Oh, Poetry. What Am I Going to Do With You?

I’m heading to Millheim tomorrow for a couple of days of focused work on the memoir, but I want to talk about poetry for a minute because it’s suddenly on my mind again. Last week, this article about the dead end that is the first-book contest made its way around Facebook. I don’t agree with everything the author writes, but the article reignited in me a belief I’m coming to hold more and more, even while I wish sometimes that I didn’t: I don’t believe in the poetry contest model either. I have no faith in it at all. Maybe I’m grousing because *my* books haven’t yet been sprinkled by Magical Publishing Fairy Dust, but I think it’s more than that. Last year I sent both of my manuscripts around to several dozen contests at about $25 a pop. That’s money I do not have to spend. I don’t know who has the kind of money required to submit their manuscript to every single first book contest (which, besides a handful of presses which have open reading periods, is the most common way to publish a first book) over the course of a year. But we should, right? It’s like what I tell students looking to apply to MFA programs: apply to as many as you can financially afford–at least ten but twenty’s even better–because if you don’t cast a wide net, you end up sitting on the dock without a fish for dinner.

Or, put more crudely: throw enough shit against the wall and some of it is bound to stick. (Which is not to say that I think my poems are shit. They are not.)

I don’t know the exact  number, but I did count something like 35 contests just between August and December of last year. I submitted to a bunch of them (and got a couple of very encouraging responses from some good places) but since then, have forced myself to stop throwing. I needed to figure out what I was doing and why I was doing it. I need to figure out what I want from poetry.

Something else happened last year:  On the suggestion of a friend I respect and whose writing I admire, I submitted over-the-transom to BlazeVOX Books (no contest, no fee involved), and within a week received an email from the publisher saying he wanted to offer me a slot in their upcoming catalog.

And I turned it down.

I had real reasons for doing so, among them the worry about having the time and energy to do ALL my own promotion along with the worry that, as a print-on-demand outfit, publishing with them might hurt my academic credentials. But beyond even those two things, I did not get a strong sense that my book had really been read by the publisher. It had taken only a week, after all, to hear back and I have been used to waiting months and months and months. To be totally blunt, I didn’t feel truly wanted. I didn’t feel the way I imagined I would feel if I somehow managed to win an esteemed literary prize judged by some esteemed poet who chose my book from among hundreds or perhaps thousands of others for my–sarcasm alert— obvious formidable talent. It’s hard to own up to holding such romantic (elitist? narcissistic?)  notions, and harder still to let go of them. (I do want to say that  BlazeVOX has put out wonderful books written by excellent poets, like Amy King, who I am about to quote below, who may have had great experiences with them.)

Who knows if I made the right choice, but it felt more right for me than not at the time.  And it’s clear to me now that my mopey response and the choice I made were linked inextricably with the singular (romantic) vision I’ve had for myself as an academic. I’ll admit it: I have been weaned on the milk of institution. I am a rule-follower from way back. Hardly a rebel or a ground-breaker of any kind.

But I don’t know anymore. I’ve been feeling a strong sense for the first time ever that maybe I would be happier outside of academia. For the first time ever, I’ve actually started to imagine what such a life would look like for me. And how would poetry function in such a world? What would it be like to not have to worry about achieving seemingly impossible credentials for one’s work, but instead to write and publish for the love of it only?

I don’t have answers yet, but I am trying to pay closer attention to my instincts. I keep coming back, for instance to Amy King’s blog post “Your Own Revolution: Poet, Publishing and the Internet,” which, besides being a practical guide for would-be published poets in this age of technology, is also a manifesto that makes plain the writer’s belief that women in particular need to carve new roads into publishing:

“Again, women should finally embrace these communal technologies and practice the art of unabashed self-promotion, confident that your subject matter, content, style, and voice will edify the literary landscape.  Your book creations are also children, labored over for weeks and years, to be sent into the world and fiercely promoted; we write to be read.”

She’s right: I do write to be read. These days, I almost prefer to publish online because of the immediacy it offers. Writing feels less solitary and more communal this way. I suppose I am an extrovert on the page as well as in my “real” life.

A few months ago, I became acquainted (via Facebook; I love that place!) with Nic Sebastien, a poet who has created just such an alternate road for publishing her own poems. You can read about her nanopress model in more detail here, but the long and short of it is that she found a way to answer both the question of production (her book is now actually in the world instead of hung up in and impoverished by the contest circuit), and the question of credentialing (the stigma of self-publishing) by enlisting the help of an editor with academically-acknowledged acclaim. I think the resulting project is brilliant, exciting and engaging and I’m glad she had the courage and tenacity to see it through.

Will a project like this satisfy the academic poetry world? Oh, probably not right away. But you know, publishing is something very different today than it was when my teachers were publishing their first books and I have watched even the most traditional of them come to accept and even embrace online journals and other modes of dissemination. Things shift all the time and that’s a very good thing.

I don’t know what any of this means for me just yet. I’m still very much pondering, working out that question “what do I want from and for poetry?” I have a lot to think about and I suspect I’ll be doing so for some time to come.

7 thoughts on “Oh, Poetry. What Am I Going to Do With You?

  1. Nic Sebastian says:

    Hang in there, Sheila! Wonderful to see you engaging so seriously with these questions – rooting for you! Nic

  2. Camille-Yvette Welsch says:

    I am reminded of my deep love, Gertrude Stein. She and Alice started their own press just to publish Gertrude. If no one else would publish the work, she would do it herself. Sisters have been doing it for themselves for years. Virginia and Leonard Woolf too. Think of those subversive lesbians in Paris, publishing The LIttle Review. There is certainly something to the idea that women create the alternative.

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