Tuesday, January 14, 2020

the book of yes

I got to thinking about this Lithub essay the other day, and about what I would consider my biggest "YES" scenarios-- some of which are what you would think, some of which are not.  Even still, it's a fascinating indicator of those sorts of formative experiences as writers, some marked by typical, expected trajectories, others less so. Do you define it by externals, what the creative world gives or does not give us, or is it by something internal?  Some personal measure?  While I don't have many of the things that would mark me as a fancy sort of poet--book prizes, grants, fellowships --I consider myself pretty successful as a writer (esp. given where I started.)  While I wish I could make some more money doing what I love, I long ago severed the expectation that those accompanied each other, so where does that leave you?  Particularly in a society where art is ignored and mediocrity rewarded? And where cash is king.  By those standards pretty much only Rupi Kaur is a success.

A little over 20 years ago, in the fall of 1998, I found myself writing the first spurt of writing that actually probably had any quality at all.  I was a poet nearly a half decade before that of course, but it was all really bad, despite what I told myself at 19 as I eagerly sent out work to places that, thankfully, did not publish it. By 1998, I was in the midst of my MA in English, and finally admitting to myself what I'd suspected all along but was too terrified to say--that I wan't cut out for teaching in any way. And yet here, I was, getting a degree, applying to Ph.D Programs with that very thing in mind.  That fall, at age 24, I had emerged from a serious bout of depression in the spring (both related and unrelated to the teaching quandary), But I was suddenly writing and reading like a fiend. I blame the The Wasteland, for laying everything open that fall--for giving me certain permissions in poetry.     As I made my way through that last year of grad school, it became very apparent that I really just wanted to spend all my time writing poems, and if I had to find some other sort of job to do that, I could. Subsequently, I abandoned my Ph.D prospects, finished the degree, and set out to find a job, turns out, in libraries, where I have been ever since. 

While my first acceptance followed in February of the next year, that "YES," while important, and to me evidence that I might actually not be deluding myself, seems smaller in importance to that previous fall's decision. In retrospect, it's interesting that it is the sort of "YES' that I gave to myself, rather than from some other sort of acceptance, but I've found those are often the most important--the self-dedications and permissions we eventually have to give ourselves and so much of the artists life revolves around these. 

And yet, there are some important "YES"es that came from others that are to be factored in, some more serious than others.  My first online journal publication was a big one  (Poetry Midwest), since I was only very tinily published in print at that point and still trying to figure out my work.  The community I found online in the early 2000's was (before my MFA, before I started doing open-mics around town in 2003) all I had and therefor very important--the acceptance I found there. . While I wouldn't say my MFA program acceptance was as heavy in weight, the local juried reading I won a year or so later definitely went a long way in affirming that I was on the right track.  In my head during this time, getting that acceptance for my first book seemed to be a "YES"  I badly needed to make myself feel like I was making it as a poet, though in retrospect, it wasn't perhaps as weighty as I made it out to be. I sometimes think that if Ghost Road had not taken the fever almanac, I would have likely started a career of self-publishing all my full-lengths (and the book would actually still be available instead of out of print when they folded .)  While I would have given up the chance to work with some really cool editors/presses, my "career" as a poet wouldn't be much different--my work & distribution methods mostly unchanged.

This fall's reading at the Field Museum, the invitation to do it, felt like a big "YES" exactly when I needed it (I think so big because, a)  I love that place and it's significance to my life in Chicago, and b) it's a non-poetry specific, high profile place where I felt like it was an honor to be invited into.  All of which made me feel a little more confident in some things where I was feeling less so. (I blame this on producing so much work in a relatively short time, some of which I was less comfortable with. )

There are so many little "YES"es that don't feel particularly life-changing momentous, but are really, really nice--book acceptances, journal acceptances, invitations to read--all of which go a little towards making you feel like you are really doing this thing--being a poet--which sometimes gets lost in day jobs and survival. Also the internal ones--a new stylistic approach, an interesting project, even a permission to fail--that turn out really great in the end.

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