I have been a subscriber to Poets & Writers magazine for a while, probably eight or nine years now, and I often look to its issues for an understanding of some aspect of either writing, the business of it, or both. The recent “Inspiration Issue” (January/February 2011) recently provided me with some of that much needed insight about writing and submitting poetry.
I have written several blog posts about the difficulty of receiving rejection letters, especially on my poetry, and especially those vague letters that don’t explain anything. I do know that attempting to publish poetry – and I guess, trying to be a “real poet” — is one of the least financially rewarding and most frustrating ways to spend a life and career. Receiving a No is far more common than receiving a Yes, and even when that Yes does come, only a free copy of the issue comes with it, at most. I did once get a $50 check for a poem I sent in to a contest that I thought was a scam; I sent in the poem to see if I was right that all I would get back was an acceptance and a request to buy a copy of their overpriced anthology. Apparently, I had received second place, and the letter and check came without a sales pitch.
I sometimes cynically pout that the most impractical thing I ever did was fall in love with poetry. Other times I cite the Guy Clark lyrics, “There ain’t no money in poetry, and that’s what sets the poet free . . . and I’ve had all the freedom I can stand.” But even the darker moments when frustration leads to cynicism don’t incline me to quit, or to hate poets and poetry as my very own sour grapes. What I am often looking for is that word of reassurance or encouragement that continuing to write and submit poetry is what I should do.
Among the short pieces on the handful of new poets that Poets & Writers featured in the newest issue, the poets’ advice all seemed to be the same: write, take your time, and don’t worry about publication. Most of the poets took years in writing the poems in their new books, and then it took years to procure the book deal. Years! No one likes to hear that anything takes years, but the fact seemed solid. When unrelated people all say the same thing, there’s probably some truth to it . . .
If I count my earliest efforts, I have been written poetry for about 22 years. If I begin counting after those obviously bad poems that made up my earliest efforts, then the number is closer to about 15 years. I finished my bachelor’s degree in English about 13 years ago. I never did the MFA thing, but I’ve read and written and analyzed and explicated and revised and discussed a lot of poetry, between taking undergraduate and graduate classes on it, reading it, writing it, writing about it, and teaching it.
Years!? I might have to go cry now. Thanks, Poets & Writers and you debut poets, for giving some useful advice . . . and for breaking my heart! Years . . . ?