I was in graduate school the first time that I heard the term PoBiz, a clipped, half-cynical half-shruggingly sarcastic way of referring to the Poetry Business, which I had also never heard of. I gathered that the Poetry Business entailed marketing one’s self. Are you a female poet? A poet of color? A poet with a disability? With a disease? A queer poet? A religious minority poet? An eco-poet? Etcetera.…I had always written about the things that I felt made me different, the things that stung, because I was alone, lonely with those weights. I wrote about abortion not because I thought I was going to tap into some niche market, but because it weighed heavily on my heart. I wrote about alcoholism because it was the center of my life, not because I was a Bukowski devotee (though there’s nothing wrong with that). I wrote about god and faith not because I had an academic interest in religion and spirituality but because it felt at many points that my life depended on whether or not I was able to tap into a power greater than myself. I never really had any idea about marketing myself. It was true that I wrote mostly about what was hard in my life, but I also wrote about traveling and fish and movies.
Carl Phillips wrote a great essay awhile ago in which talked about being asked why he doesn’t say what color the people in his poems are. And here is what I’m trying to say, in a roundabout way: The System, any program, any school, any magazine, is going to somewhat judge you through what makes the actual you unique and not wholly on the quality of your writing. It’s a double-edged sword, and a fluid one. Sometimes it can feel as if the system rewards the person, not the poem.
Here is what I’m trying to say: of course the rejection feels personal. It is personal. Some folks got into the program, and you didn’t. You said that you thought you shouldn’t take it personally, but you have every right to take it personally. We pour our hearts into something, toss the thing out into the world, and watch as nobody puts out their arms to catch our beloved pieces. We watch the gears of the PoBiz grinding along, rewarding writers who maybe we think our work is equal to or better than. We think both Why me?! and Why not me!?
But — the poem is also an artifact. It’s something that has been done, a past action. It’s a product of a different moment, a past self. I love the Buddhist saying of “Do your work, then step back.” It’s very simple, but I have thought about it for many years. Some days I am better at stepping back than other days.
If you feel like quitting writing sometimes, that’s ok. The place where a poem comes from is the place where the urge to paint comes from, the place where the urge to swim comes from. It’s something that wants to move. So, let yourself move around. Make a collage, sing a song, pick up an instrument you’ve never played before. Learn to bake bread. But don’t stop embracing the muscular impulse of your creativity. If writing feels daunting, that’s ok. But make something else. Even if it’s just a dance in your bedroom. And, go outside for awhile, without your phone. That helps. It usually helps everything.
I think the real thing to quit is the search for validation, which is insidious. I have to remind myself sometimes of the same thing. When sending out a poem, the thought should not be: I hope that XYZ publication takes this poem so that everyone knows my poem is good enough to be in XYZ publication… it should be: I hope that XYZ publication takes this poem because i really think it is beautiful / strange / insightful / cathartic / funny / etc. and I want to share it with people – I think it might be important for someone. Writing poetry is about the urge to share something, even just with yourself. It’s not about gold stars. There’s no endgame to poetry, as the PoBiz might have you believe. A bio full of laurels and fellowships means almost nothing. Right before my book came out, and I had to choose what my bio in the book would say, I decided that it would be very short. It lists where I was born, and where I live now, two journals where my poems have been published, and the fact that I do interdisciplinary work. What’s most important to me in my bio is the latter, the fact of interdisciplinary work, because I hope, someday, that a visual artist or dancer or painter will write to me and say they’d like to collaborate. It’s almost like a little Personals posting, an ISO. I chose to leave out my education and prizes and residencies not because I don’t value them, but because — that’s not really what I want to talk to people about.
So, don’t worry about being rejected from the residency. Let it be a Not this time instead of a No, never. If you keep writing, and I get the sense that you will always write, there will be dozens of opportunities you might reach for and dozens of times you may be rejected. You get to decide how, and how long, to hold each disappointment. You get to decide what to expect of your writing. Don’t worry about being too much of one thing, or not enough of another. Don’t worry if you don’t publish anything for awhile, or for a long while.There is no right path for a poet, and there millions, literally millions, of incredible poets and writers and literary journals you and I have never heard of. And what a joy! What an absolute joy, to know there are so many more writers we will meet, who will mean so much to us, and to know that the writers we are today might be vastly different than the writers we are in 10 years, in 20 years…There’s no finish line. In the end, there is only the work itself. Enjoy the moment of your work, and how it feels to read your poems aloud, and how those poems can nourish you. Let the rest fall away. Onwards.
( Teen Sequins Co-Editor )