Saturday, January 18, 2020

poetry and careerism revisited

I've been rustling through some older blog posts from 2005-07, and there are quite a few posts that seem to attempt to navigate the world I found myself fully immersed in, enthusiastically or reluctantly--the more business oriented side of writing--with it's submissions and contests, it's haves and have nots. Apparently I obsessed quite a bit about it, enough to mention it every few posts, which makes me feel like I should revisit it--now on the other side of hill (or on the hill, in the hill, under it.)  If there is such a thing as mid-career, how do I think about these things now compared to then?  While I talk about submissions and publishing efforts frequently,  I don't write those posts anymore--maybe just because I think of them less urgently these days.

When I was in my early to mid 20's I was feeling out so much, mostly by reading Plath's journals and issues of Poets & Writers. I submitted to the sorts of places it seemed were important--The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, Poetry. Also smaller journals I caught mention of in those markets.  From the time I was 19, I was playing the game, but sort of blindly and not very well.  I had an undergrad professor at RC who had published one book, and cache of visiting writers who seemed to be moving/shaking somewhat, but my knowledge of actual writers, or how to become one, was mostly nil.  My lit profs at DePaul's MA program were excellent in their field, but " literature" was a set thing--something encased in glass and set aside to be studied.

Sprung from that degree, and still writing in 2000 or so, I was now spending large amounts in front of computers,  and discovered the world of online journals.   They seemed open to new voices, endlessly accessible, and a possibility for real time response. The first couple or so years of work that I landed in online, it was amazing to get fan letters, to connect with other contributors, at a time that knew no other writers in real life. As such, I amassed a good amount of publications, and buoyed by that confidence, began doing other things--assembling chapbook mss., seeking out opportunities to read.   I felt, for the first time, that I was really good at it.  I also had a measurable level of success and response to that work that encouraged me to go on.

And of course, if you're good at something, you want more. In 2003, Columbia decided to add an MFA program specifically devoted to poetry and I applied.  I somehow got in (though it was a new program, so who knows how much competition there was.)   As those blog entries for the next four years attest, I was an oddity in the program--which was mostly folks who hadn't been writing long, much less had been published much of anywhere-especially that first year.  I felt conspicuous and self-conscious about all sorts of things in those years that impeded my learning and enjoyment.

I remember hearing a whole lot of discussion..on one side the writers who felt too new to the game to be focusing on anything publication related.  The other side, those who were eager to get started told by many faculty members that they shouldn't. The word "careerism" was thrown around a lot, on all sides. And not just there, but here on the interwebs, in the poetry blog and list-serv world that seemed full of folks, including me, who were struggling to make their way via journals and first book publications that seemed incredibly illusive.   I was an odd duck, having already been out in the world and having done a lot of things that were probably scoffed at.  I published my own chapbook for one.  Also, had been publishing widely in forums that, in many people's eyes, weren't legit unless they were in print format.  I had a personal website, a poetry blog with reasonable reach, had started a lit journal, was on the verge of starting a press. Others were still cutting baby poet teeth on journal publications and just starting out.

My work generated a bit of love/hate from classmates, that probably boiled down to stylistic tastes more than inherent quality (which wasn't all that great, but definitely a bit more sure-footed and polished than the work of younger poets.)  After all, I was older-- coming up on 30 and 15 years of writing--even if most of it wasn't well.  But still, as much as I heard "careerism" thrown at others, I knew for sure it was whispered about me, esp. after certain things fell into place for me during those years,  which was hilarious given how little I cared about that actual "career" but only about reaching audiences and readers. If anything, those sorts of discussions put me more off of things--that this journal or this award from more important/impressive.  That this MFA program or residency was more prestigious. The unspoken rules and arbitrary classifications.

It left a sour taste in my mouth and for awhile,  made me not want to engage in those aspects of the community.   I do understand I am in a more fortunate position--my writing is not necessarily tied to my livelihood.   There isn't a push for tenure--that taught wire, that shiny C.V. There are so many reasons writers need to take those things into account.  But for me, it was all far more about audience--what gets the work you do in front of an audience and allows people to engage.  And that can be anything from courting the attention of journals and presses to open mics and self-publication. I sat in a panel with academic poets once and argued over whether the latter of those was a valid undertaking and I still think it is til this day.   While I would eschew vanity presses, not for the "vanity" part but more in that you are paying someone to do what, if you wanted, you could do much cheaper and better, Truth be told, so much of what gets published behind the veil is because of connections and freindships and networking.   There's a bottleneck, even in the presses that accept things over the transom.  If you are a writer and are confident in your work, esp. if you have people interested in reading it and indications it's good (support from other writers and editors) --just do it if you can.  Hell, out your poems in bottles and ship them off to sea.  All methods of publication are valid-some just with greater reach.

I like the idea of traditional publishing in that it gives an editorial eye. I appreciate that extra once-over and perhaps a bit more publicity support and wider reach than doing it on your own. Also the comraderie of fellow press-sibling authors and that feeling of belonging.  Editors work really hard, and obv. as an editor, I appreciate that.  But you could also have a friend edit your book.  You could pay a publicist yourself. (Literary presses in general are strapped--no one is doing this for fame or money.) There were a few models that were collective initially that I really liked the idea of--people chipping in to publish others books along with their own. So many ways of getting that work out there.  Which is why it makes me sad when I see writers who have really good books sinking money into contests they lose year after year that seem so much like lotteries.  Or worse, that they will never find their audience and give up.

You might look at instagram poets.  While I don't necessarily like the work I see there sometimes, I also don't like what I usually see in the The New Yorker, so there's that.   Neither one more valid than the other, but I would argue that one is far more successful in it's reach than the other.   I would take instagram fame in a heartbeat over a magazine geared toward the Lexus crowd. Someone like Rupi Kaur's reach is enviable, if not for the work itself, but it's audience scope. The academic may scoff and dismiss, but hopefully there is something we can learn there.

I do like books and presses and journals, but only moreso becuase they get things out there a little farther and engage me more with community.  I love my little zines & objects series, but I have only a handful of regular subscribers. yearly. I sell more online separately throughout the year and give many away and trade them at readings . I post a good amount of work on social media and subnit/publish in journals, to generate interest.   But I also like putting pdf versions online to get more eyes on them eventually.  I feel like the most read thing I ever wrote my James Franco e-chap @ Sundress.   That and probably my poets zodiac poems--all of them published on instagram.  Poetry publishing feels like an experiment to find that sweet spot sometimes..and I'm not at all convinced it's landing in the "right" journal or with the right press, but more catching an audiences eye at the perfect moment in the absolute perfect way.