In the comments here lately, and written into some recent poems, we’ve been talking about a certain way that I feel stalled … not so much in writing, but in what comes after that, or what it’s all for. For a long time, my sense has been that this is what it’s all for. Few things equal the charge I get when a poem sparks a good conversation here or seems to strike a chord, and I get to find that out almost immediately.
The problem is, this runs almost entirely counter to what I should be doing if I want to get individual poems published anywhere else but here. There are exceptions — bless them — but for the most part, for most literary publications, posting a poem here means throwing it down a well.
Managing those two very different trains of thought has long been a challenge. What do I do? Post a poem here once a week or so, but also write a bunch of others that I hold back? Well … there’s a problem with that very sensible idea. Guess how many poems I write, apart from the ones I post here? And guess how much energy they usually have, and how much I usually push myself to make them fully complete, as strong as they can be?
The other thing I’ve tried, which has led to similarly unsatisfactory results, is to write on a particular theme for a month or so at a time, pull a chapbook together, and enter contests. What’s wrong with that? After all, that’s what I did a couple of years ago, and I won! So, this is how I can be a winner again … right?
So, that’s what I’ve done, more than a few times, and I’ve been a finalist, which is one of those cases where unless I get the thing I’m pursuing, I would almost rather not know how close I came. It’s all felt a little hollow, and more than a little calculated and craven. The use of a theme has partially been a device to keep me writing, but it’s been just as much in response to the conventional wisdom that chapbook contest judges love themes — a strongly unified piece rather than one that meanders among a few different subjects and styles.
A recent business trip involved an unusual amount of swimwear (because when in fake Rome … and yes, I know it’s actually fake Liguria, but that doesn’t have the same ring — just look at those pools) and a number of really great people asking if I was still writing, what was up with all that, etc., etc. In more than one way, I felt exposed. My hemming and hawing and trying to come up with a response that didn’t sound quite so sad sack really helped bring some things into focus.
Everything in my writing life is about fits and starts and phases. Rather than fighting that and trying to find the one shining path, I’m going to embrace that (in the parlance of our time) and begin my new phase, which I will continue until it seems like I need to do something else instead. Here’s what that will look like:
1. The work comes first, and I will do that which encourages me to do the most work. No more worrying about tossing things down wells. Posting poems here is what keeps me the most productive and happy, so I’m going to just go ahead and do that a lot.
2. Themes, if there are any, will arise from the work. In the past, I’ve found that if you write enough, eventually, you start to see some recurring topics or other ways that certain poems seem to naturally go together. But the key to that is to first do a lot of work — and not necessarily to force a theme just for the sake of having one.
3. It’s not about contests. How much do I think about the check I got for my first chapbook, or the fact that I won the big prize and a lot of others didn’t? Not much at all. The satisfaction was more in all the little details, like choosing cover art, writing a dedication, and so forth … and then the day that the box arrived, and in sharing the little physical thing with others. I’m not ruling contests out, but likewise, I no longer want to rule out small presses that may be the perfect, congenial home for my work — and that may support it and me in other important ways — but that may not be focused on naming a winner and awarding a cash prize. The handsewn chapbook that someone makes at their dining room table, and all I get is a few contributor’s copies and the satisfaction of a job well done? Yes. Yes. The priority will now be to find publishers that are a good fit, whether or not there’s cash involved.
So, that’s what I’m going to do for at least the next little bit. Thank you to those of you who have written encouraging comments while I stagnated for a while.
And now, expect poems! I will, too … and everything good will follow from that.