was so gross it put me off a lot of things--submitting at all for awhile unless I'd been invited and sometimes not even then
I've always said I could never date another writer, mostly because one of us would inevitably be luckier in the game than the other, and eventually it would undo us. Or someone's work would take precedence or suffer becuase of the other's (I think I was traumatized early by the Plath/Hughs dynamic. Sylvia typing up his drafts when she could have been working on more of her own) Someone would get that prime journal publication, someone's book would be published, and while you would try not be resentful and truly happy for their success, you would be, just a little. Which is fine for friends and aquaintances, that little bit of elation tinged with jealousy, but not between people sharing the same bed.
About 10 years ago, as I was building the etsy shop and the press and spending alot of time in conversations with other artists and crafters, I had a realization that completely changed my approach to how I defined what I was doing in art and writing. For years, while I did many of the things I felt I was supposed to be doing for my "writing career"--submitting work to publications, presses, and competitions, getting my MFA. Self publishing was a no-no, of course, especially among the academic set, but I did it anyway. Not necessarily beauase it was the only way (actually I've been ridicuously lucky that other presses miraculously sometimes want to publish my work and I love them for it.) But what if, I thought to myself, I appoached my "writing career" like so I saw so many artists in other art fields so. It boiled down to a few key differences...
Every once in a while, poets seems amazed at the audacity it takes to do something like start a journal or a press or literary venture. Basically, you make a thing and then you become a thing. I was just a girl with a booklet stapler and some cardstock and a few authors that were willing to let me publish their books. It grew from there, and yes, it's hard work, especially now that it's so much bigger, but anyone can do it if you start small and manageable. You, yes YOU, as a reader and writer and person with your own sense of literary taste & aesthetics, you have something of value to put into the world, things to bring to the table as an editor or publisher, just do the thing. Another piece of valuable advice from the artist panel was "do it before you think you're ready" mostly because you will never feel ready. Not really.
2. Means vs. ends.
Books are nice, I love books. Well books and chapbooks and zines and poems in bottles set off to sea. And connecting with editors and writers through publications is immensely gratifying, but don't let it, or the lack of it, define your career as an artist. Find your audience, however you do that--the internet, open mics, the people you meet in coffeeshops. Fon't be afraid to make your own chapbooks, or audio recordings, or even your own books if you feel their is a market. Or maybe even if there isn't yet, but may one day be. I like making little books & objects that bridge the written and the visual and like having complete control over them. I also like longer books, and if those happen, great, but if they don't I am still building a body of work. I still submitted, but moreso as a way to get work out there and enter the dialogue with other journals and writers. The publications aren't the point, but a vehicle I enjoy using, even if the point of my work and creativity is more on my own terms. Your still an artist or a writer, you can stil cultivate community and audience even if e xyz journal or press doesn't see value in your work. Get it out there another way. Do what you have to.
3. Be bold, be fearless.
Don't be afraid to seem ambitious, to talk about your work openly and what you want from it. It's good to see the work behind what successes may come your way. What might help others who follow you or give a glimpse into your world. Being a writer is sometimes lonely. Seeing other people struggle or succeed is super helpful. Sharing what you know and what you've learned is as well. Going after things for the right reason is as well. If you feel that your poems only fit in THE NEW YORKER,go for it. But if, like me, you realize that you're work doesn't really speak to the Lexus driving set, find another magazine that is likely to find your readers. Also have more faith in your work, not just faith that others (gatekeepers and the like) can bestow on you, but the sort of faith that comes from knowing when you have something to offer.