Most of the readers knew one another and had brought their own entourages. I had sensed I would need one, so I dragged in a long-suffering, patient couple, the husband a fine poet I thought might get a chance at the open mike. He was cajoled to read a poem, but refused to be part of this historic lineup. At least one of the readers, volcanically loud and incoherent, was certifiable; and the others were terrible, or terribly impressed with themselves -- like the bewigged 70-year-old Parisian who stopped his reading to accuse me of laughing at him (I wasn't laughing, just unable to repress a smile). A kindly nebbish read a 9/11 poem he had laminated. The other female reader actually said, "I wrote this this morning, about 11 o'clock" -- and then there was yours truly, all rehearsed, who jumped ship on myself and gave a terrible performance. Final grade for me: D. Pride goeth.
A good learning experience and proof that I still need to work on confidence. If it is at all possible for you, learn from my mistake.
"POETS AT HEART": We’re all poets at heart. In this course we will address several poetry forms and devices. Class reports will be made defining these forms and devices and each week we will write and read poems (our own and other poets’). Our goal is to gain a greater understanding and appreciation of poetry, along with enhancing our abilities to write poetry. Remember, anybody can write poetry. (Text: Poetry For Dummies.)
"We order that the poets’ rights be revered:
- To enlarge the scope of the poet’s vocabulary with arbitrary and derivative words (word-novelty).
- To feel an insurmountable hatred for the language existing before their time.
- To push with horror off their proud brow the wreath of cheap fame that You have made from bathhouse switches [clearer translation: "from toothpicks"].
- To stand on the rock of the word “we,” amidst the sea of boos and outrage."
By comparison, how timid we are! And how powerless! Are those things linked?
Good question! My answer: The world can't use young and hungry interns for everything. People will sometimes want or need people with experience and a proven track record. Having those, we may value and price ourselves accordingly. And working for less shows we lack respect for our own hard-earned skill and wisdom.
True story: A friend said she would pay me to read her book manuscript and honestly tell her why I think publishers won't accept it. I said I would, for $75 an hour. She said "That's too much," and ended the conversation. Another writer agreed to assess that manuscript free, as a friendship favor. Two years later that writer still has the manuscript and my friend hasn't heard a word. It's strained their friendship: My friend tries not to feel resentful and both of them try never to mention it. Big bargain, eh?
I'm not saying, apply at Wal-Mart and demand $40 an hour just because you've been in the work force for a while. I am saying, if you have decades of writing experience and are asked to provide a writing-related service, ask for money. Yes, it's hard to do, and it's hard to be cold-shouldered or to hear cluck-clucking about how uppity you are. But you should feel GOOD when someone is miffed because you won't work for little or nothing. Watch this eye-opening 3-minute clip on YouTube called "Pay the Writer" to see the sheer absurdity of abasing yourself and your entire profession.
We got ourselves into the "Sure, I'll work for nothing" trap, and have to get ourselves out. It won't be quick or easy. Do it anyway. Asking for fair wages for your work will help all the others who are too weak to ask.
I know that talking about our paychecks is the last taboo. Ever wonder who made it and keeps it taboo?
Cherry Pie Press since 2005 has published a series of poetry chapbooks by Midwestern women. They are beautifully produced and the poetry is hot and it keeps coming: Three new books this year. A friend of mine, Pamela Garvey, won a chapbook contest last year; her chapbook is titled Fear (Finishing Line Press), and each copy is threaded through with a satin rattail ribbon, different colors: mine is wine-red. Poets with traditional publishers will issue chapbooks if they've got some work that's too edgy for the suits. Ted Hughes issued 110 copies (that's all!) of a chapbook titled Howls & Whispers (1998), 11 poems from the Birthday Letters series that he, or somebody, thought were too edgy to publish in the regular book. In a rare-book room I read copy #75. Online I found a deluxe edition for sale that costs USD $27,500. Mostly, though, chapbooks are a heck of a lot more affordable than normal books of poetry, and they're mostly meat, very little gristle. A book of 20 or 30 poems that are ALL good is positively intoxicating.
I'm even urging chapbook publication on poets who have lots of good poems but not enough for a full-length manuscript, or who have full-length manuscripts they can't publish. Chapbooks can be handsomely made, even at home, and circulated and sold, mainly at poetry readings, but also through flyers, local bookstores, and the Internet.
And as far as I can see, no poet today is ever sorry that he or she issued a chapbook. Poets, consider it. And maybe it's time for some fiction or nonfiction writers to do it too.
The other poet on the bill, Rebecca Ellis, had learned ahead of time about the customs of the venue and brought a pretty cloth to dress up the table. That way any reader could be comfortable -- and the audience stay focused on our upper halves.
This was the first reading I have ever given while seated. The manuscript pages lay flat on the table in front of me, no chance of dropping them. A cup of water didn't have to balance on the lip of a shaky podium. I didn't have to worry whether my knees were knocking, or if I was too far or too close to the mike. Freed from all that self-consciousness, my energy flowed instead into the audience and the poems. And afterward I didn't feel drained. Instead I felt very good. I have said for years that reading one's own poetry in public (like, for 40 minutes to an hour) is very hard work. Well, just this week I learned that it doesn't have to be so hard!
Don't dwell on the book's reception. The point is to get on with it--you have a life's work ahead of you--no point in dallying around waiting for approval. We all want it, I know, but the point is to reach out honestly--that's the whole point. I keep feeling that there isn't one poem being written by any of us--or a book or anything like that. The whole life of us writers, the whole product I guess I mean, is the one long poem--a community effort if you will. It's all the same poem. It doesn't belong to any one writer--it's God's poem perhaps. Or God's people's poem. You have the gift--and with it comes responsibility--you mustn't neglect or be mean to that gift--you must let it do its work. It has more rights than the ego wants approval.
I'm wondering whether Sexton was right, or if it's "Writer, Keep the Faith While Society Flays You" feel-good wishful thinking that Sexton herself did not believe -- which would explain why she wrote this using so many qualifiers -- and that she herself could not use.
Quoted from: Seducing the Demon: Writing for My Life, by Erica Jong. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2006.
1. “I’ve googled myself and what’s on the Net is fragmentary and totally inaccurate!”
2. “Why have an email address and get bothersome letters from every Tom, Dick and Harry?”
3. “I’ve found my poems online – used without my permission!”
4. “Call me old-fashioned, but I favor the printed page.”
5. “On the Internet, people can get directions to my home; it’s appalling!”
Miss Moore, you once wrote, "Patient or impatient repudiating of life just repudiates itself. There is no point to it...."
Repudiating the Internet won't make it go away. Here are some facts:
- You can post correct information about yourself and your books, anytime, and quite easily, on authorsden.com. Or ask your publishers to do it.
- Seems to me that you did your share of letter-writing, sometimes 50 letters a day, but, that aside -- fewer people want to contact you than you think. Out of 350 million people in the U.S., only about 10,000 have heard of you, 150 would like to talk to you, and 100 of those are too polite to bother you. Of the remaining 50, 30 are too lazy to send an email, leaving 15 grad students who want to email you about your poems, and 5 professors of English interested not in your poems or even your sex life, but in The Dial or why you were snide to Sylvia Plath. These are the people who have always sent you letters.
- Be flattered! Some stranger liked your poems enough to type them out and post them online. Readers now needn't travel miles to a library or pay $18.95 to savor one. English teachers can instantly show your poems to their classes. Your works are being read, admired, shared and talked about, far more so than when they were first published! Isn't that why you wrote them? Perhaps you wrote them for the money? All this online chat about your "illegally" published poems will only sell more of your books.
- You got to like the printed page when you were admitted to its exclusive club of "legitimately" published writers. Before then, The Dial and The Egoist, not "legitimate" outlets, helped you amass poetic street cred and friends, published your first book, and got you the "legitimacy" you are now stuck on. Books will always exist and you can enjoy them. But no literary revolutionary should plume herself on being "old-fashioned" -- unless she's doing it to hide her fears about the new.
- Directions and maps to anyplace are available on GoogleMaps and Mapquest, so the Internet isn't picking on you. Besides, you never hid the fact that you lived in Brooklyn – as embarrassing as that must be for a native of fine Kirkwood, MO.
Oh, and, Miss Moore, until we meet again: Think of the Internet as an imaginary toad with a real garden in it!
When I have a block of time, preferably about six to ten days, I draft poems like crazy, writing big, big, long, sloppy, inclusive first drafts. I let it all hang out. I run the idea into the ground. These drafts are raw material. I mark each of them "Draft 1" and print them out. They go together in an envelope marked with the approximate date of composition (such as "Fall 2007").
When there's another spot of time (at least six months later) I delete and toss the hopeless drafts. Those that still stand are so long 'n' sloppy I can easily refine them simply by cutting. If after that I still care, I print these drafts out, mark them "Draft 2," and then the intensive crafting work begins.
When a poem is almost finished -- when it's whole except for, say, that one nagging word, or one line, or a closing line -- it is promoted to the file "Completed Poems - Almost."
I visit this file with pleasant anticipation, when I have time, usually every six months or so. Often I can immediately see what the unfinished poem needs, supply it, and promote it to "Completed Poems." They get printed and put in a binder, marked "New Poems," and then I toss the drafts.
A really sticky "almost-poem" I'll read aloud. My sense of embarrassment, boredom, or distaste tells me exactly where to apply my crafting efforts -- or whether any further efforts will be in vain.
Some drafts do hard time in that "Almost" file. But I like that file even better than "Completed Poems." A completed poem is satisfying, but the adventure of making it, the romance, the wild guesses, the risks, the faith, the Nikola-Tesla-like experimentation, the race to the finish, that chance that this poem will be really, really great -- is so OVER.
A very serious young student heard me read from my poems. I asked her opinion later. (Never do that.) She said, "Cute."
She was being pompous in a twentysomething way (recalling too well my own flaming youth), but this lodged in me like a grain of sand in an oyster. Of all the things I've been and ever aimed to be, I've never wanted to be cute. I'd like to be entertaining, like Chaucer, but also have his smarts. Coy, kittenish -- no!
A hundred defenses occured to me: She doesn't register my feminist politics -- because she's so young she never had to have any! -- She has no idea what poetry costs! -- and so forth.
Then I saw this Soviet-era quotation from a poem addressed to poets:
“[…]/ This is for you—who dance and pipe on pipes,/ sell yourselves openly,/ sin in secret,/ and picture your future as academicians/ with outsized rations./ I admonish you,/ I—/ genius or not—/ who have forsaken trifles/ and work in Rosta*,/ I admonish you—/ before they disperse you with rifle-butts/ Give it up!/ Give it up!/ Forget it./ Spit/ on rhymes/ and arias/ and the rose bush/ and other such mawkishness/ from the arsenal of the arts./ […] There are no fools today/ to crowd open mouthed round a “maestro”/ and await his pronouncement./ Comrades!/ give us a new form of art—/ an art/ that will pull the republic out of the mud.”
Spot-on, I thought. Was that what my student had meant? But has a poet ever done that? Maybe Whitman? But with such a muddied republic as ours is? Can it be done? What would it cost me? Should a poet care what it might cost?