Elizabeth Barrette (ysabetwordsmith) wrote,
Elizabeth Barrette
ysabetwordsmith

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How Not to Become a Famous Poet

There's an article on "Poetry and Ruthless Careerism."  It's full of some horrible misconceptions that damage poetry and people.  I'm going to lay them out here and stab them with pencils until they bleed and die on the page.


"There are probably 800 or so active writing programs in the United States alone. I could have looked up the actual number, but facts don't actually matter."

Facts DO matter.  They matter in poetry as much as nonfiction.  You can make up a fantasy world, but if you get the Earth's diameter wrong people will laugh at you and well they should.  If you don't know the answer, look it up, don't make it up!

"Even within the elite enclaves of poetic communities--like this New York City Poetry Project Scene--there is a constant battle to stay afloat while pushing others beneath the bubbling surf. Because there is so little at stake, all battles must be fought to the death."

You do not get to be a better person, let alone a better poet, by advancing yourself at someone else's direct expense. If you want to kill people, go into the military. If you want to get rich and famous by hurting people, go into business. Don't go into poetry. Because you get to be a better poet by learning about people and interacting with them. That is so not going to happen if you're all busy stabbing each other in the back.

"We could simply write poems in solitude all our days and hope that sometime after our death, our genius is discovered and unleashed upon the world. That is the path of the True Genius; they come along every once in a while, like albino roses or rabbits with antlers."

Oh, good grief. Genius isn't an occasional thing; it's a statistical certainty. There are always geniuses in the world. Also, you don't have to be a genius to write good poetry, or even great poetry. You do need talent, but the minimum talent is pretty common. You also need life experiences and skill. It's skill that's the limiting factor, because it takes time and effort to develop. You don't have to be a frigging jackalope to write poetry that matters. You just have to DO it, over and over again.

"Cheap gimmickry works best: lowercase letters for e.e. cummings, death death death suicide poems by Sylvia Plath."

First, cheap gimmickry does not work best. It does sometimes propagate best, and I'd like to strangle academics with their own ivy for landing us in that morass. You know what? People know crappy poetry when they see it. This is why most people today think they don't like poetry, because they were shown crappy poetry in school and told it was great, so they just walked away from the whole mess. Cheap gimmickry is crap.

Second, neither e.e. cummings nor Sylvia Plath amount to cheap gimmickry. cummings is among the most subtle and profound poets of the English language; he wove in bits of quantum physics and numinous spirituality and obscure biology and linguistics and what-all else. Sylvia Plath isn't a personal favorite, but I can still recognize a certain level of craft, and she did tackle serious and difficult subjects.

"Poetry's greatest audience is depressed high schoolers, and there's nothing they love thinking about more than offing themselves."

A world of NO. Poetry's greatest audience is EVERYONE. You can write an individual poem for a specific audience, yes, but the whole of poetry is unbounded. There are countless styles and topics out there, something for everyone. Sheesh, I've hooked prison inmates on Langston Hughes. Don't give me this bullshit.

"Most of the True Genius poets can't tie their own shoes. They are beautiful creatures--too beautiful to exist on earth and, for example, eat soup."

If I hear one more repetition of the "tortured isolated genius" stereotype I'm going to scream. Being a good poet doesn't make you isolated and unworldly, nor does being isolated and unworldly make you a good poet. You want to get good? Be here now. Do stuff. Love some folks. Then you'll have something to write about that will be worth reading, and if you can manage to put it into words that soar and fly, people will enjoy it and remember it. And if not, you can try again tomorrow. People who say things like this should be beaned over the head with the works of Phillis Wheatley.

"Although it seems like America is hostile to all things poetic, even though it seems that there is no room whatsoever in the American mind-set for anything complicated or difficult, plain as it may be that Americans have no time or energy to devote to real art--I know deep in my soul that the time is right for the poet to once again take his place in the firmament next to other oddities of popular culture: mimes, boxers, racehorses, mind readers, and babies trapped in wells."

America is hostile to poetry because people are preoccupied with other things and most of the poetry they've been shown is awful. Can't say I blame people for feeling that way. But if I can get their attention for five minutes, I can usually show them a poem that will speak to their experience. There's nothing bizarre about being a poet. We're just cultural transcribers in artist form. And cultures DO NEED that. Why? Pretty much everything else we do with language has to make logical sense in order to work. Poetry can be intuitive and illogical, yet still communicate. Cultures are always struggling with ideas that can't be described logically. If it absolutely has to be nailed to the wall, but is made of jello, then you are just going to have to call a poet to weave a basket of words to pour the jello into before nailing it up by the rim.

"When I speak of Relentless 24/7 Careerism, I would like you to think of a whirring buzz saw cutting away at chilly permafrost."

Remember that metaphors tend to come true. Do you really want a career as a ... permafrost lumberjack? I didn't think so. Choose a career image that represents what you truly desire. That fishbowl thing I do? It's named for a classroom exercise in which people interact to come up with ideas. That's pretty cool. But even if you look at the metaphor itself, an aquarium is pretty awesome. I've spent many happy hours gazing at them.

"Before there was such a time as now, in which poetry is a profession with codes of behavior, cushy jobs, and an understandable path through life, the poet was alone: smoking marijuana, sleeping with friends' spouses, unable to see the big picture or to plan with any certainty what tomorrow might bring."

Actually some other cultures have placed poets in high positions, often just below the king or chief or other ruling figure. The idea of the poet as a dissipated loner is just ... freaky and modern. Ignore it. More baloney. That idea of poetry as a formalized profession in America today? Also baloney, because ...

"Now the path of the poet is worn and true. She simply reads a bunch of poems, writes poems, gets some kind of writing degree, writes more poems, publishes books, teaches poetry, writes a selected and a collected poems, lives long enough to win a bunch of awards, and ideally has a rest stop along the New Jersey Turnpike named after her someday."

... those aren't professional POETS. They are professional TEACHERS. Often they aren't particularly good at either, in ways that -- yes, really -- can be described objectively. That's frustrating, and it perpetuates the kind of shabby thinking that fills this article. That undercuts the quality of poets and poetry.

Fortunately colleges aren't the only place where one can learn about poetry. And fortunately white people with enough money for college aren't the only ones who can write poetry. There are lots of other cultural dialogs going on all around us, all the time, untouched by this claptrap. The future will thank them for it, much the way Islam in the Middle East was responsible for saving the great works of early Europe while Dark Ages Europe was using them to light campfires with.

"Fame and poetry mix best through steady mediocrity, the creation of a "poetic voice" and a concrete underpinning of institutional power. You ought to write poems that scare or challenge no one, poems that are speckled with the kind of folksy charm people like in politicians. Be experimental in name only."

Anyone who is capable of diminishing their words and dreams to this extent should get out of poetry altogether. There are more than enough sturgeons already; we don't need any more. Aim for greatness. Live your voice. Screw the institutions, they are NOT on your side. Don't be afraid to shake people up, although you shouldn't shock them just to see them jump. Experimental? Learn the rules so you can fold them into a chain of 1000 origami cranes.

"America hates poems; the best way to be an important poet is to eschew poetry almost entirely."

Let's try the radical idea of creating poetry that doesn't suck, before throwing the baby out with the bathwater. I mean, really, if you don't like poetry, don't believe other people like it, and intend only to fake writing it to get attention ... there are much easier ways to get rich and famous. If you're going to be that much of a douchebag, just go into politics.

"If, as Charles Olson argued, a poem is an exchange of energy between the writer and the reader, then we can imagine the relationship between poets as a constant exchange of power. Institutional power, fame, importance--these are constantly at stake in every interaction between poets."

We have the latter portion of that premise to thank for the massive archive of abysmal poetry in America today. If you're focused on getting attention, you're not focused on honing your skills. A better way for poets to interact is to inspire each other and learn from each other. See what you do that is similar or different. Swap critiques -- it makes your own mistakes pop out at you when you're revising privately. You want to share importance, read and promote each other's work. But don't pimp something just because you want the author to pimp your stuff too; only recommend things you actually like or think are interesting somehow.

"Since very few non-poets read poetry, it makes sense that our audience is 98 percent poets."

No, that means there is a HUGE untapped market of potential poetry lovers out there, who would fall in love with poetry if they ever met some that would not throw up on their shoes before even introducing itself. Instead of fighting over a tiny market of mostly broke hating-each-other poets, let's bring everyone into the party. More eyeballs! More spending money! More ideas! Cake for everyone.

"Our art is based on the most subjective of terms--it rises and falls based on nothing tangible."

Get out of here, you uneducated sturgeon-farmer. Poetry is a sophisticated application of linguistic science; although some people handle it intuitively and others consciously, any linguist -- or even hobby-linguist -- can look at a poem and lay out the science of it. It has rules which can be named and defined, mixed and matched as desired within a given poem. Anyone who is not familiar with the objective aspects of poetry has no business dealing with it at all, and will only damage the field by spreading misinformation. That's like pretending to be a chemist when you're just dumping random substances together to see if they go BANG.

"Every interaction you have with another poet must leave you triumphant and must leave them fearing and adoring you. It's not enough to merely have poets like you--like is not a strong enough emotion to propel you anywhere, except maybe to bed. Fear is one of humanity's great motivators. Fear equals Respect. And Success. Most poets are desperate for any kind of foothold in the genre, any sign at all that they are making progress upward toward their dreams of tweed, tenure, and cultural domination."

Machiavelli's The Prince is NOT a good poetry instruction manual. If you want there to be enough resources in the pool to be worth fishing for, try adding more people. That means treating them decently, not like walking wallets or fame sponges or whatever other fool example of exploitation you've come up with. Make friends. Make enemies. Make contacts. Make a difference.

"Relentlessness does not come easily to poets. They are generally a stoned and timid bunch, playing with their beards or sitting mousily with hands and ankles crossed. Poets do very little 24/7, except perhaps worry that they're not as widely popular as they should be."

I really have no idea what passel of poets may have been encountered to create the hodgepodge of kooky images appearing in this article. Of course it's easy to give up, but people who do that aren't poets. A poet is someone who writes poetry, repeatedly, over time. Most of the writers I know aren't in it for money or fame, although they like money and some of them would like fame. (Me, I've seen it. Fame is an unfortunate side effect of success. I enjoy a moderate level and would dislike being mobbed.) But the main factor isn't any of these: it's that writing is a vocation. It's not just a hobby or a profession. It's something that, for many of us, we MUST do. It's something we ARE. Am I relentlessly being a mammal? Um, no. I just am one all the time. So too with poetry.

"Jay Leno, not Conan O'Brien, is the future. Why? Because Leno is more devious, sinister, and craven. These are things to aspire to be. Jay Leno would reach through your skin and deep into your stomach to fetch an undigested Skittle if he were hungry for one."

You know, it's not just the depths to which American culture has sunk that make me want to shock the gene pool with a tanker truck of chlorine. It's the enthusiasm with which people CELEBRATE having sunk that far. They're throwing a party to design a bathyscape that can go even deeper. That is not virtue. That is not poetry either.

"Your friends are really just contacts, and you have to think of them that way. If dropping their name isn't worth anything, you may have to ditch them. But not before you have sucked them dry of anything that can help you get to number one. And once you get to number one you can get new friends, like Brad Pitt and Beyoncé."

That would certainly lead to the no-friends-having poet-in-a-garret image promulgated elsewhere in this article. How utterly pathetic.

Here's my strategy: "In order to meet interesting people, become an interesting person yourself. Then other interesting people will want to meet YOU." This works amazingly well, to the tune of having Big Name Pros remember me out of the 500 or 1000 people that were at a con, or come find me in a con suite because I said two riveting sentences from the front row of the audience during a panel. And you may notice that I've filled my audience with interesting people: you're artists and rocket scientists and librarians and biologists and musicians and handywoman and all kinds of cool stuff. You fascinate me. Now look at all the awesome poetry raining from the sky. This works.

*chuckle* And I'll bet the fame-chasers aren't writing several hundred poems a year. They're too busy chasing the vapor. You want to be a poet, write poems. You'll need to do a certain amount of marketing, yes, but make sure that doesn't undercut your actual creativity. Without the poems you're just another idiot trying to dive in front of a camera.

"It's probably better if your poems are middle-of-the-road or below average: that's what will attract other middle-of-the-road and below-average poets to fall in line behind you. That's what will make you their demigod: because you work tirelessly on your own behalf, and people feel that they can ride your coattails to the diner for a little chow."

People who follow this advice deserve to be stuck with each other, in a small windowless room, in which the coffee has run out, for the rest of their colorless little lives. Forget that. Go find people who are actually worth hanging out with. Better yet, go to a zoo or a national forest or a Renaissance faire or a science museum or an art festival together. Get lost and order supper in a restaurant where nobody speaks your language and you have to point at the menu. Tell stories about things that have happened to you and mythologize each other's lives.

"But Maya Angelou wrote Clinton's first inauguration poem and segued that into a dream we all dream. If she comes to speak at a university or college, a car must pick her up at the airport--a car with no poets aboard. I've heard that's literally written into the contract. Whoever is driving, he or she does so without speaking to Maya Angelou. The contract is very specific. She travels to the venue and away without having to read anyone's poems or comment on any manuscripts. She is driven back to the airport by maybe the same deaf-mute non-poet. And then she is gone, check in hand. That is the dream--a poet so important and renowned that she literally is not contractually obligated to deal with poets or poetry whatsoever."

If that's actually true, then she's written herself out of her own career. Horrifying. Might as well just give up and be a plumber. Okay, getting buttonholed by desperate crummy writers is no fun; I'm an editor, I've been there. But I learned to deal with it, not bubblewrap myself. This is my life and I'm living it. Besides, once in a while the person hovering at my elbow turned out to be one of those Interesting People I'm always thrilled to meet.

I wish that people who know worse than nothing about poetry would find something else to go do with themselves, and stop digging the hole deeper.  Poetry is a glorious form of literature.  It can light your soul on fire.  Poets are just ordinary people, or occasionally geniuses, who manage to bang words together and let fly the sparks that light that fire.  Come on, your distant ancestors figured out that trick before they were even human.

That's how we got this way.
Tags: discussion, how to, networking, poetry, reading, writing
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  • 31 comments

  • Call for Cosponsors

    ng_moonmoth wants to launch The Bear Tunnels, starting with the first poem. "The Hobbomak" Emma Little Doe and Jesse Harris…

  • Poem: "Die Zeichen"

    This poem is spillover from the March 2, 2021 Poetry Fishbowl. It was inspired by a prompt from nsfwords. It also fills the "Marigold -…

  • Before Woman of Kleenex

    ... there was a poem about Superman and Lois Lane unable to consummate their relationship. Fanhistory is so awesome. :D