I have this secret habit. I write poems. Yeah, I know…everybody writes poems. The goddamn bank teller at Chase has self-published. She gave me a copy last summer—it was called “poems in the key of life” (now where have we seen that before?)…no capitals, no punctuation….lines like ‘i wonder if u feel this too’. I told her I was jealous. When the word came out, I was trying desperately to be truthful. So I am jealous. I’m jealous of her perfect little manicured nails when she counts out the bills. I’m maybe jealous of the fact that she is published and I am not.
I’m leaving the bank with this image in my head of a pile of cubed jello on a plate because that is the way I processed ‘jealousy’ when I was like 4 years old and it somewhere sticks to that whacked-up part of my brainmess that compels me to form word-images that I produce as poetry.
Do I read the status-quo stuff? I do. And let me say, Writerless is a little disappointed in a lot of the crap they publish these days under the category. I get the Knopf poem-a-day email in April, National Poetry Month and sure, there are one or two in there that I can admire, but for the most part you figure someone is doing something to someone and pulled off this deal. The poetry editor (in the old days they used to tell us ‘those who can, write; those who can’t…edit’) herself puts out volumes that are of the caliber you might expect from your childrens’ middle-school literary online magazine. The one that doesn’t discriminate, the one with the millennial policy which dictates ‘a page for every child’. At least.
Have I ever submitted the stuff? I admit. Yes. Paris Review. Agni. Atlantic Monthly. Like buying a lottery ticket. They receive 100,000 per year…which averages out to about 500 poems a day for the poor overwrought poetry editor who has her own mediocre poetry to write in her head while she peruses yours and does desk-yoga and texts her boyfriend, edits her grocery list and fantasizes about lunch.
I’ve got a friend, a fairly successful (i.e. ‘employed-as-writing-teacher') poet, who claims that you’ve got to subscribe to the ‘system’…you have to enroll in a university MFA program, network, pay academic dues in the form of tuition and your reward is maybe one piece published in the university literary journal---a poetic ‘foot’ in the door. An iambic or dactylic pass onto the next level… another publication…
I suppose I could lie, use the name of my friend… say I’ve been published years ago, that I’m recovering from an aneurism and have renewed my career which predates online verification, but I refuse. I am resigned to posthumous success at best. At least I won’t be there to receive the rejection letter.
Anyway, I confess I recently applied for a short-term Advanced Poetry Workshop. Although the title confuses, a local fairly decent poet was running this, requiring manuscript submission, a certain level of seriousness, etc. So I printed out, Xeroxed, submitted-in-triplicate. Paid the $10 fee against all personal principles. Actually got accepted, was told that for the privilege of paying $800 I could attend 4 afternoon sessions with this woman and 4 other aspiring poets. So I replied that I was so grateful for the opportunity of having my work read, which was worth $10, but was not in a financial position to come up with $800.
They replied, offered me the chance of a scholarship. 50% off. This converts to $25 an hour, to read probably mediocre poetry written by people who were willing to shell out $800 for an audience. What if I am unable to repress a sneer? What if there is someone in a wheelchair with ALS who is writing their fears and I am coldly ticking off dollars-per-minute regret? So I declined, again.
What am I willing to pay, they now asked me. Could they be desperate? Could it be they lack their quota? But they also assure me there is a huge waiting list. Move on to the waiters, I reply. I am just so sick of begging. I can’t fill out any more forms. The humiliation of being a musician had made this no longer possible. I’d rather play the subway than apply for a grant. I’d rather die with my one brilliant comment from the New York Times and my dysfunctional wasted career.
Besides, I smugly know better than anyone when my poetry sucks and it generally does. One or two can pass the six-month or one-year test, but most of them are pretty mediocre. At least I have the perspective to acknowledge my own mediocrity which is comforting, in a way, because there is always the chance I will break through this designation.
So tonight once again I will sit and struggle with lines and lyrics, I will consult my daily scribbles which I occasionally mistake for literary epiphany, and continue to envy the bank teller not only her nails but the fact that she is proud of her work and generously self-promotes to someone like me who has at most a 3 OR 4-digit account balance. Also I maybe envy the fact that she has something to send her relatives for Christmas because despite my constant gigs and efforts, it has been years since I’ve had any kind of ‘product’.
And if there’s anyone out there reading, I am not going to offer the satisfaction here of a link or an appended poem. You’ll have to wait for the posthumous volume. Unless, of course, I win the poet’s lottery (laureattery?). Incidentally, do any of you know which fine contemporary poet is credited for ‘Gotta be in it to win it’?