ArtSunday: a poet says goodbye to poetry
I wrote my first poem when I was a senior at Ledford High School in Wallburg, NC. It was called “Octoberfaust,” and while it wasn’t a terribly good poem, it wasn’t bad for a 17 year-old having his first crack at something brand new. My English teacher, a guy named Jim Booth, whom S&R readers may have heard of, was very encouraging, and a poet was born.
That was in the fall of 1978, which means I have been a poet for nearly 35 years – my entire adult life and then some. During that time I have written four books (none of which are published) containing roughly 119 poems, depending on how you count certain multi-parters. Some have been very short, some have been quite long. A few are fairly conventional, while some are radical in how they challenge our assumptions about form, purpose and content. They cover some predictable subject matter – love and loss, family, life and death, politics, art, literature, poetry – and some less expected topics, like the suite in my most recent book that plays with the hypothetical intersection between trickster tales, Zen spiritualism and quantum physics. They lionize those I revere and savage those I feel have done me wrong. (You know who you are.) Some look hard at the world around me, while many cast a frank eye on the fucked up emotional terrain inside my head.
I think I’m pretty good (although, as you’ll see shortly, this opinion is not unanimously held). The Butterfly Machine, completed last summer, is my masterpiece, such as it is, and the other three books all have something to commend them. A number of the poems have been published: some have appeared in traditional places that are highly regarded (like Cream City Review) or were before they closed their doors (New Virginia Review, Amaranth Review, High Plains Literary Review, Poet & Critic). Others have been pubbed (or are forthcoming) in the small, innovative new journals and anthologies (print and online) that I believe represent the future of poetry (like Dead Mule, Amethyst Arsenic, Pemmican, Poetry Pacific, Manifest West, and Uncanny Valley).
I have also been rejected. Boy howdy, have I been rejected. I’ve been blown off by the biggest journals in all of literature, and I’ve also been sent on my way by small, obscure outlets (and everything in between). I couldn’t really tell you what the ratio of rejections to acceptances has been, but a whole lot to not many. In sum, while I think I’m a great writer and have found a few editors who agree, we are a minority. And not an especially large one.
I’m incredibly proud of my publication credits and am grateful to the editors who saw the value in my writing. To each of them, and to all the friends and colleagues who have supported me along the way, I’d like to say a huge thanks. You have no idea what you have meant to me.
With that said, I’m here today to announce my retirement from poetry. I know, I know – about as many people care that I’m quitting as cared that I was writing to start with, which is to say not many. These are fantastic folks, but if you got them all together they wouldn’t fill up the banquet room at the Sizzler (although, granted, it might be a little crowded if you seated them in the corner booth at Denny’s).
Wait…I’m quitting poetry because I expected to be doing arena tours? No, no. You don’t get into poetry if you’re after a large readership. It’s a quality-over-quantity decision, and if you’re going to be good you have to answer to the call of a muse, not the demands of the audience. Poetry is art, not product, and while we all want as many people to read what we write and to grasp whatever wisdom and beauty is contained therein, as you start worrying about anything but the purest essence of the the whispered insight you will lose the edge that makes you worth reading. Put another way, you have to do what you do and hope people like it. You can’t do what you think people will like.
So no, this isn’t about mass fame, and it certainly isn’t about money. Nobody makes money as a poet. There aren’t any galleries where people walk in, sample your craft and buy a poem to hang on the wall over the fireplace. There aren’t any touring poetry companies that pack the house everywhere they go. Cirque du Poetry won’t be setting up a tent in your town, nor can you go see their tribute to Mary Oliver at the Venetian in Vegas. And while there are recordings of poets reading their work, I don’t think I’ve heard of one going platinum. If you hope to make a living at poetry, the best you can hope for is that you’re good enough to land a professorship in Creative Writing. If it’s tenure track at a major research university, publications will figure into your promotion. But your job is professor, not poet.
I became a poet fully understanding the rules, fully understanding that there would never come a day when I had a large audience or got rich. But I did do so with the hope, and perhaps even the expectation, that I could and would attain a measure of renown within the world of poetry itself. I might not become America’s most famous poet, I thought, but when those who knew and loved the genre talked about who they thought was really good, my name might come up. I would be accepted, if not routinely, then at least occasionally, by our most prestigious literary journals. I would be invited to read at literary festivals. My work would be taught in English surveys and seminars, and if you went to an academic conference – perhaps one like MLA – you might hear professors or doctoral candidates giving papers on my writing. And hopefully, the critical consensus would be that I changed the landscape a little, that I innovated, that I busted up the corrosive banality that has plagued poetry for the last 50 years or so.
This was my dream. This was the plan.
Of course, it never happened. I have bitched plenty about the entrenched poetry establishment (trust me, there is one) and about the prevailing stylistic tendencies that make reading the average elite journal about as compelling as watching mold creep across a slab of white bread. There are external targets galore if I want to blame others. But even if it’s all true, the inescapable fact is that most of the fault is mine. On a couple of occasions – including the moment when I was completing my MA in English/CW and should have been launching out after my first university teaching position – I let my frustration with the aforementioned establishment get the better of me. When I see stupidity – especially broad institutional stupidity – I sometimes have this tendency to say fuck it and walk away. There are other things I can do with my life.
Which is true, but said institutions don’t lament your leaving, even if they notice it, and they damned sure don’t wait for you to come crawling home like some dearly missed prodigal genius. When you decide later that you’re ready to give it another run, you realize that you’ve fallen behind another generation of people. Some are talented, and some are possessed of a near-pathological stick-to-it-iveness, which means that your chances of landing a job are even less than they were before.
Had I gotten past my frustrations, I would certainly have faced rejections and competition and an ongoing battle with the dominant aesthetics of the day, to say nothing of the routine pissant politics that come with working in academia. But these fights…I might well have won a few. Even at my current rejection rate I’d have several more pages of publications, and if it were something other than a hobby, I might have ten books instead of four, 1000 poems instead of 119, a prize or three, and even tenure. I wouldn’t be rich, but I’d be solvent and I’d have good benefits. Would I be happy? I don’t know. Hopefully. I might have met and fallen in love with someone who shared my passion for art and literature. I’d exist in an atmosphere of professional validation. I’d go to work every day in an environment where my art was appreciated, at least theoretically.
All of which is to say that I’m blaming no one but myself. My life and career have been the result of my decisions for the most part, and the hand I’m playing today is one I dealt.
I have been thinking for the last few months, ever since I finished The Butterfly Machine, that I may be done. Not only have I been having this conscious, rational debate with myself, but the book itself ended in a way that seemed to be trying to tell me something. It closed in a watershed, sort of, in a sense that a chapter was over and it was time for something new. Maybe that meant a new phase in my life was beginning, and that it would bring something new to write about. But over time, I have had less and less interest in writing poetry. And less and less conviction that I was ever going to feel differently.
Last summer I bought my first camera. I have long enjoyed the photography of others, and have also wished that I had some faculty for the visual arts. Sadly, I can’t draw a decent stick man. But you don’t have to be able to draw to shoot.
As it turns out, I have some great friends who are also photographers – very, very good ones – and they all encouraged me. They shared tips, answered questions, told me what I was doing right and wrong, and the result is that in less than ten months I have gotten to the point where … well, I’m not great by any stretch, but I’m better than most people who have been at it less than a year.
So far I’ve had one shot featured by Visit Colorado and several more by Visit Denver. The Visit Colorado shot (“Ed,” the horse pic that was also my first sale) got over 2,500 likes and almost 450 shares. I’m not sure that all of the poems I ever wrote have been read by 2,500 people combined, and I’d bet the farm that those who have read them haven’t shared them with their friends 450 times.
Earlier this month I actually sold three of my photos at First Friday. Three people paid money for my photography. That’s a mind-shattering thing to happen to a poet. Somebody walks in off the street and likes your art enough to fork over actual cash so they can take it home and hang it on their wall. I’ll be back in that same gallery for First Friday in May, and the other day a couple of my shots went up in a restaurant here in Denver (with several more going up in a different venue shortly).
The more I have learned about photography, the more I have shot, the more I have honed my technical skills, the less I have cared about poetry. The artist is still alive and kicking in me, but he’s moved on and taken up new tools of expression. He likes being recognized, being validated for his vision. He sees, maybe, an opportunity to have a measure of the personal and artistic reward in this new genre that he dreamed of, but never attained, in the other one.
And he’s keenly aware that every second he spends trying to make words behave in a way that moves a hypothetical reader is a second he can’t spend taking and processing an image that moves an actual viewer.
So this is it: goodbye, poetry. I have loved you deeply and faithfully for most of my life. At some point, though, I have to accept that you simply don’t love me back. Perhaps that’s mostly my fault, but in the end, we have grown apart and I see no path to reconciliation.
I wish you well. I hope you thrive and find others to take my place, people who will love you more even than I do. You deserve it.
I leave you with a poem, the one my last book ends with…
To Be Continued (Ars Poetica)
I expected more from the end of the world. But the
sun came up the following morning. A herd of
pronghorn loiters near Gunnison.
Castle Rock weathers timelessly.
Cars accelerate. Ghost towns
wither in the rearview.
Coyote says: the world ends
more than you realize.
Last Wednesday makes twice
I know of.
The apes we once were
shivered at the howling moon, wove
gods of war from their dread.
The apes we still are
spin plots from mud and iron,
vapor and deadwood,
swatches of tattooed skin.
Raven says: harbingers are shiny things,
strung with hair,
flecked with blood.
Fox says: narratives are either
rationalization or conspiracy.
Something happened. Then
something else happened.
The world ends
not with a bang,
not even a whimper, but
… and a picture. I call it “The Persistence of Time.”
“To Be Continued (Ars Poetica)” originally appeared in Pemmican in June, 2011 and this past fall was anthologized in Manifest West: Eccentricities of Geography.