Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Battle for Poetic Recognition

I recently bought a new "Poet's Market," an intimidating book printed on cheap paper of 572 pp. In it is an interview with a "successful" poet, who does 75 seminars and readings a year, up to 150 if he has a new book or album out. He edits a literary magazine and is also a songwriter.

He estimates that 1400 Americans may make some living through poetry, which sounds like a lot to me. Obviously this man works hard. Yet in researching him on the net he had only 5% of the references I do on Google. Apparently he has not published extensively online. Then I checked his latest book from 2007. It ranks below 1,600,000 titles on Amazon. My new book ranks just above 900,000, for comparison, rendering them likely equally obscure. I also did not recognize his name from the article.

T. S. Eliot wrote "There is no competition." Unfortunately, in this day and age of proliferating poets, Eliot is wrong. There is competition. Each poem published in a journal that rejects me is a potential place where I might have had success. Each reading booked up in advance in a major city is one reading I can't get.

Although K.F. admits that the poetry world has proliferated beyond his imaginings, from open mikes to slams, the Internet, etc., he has this to say about the art:

"What has not changed is the nepotism of the Biz and the preconceived notions of the academic sector. Most poets still teach to support themselves. There is still no one who rushes home to tell his parents that he is a poet and then is subsequently swamped with congratulations and financial support."

We all know this. Poets are not pariahs, just largely irrelevant to the larger culture. I have compared poetry to lawn bowling in this regard in past essays, "a cultural vestigial organ." Yet if one is truly infected by poetry there is no cure. I will go on writing and publishing until they take this computer from my cold dead hands. Yes, I want to be read. Yes, I would like more recognition. Yes, I have a new book to promote and eight interviews and eight reviews already. But I assure you my book is not jumping off the shelves. The most I've sold at once is five at a local reading. (I also importuned my bank manager, dentist and my shrink and family doctor to buy copies; after all, the monetary exchange for their services dwarfs a small purchase of my book.)

I did recently receive encouragement from Ireland, where a J. Patterson wrote me for my revised version of the essay on T. S. Eliot's "Four Quartets." No one to my knowledge ever finished that essay before; I even had a standing reward of $25 for the first person who did. Afterwards this good soul ordered a signed copy of "Unexpected Light" and gave me a good report. I enjoyed the correspondence. I enjoyed the fact that he felt my treatment of Eliot was substantial and witty and fun to read. I also know, from my research, that certain Christian aspects of the poems were better elucidated in my essay than any others I could find.

In fact, everyone has given me a good report; the reviews have been uniformly positive. So where do I go from here? More reviews, more interviews, more publications? If this fellow is relatively famous and interviewed for "Poet's Market" and his book ranks far below mine (though at these numbers one or two purchases can shoot you back up the ignominious ladder of obscurity), and he has 5% of my references on Google, what should I say? That I'm better known on the Net? I suspect he makes most of his dough leading seminars, that's where the real money is for mid-level poets, while the truly famous can command $10,000 or more for a single performance--you know, Collins, Angelou and the rest.

The scale of celebrity among poets is more variable than the winners of "American Idol." Luck has much to do with it, but so does nepotism. An MFA with a close connection to a well-known poet/professor has a much better chance at ascending the ladder than a disabled doctor with few connections. That goes without saying, especially since this doctor only became serious about publishing in 1997. Yet since then I've published two books of poetry and edited one anthology while being included in many others. I even recently had "Boundaries" recognized as the best poem currently online for a week: (see May 18).

I have some obstacles to furthering my ambition, of course. First, I live far away from metropolitan centers where venues abound. Second, I'm manic-depressive and travel can really screw with my mood. Third, I loathe to be away from my true love, Kathleen. But paramount, above all these, is the program in my head forbidding self-promotion. My mother instilled in me very early not to blow my own horn, not to brag, to rather wait for my excellence to be recognized. That's the Emily Dickinson way that many poets cling to: "I'll be noticed when I'm dead." Fat chance if you weren't noticed while alive.

To be noticed while alive can be arranged, however. For the well-heeled poet of unlimited means, an expensive New York publicist can be hired and she will get readings and reviews in that great hive considered the center of literature in these United States. Still, if the quality lacks, such a poet would be rejected by the academic community, and rightly so, but that will not stop them from out-googling, out-selling and out-maneuvering others of greater talent. I see many poets self-publishing, even in their own magazines, and acting as if they have received recognition when they have essentially granted it to themselves.

I hate cold calling people I've never met to ask for open reading dates on the Pacific Coast. I'm not looking forward to the travel in my four dates coming up (SF, Sacramento, LA, SD) require, and only two of them look like first class venues. But I will keep my word and show up, I hope, unless my energy fails.

But look at the downside again. K.F. does up to a 150 readings a year when a new book comes out and his Amazon ranking is below mine. And there's also a strange feather in my hat; my first book, "Elementary," is apparently rare enough now (only 300 copies were printed) that it sells for $189 on Amazon, and only one copy is available. So someone thinks my first book is valuable. What does that mean? I don't know. Probably something to do with book collectors who hoard obscure poets.

This all boils down to one question for me: Is it worth the work? If I knock my head against the world of poetry venues, will it result in anything of note--sales, publicity, what? Some result, yes, a few books sold here and there, not enough to cover my gas, but in the main, it's doubtful. It is probably wiser to concentrate on breaking into the august publications like Southern Review and Poetry. So far I haven't broken that glass ceiling, though to be fair, at my best, I do not think myself the inferior to those I see in there, though I often admire the work. And one wonders (despite the "blind reading" claims of so many of these journals) what would happen if my name were John Ashbery or W. S. Merwin or Mark Strand. Wouldn't these instantly be kicked upstairs by the powers that be? I do not believe the editors are fair in this regard, whatever they claim. Nepotism by reputation and previous publication within a magazine still obtain.

If I were a purist it would be all about the work, the next poem, the next song, trying to achieve that artistic perfection or Logos that all artists aspire to.

But I'm human, ah there's the rub. Like any artist I crave recognition, yet my Lutheran background tells me that ambition may be wrong, just as self-promotion is wrong. But that can't be right. Even Jesus promoted himself by miracles and street preaching. So perhaps it's the Protestant inheritance that drives me; I can't have work without result! I can't just write poetry for nothing for magazines that don't pay and come with little recognition. Or can I?

Further, Jesus promoted himself for the benefit of mankind; to what degree can I say my art does something of the same? I know my manic-depressive and love poems have helped some, but on a scale of good works--which the New Testament rejects wholesale--I can't compare to a missionary distributing food and medicines--or is my calling just different and just as important in its way? So my wife would have me think.

I have been undiscriminating about my best work, sending it to whatever e-zine suited my fancy at the time, or because of a submission call. I could have parceled my work out slowly, attacking only the best magazines. But initially I didn't have the self-confidence to do so, and the thrill of being published anywhere superseded the thrill of submitting to Poetry for ten years in hope against hope. (BTW, I do send them regular submissions, they may even recognize my name from the amount of rejections I endure.)

So what am I saying? Craig is confused. Plain confused. He loves poetry, he likes to publish, he loves giving readings, but he wonders 1) Does he have the necessary drive to promote himself like K.F.? And 2), Is it worth it?

In discussing this with my wife and editor this morning, she suggested that the best scenario is to be taken under a well-known poet's wing and mentored along. At 54 I feel I am in the mentor stage; I teach poetry online (see my website for the course offering) and every unpublished poet who has taken my course has been afterwards published, save one who didn't want to submit and likely wasn't ready.

I'm a little old for applying for fellowships at major universities for poets, and the stipend wouldn't cover expenses anyway. I don't want to uproot myself from my beloved Mendocino and go traipsing to the Iowa Writer's Workshop for instruction and connections. In truth I've only really been at this for twelve years, so perhaps, since I first published at roughly 17, I should think of myself as only 29 in the "serious poetry competition." So I would still likely benefit from a mentor. How do you get one? I suppose the way you do everything else: by endless queries.

"Cast your bread upon the waters and it shall return to you after many days."

But sometimes you only feed the ducks.

In a mixed state, between 2 Kilorats and 1 Kilobunny,



  1. you are saying things I've felt for years, and yet i hear so much denial by people about the existence of academic in-groups, even while Im reading poems that have little to do with poetry and a great deal to do with professor so and so and sly asides aimed at him...

    and you're dead right. if you don't know somebody, you don't know anybody.

    It takes a huge amount of energy, both physical and emotional, to schmooze people at conferences and book readings. It takes a huge amount of nerve (what my mother called "sand") to walk up to someone with A Name and start promoting yourself.

    Ive always sent stuff out to places about one notch higher than I think Im worthy of, 'just in case'. Rather get it rejected there than accepted elsewhere first by a mag that will be gone within a year, and my poem with it.

    Poets are what we are, and what we have to be, but it shouldn't break our hearts in the process.

  2. "Is it worth the work?"

    In a word, no. So, you gonna stop? I didn't think so. Funny, how that works, huh?


    Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
    That, for all they care, I can go to hell,
    But on earth indifference is the least
    We have to dread from man or beast.

    How should we like it were stars to burn
    With a passion for us we could not return?
    If equal affection cannot be,
    Let the more loving one be me.

    Admirer as I think I am
    Of stars that do not give a damn,
    I cannot, now I see them, say
    I missed one terribly all day.

    Were all stars to disappear or die,
    I should learn to look at an empty sky
    And feel its total dark sublime,
    Though this might take me a little time.


  3. Thanks, Mittens,

    Your comments are insightful. I think the same obtains in all arts, to be fair, maybe in business as well. Who you know up the stepladder--you can publish like a madman (I have) and still not advance your name much. Get invited to one literary conference and do a seminar with Billy Collins and the world opens up. Or so I imagine.

  4. well i've done workshops with Rick Jackson, Mike Carey, and several others; ive been to a conference that had more published poets than anything else, and I am firmly convinced that unless their ego is smaller than their hat size, you ain't gonna get any help there, unless you push very hard.

    Being in a seminar is no guarantee of success. It's nice to be asked, however...Knowing someone who knows someone helps a great deal. Getting a First Book Prize is also an excellent way to get a book out there, but the odds on that are so huge...

    And as I am constantly reminding myself, it matters not how good you are, or how sincere your pumpkin patch, it matters only if you can catch someone's eye, or find someone who is willing, as yoy say, to mentor you.

    Self publishing, yes. Chapbooks, definitely. I suspect this is the way to go, and many people I know do this regularly. The catch is, you gotta self promote it, you gotta get it out where people can see it.

    Beau, I don't think we have a choice. It's like sneezing. If you hold back, it will make your brains explode through your ears. *g*

    Anne Sexton said once that poetry was the only thing that kept her from suicide. Sadly it wasnt enough, but I understand what she meant.

  5. Great poem, Blue!

    And your thoughts are helpful, Mittens. But self-publication is still frowned upon by the establishment and makes you ineligible for many awards.



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