Saturday, June 15, 2019

the myth of poetry stardom

Jeannine Hall Gailey had a recent blog post about instant star narratives, and the danger they have in not at all reflecting the path of most writers.  They discourage us when they don't play out quite so fortunately.  They make us bitter and disappointed.  They might make some folks stop writing altogether.  Of course for every story that seems like instant stardom, they are the stealth writers who look like they are an instant hit, but actually have been working at it and sending that book out dozens of times til they hit the winner. There are those of us who have always been pretty open about the journey and adventures in po-biz, but others who are quiet and determined.  I often think the cases of actual instant stardom have more to do with either random chance (like getting struck by lightning) or connections and privileges that put you in a favorable place before you even start.

Of course, such narratives are usually not sustaining.  Even the shiny, fresh-faced poet du jour eventually writes more books that aren't so easily placed, or their lives get more complicated and it's harder to play the poet game so vigorously--to network and send out work.  Sometimes, even to write it.  2005's literary darlings, for exmple, have already been re-asorbed back into the scribbling masses by 2012 and may look just like the rest of us struggling to get it out there.

My own journey is marked by periods where things moved slowly, then quickly.  Then slowly again. I pulled the very first version of the fever almanac together in late summer 2003.  I was just about start my MFA studies and thought it was a good demarcation point.  By then, I had been writing poems in total for 14 years  ( I started as a teen in that dreadful blue diary) .  I'd been writing seriously for about 11, stemming from the early college days and when I first started sending out work.   In that time, I'd majored in English, garnered some college lit mag and vanity publications, and won a couple poetry prizes at graduation.   When I enrolled in my MA in Lit program at DePaul, it was another year before I was wring anything decent enough to be called good, or finding anything like my own voice.  I started writing anything worth actually reading in 1999.  Four years later, after getting a few publications in small print & online journals, I'd had a chap accepted by a small feminist press (The Archaeologists Daughter)  By that point, putting together a decent full-length book seemed a possibility.  That first version was a mess looking back, but it managed to get finalist status in a contest somehow.  By then, my work was changing, and there were only a dozen or so pieces that went into that manuscript before I switched to another.  The final version that was published was actually a hybrid of poems plucked from that second manuscript in that final round of revision summer of 2005.

I was having serious book-fever in 2004 & 2005, and remember being super-frustrated.  Many poets around me online were getting their first book acceptances.  The internets were rife with and claims that all of it was a game stacked against everyone not running in certain circles.  I must have sent it to about 8 contests with nary a whisper.  I hatched a plan to self-publish if the year ended before I managed to place it.  The almost- final version, did make a semi-final slot in a biggish contest, and I sent an even tighter version to Ghost Road, a recent discover, late that summer, which they accepted that fall.

Afterwards, while I felt that it restored my faith in the publishing world, I did realize what a game of chance it all was--that I sent it to them and that they actually had openings.  Because it wasn't a contest, and a newly emerging publisher, perhaps the submissions pool was not quite as thick with swimmers to actually be seen. That I had somehow avoided the bottle neck and emerged with a shiny book contract in a very traditional way--I had merely queried then sent the manuscript like they did in the old days. I can't say it was published because it was the best book, or any better than everyone else who was looking for a first book publisher that same year. It was the right book at the right time.

Later books, of course, would prove easier, but only via fortunate circumstances.  Dusie Press was still young and the editor and I shared many obsessions in common that led to in the bird museum (#2) finding a publisher before even the first book had even come out. Having published in the journal and taken part in the chapbook exchange, I simply asked the editor if she'd like to see it and she loved it.  The editor of Noctuary, which was just beginning,  requested to see the shared properties of water and stars (#4) as I was finishing it.  Within 6 months, it was a book.   Sailing on the popularity of the James Franco pieces, I queried the press that published the chap (the amazing Sundress Publications) if they would like to see the longer book of which that series was a part. I've been blessed to have wound up with some wonderful insight into where certain projects might work and made connections over the years that open those doors a little wider, which is something that only comes with time and experience in the lit community.

My thesis manuscript, girl show (#3) was perhaps the longest in the running.  I had sent it, and it had been accepted, at Ghost Road as well, which then shuttered a couple years later.  I sort of floundered for about a year, unsure what to do with it.  In the end, I condensed it into a chap (which did well in at least one contest where it was a finalist) but also sent the full version to Black Lawrence, who did wind up taking it in 2011, then publishing it a couple years later..  Again, probably a bit of dumb luck in sending it at exactly the right time--by then BLP was chugging along nicely and taking on more poets, and I've been amazingly lucky to have also published subsequent titles with them --salvage (#6) and the forthcoming sex &  violence (#8). 

But all in all, except for having a very lovely set of books on my shelf and a sense of accomplishment for actually having filled their pages with words, I can't say publishing a book has changed much in my way of life.  I still have a day job where most of the people I encounter do not know about my books, or even that I'm a writer.  Outside of occasional tiny royalty checks from a couple of the publishers, there hasn't been much financial gains. I'm not an academic, and I know having books might make tenure considerations easier, but since I don't really seek out positions or awards or fellowships, my books are pretty much useless there. When you a re trying to get that first book accepted it sometimes feel like this is the thing--THE THING--that will make you a real poet.  But it's not.  Writing the poems is what makes you the poet. I had two books by the late aughts, and for several years, I felt like barely a poet because I wasn't writing hardly at all.

Even with those successes, it still feels hard when you're trying to figure out where to send something new, particularly if the work feels different and you haven't figured out which press it would fit into.  And subsequent books are usually harder--2nd books especially so, since even if you win a contest, there are very few for 2-3 books and you've yet to establish the sort of career  that might make it a bit easier in the long haul.  Some advice?  Forge those connections and find those publishers. Study the books of presses you admire and think about how your work might fit.  Don't be afraid to take chances on new publishers that are willing to take chances on you. Sometimes, it helps to swim ahead of the bottleneck  Aside from contests, there are a lot of open reading periods out there waiting to read your book. If you enter contests, pay attention to who is judging and whether their style meshes with yours (not always a requirement, sometimes judges make surprising choices of work not anything like theirs) but usually you look at a winner and think, well, yes, I can see why that held appeal for that particular judge.

And in the end, do what feels necessary for you.  If you have spent hundreds unsuccessfully on reading fees and still no takers, but feel you could market and sustain an audience for a self-published book, that is another option.  I've long believed that you create the market for your work whoever does the printing, so self-issuing might be another way to go. It's a ridiculous  bottle neck and becomes moreso every year, and sometimes we don't want to wait for the winds of chance to blow our book into exactly the right editor's hands at the exactly right moment..

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