A Doubter in the Church of Poetry

Friends, I have a confession to make:

I lose faith. Often. Sometimes multiple times a day.

And I’m not talking about religious faith, though I have been known to call it the Church of Poetry.

I’m talking about my faith in the power and importance of literary writing, and poetry in particular.

I suspect some of my former students would be surprised to learn this. When I’m in the classroom or mentoring a writer, I can access my passion easily. I feel it; I know it, that this person’s writing is important, that saying our truths in the wonderfully nuanced, complex, paradox-embracing way that literary writing encourages makes a difference in the world. How can we understand the world—something I consider one of our primary purposes here—without the words, the art, that allows for glimpses beyond the surface?life-863148_1920

There I go again, getting caught up in my own rhetoric, when I began with my assertion that I lose faith. Confessing to that loss of faith feels like a big thing, because so much of my identity is connected with trying to help others. When I write to you—readers, out there in the wonderfully varied blog-reading virtual world—I want to believe my words might be of some use. My own worth is tied up in helping you, writers and readers, to remember that you have worth.

But…sometimes the lists of publications and awards in my social media feeds just wearies me. I see that some poet is grateful to have poems in Small Journal #7082, and my inner cynic rises so all I can think is, “But you didn’t get paid for the work you put into that art.” Then I think, “And the editors of that journal didn’t get paid either.” The system we’re part of—America’s literary community, some call it, while others call it “po-biz”—angers me, hurts me, saddens me. It undermines my faith, eroding it like the tide erodes the sand under your feet when you’re standing on the beach, pulling you down.

I have written before about academia, how it is failing teachers and students by relying on exploited part-time and contingent faculty. This upside-downing of higher education is part of the larger decline of the American economy, the widening income inequality and unjust wealth distribution that has been getting worse for the past twenty years at least. One of the effects this has had on writers is that teaching college, which for a while was the fallback job (several of my college teachers considered it a “day job,” something done, like waiting tables, merely to support themselves as writers), is no longer. For a while, academia as default job for writers did some amazing things: it made it possible for highly educated, highly intelligent individuals to make a living that was not dependent on the marketability of their writing. Taking the pressure off writing to be marketable was a blessing, because the rise of television and the internet had made it so fewer people read books. Literary writing became like other types of academic writing: something undertaken not because it paid directly, but because it contributed to a larger body of scholarship, knowledge and wisdom. In a practical sense, it was paid for—by colleges and universities, which had been paying professors to write as part of their jobs for centuries.woman-41201_1280

But this system now feels like one that only serves the privileged few—those lucky enough to have tenure-track positions—and it doesn’t serve those nearly as well as it did initially. Even those writers are now required to produce and publish far more writing in the name of tenure and promotion than they used to, all while teaching more class sections, serving on more committees, and earning less (factoring in cost of living). And for those who are not privileged—adjuncts and contingent full-time faculty—the system can feel positively pointless.

After all, an 8-page cv, packed to the margins with lists of publications in reputable journals, is no longer anything special: the vast majority of the 500 people applying for a single tenure track position have one just like that. So when I see someone, particularly a young person full of hope, shyly posting their “good publication news” on social media—well, that’s when I’m mostly likely to lose my faith. To shake my head, walk away from my computer, and contemplate for the millionth time my decision to drop out of law school to become a poet.

I don’t want to feel this way. I don’t want the system these young, talented people are entering to be this way. I once spent a half hour in the car with an undergraduate poet recently accepted into an MFA program, telling him all the things he needed to do if he was set on teaching at the university level (go on for his PhD, publish only in big name journals, don’t adjunct for more than two years, win prestigious awards, get fellowships to writers’ residencies, publish at least one book, go to conferences, and learn how to network like a tipsy extrovert at a cocktail party). Just before we arrived at our destination, he said, “Well, that was pretty damn depressing.”

nature-874039_1920What I’d really like is to be able to separate my feelings about the rigged career system from the often supportive, vital, exciting literary community of small magazines and publishers. No, what I’d really, really like is for the system to change, to transform so extensively that I can’t even recognize it anymore. I’m not entirely sure how that might happen, but it is my hope that all of us, old and young, will help make that change, will insist on that change.

Honestly, I think hope is more likely to support us as we work towards change. I really do. But we also require honesty, and the confrontation and acceptance of contradiction, even paradox. So as a devout member of the Church of Poetry who frequently wrestles with doubt, I have to leave you with one amazing, hopeful story for poetry: in the wake of tragedy, a poem gone viral, a poem not written by an Old White Male, a poem published in a journal very much like Small Journal #7082. Read the poem, and reconnect with your faith.

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Notes on What the Publishing Revolution Might Look Like

Question: What are some of your ideas for changes in publishing?

Notes for an answer: Well I think giving authors at least 50 percent of royalties is essential. (One friend of mine gets a measly 7%, from which she has to pay her agent and which she won’t see a penny of until she “pays back” her advance.)

Using print on demand services, making it easy to get either the print or ebook version of a book, advertising books in new/fun/different ways. Just as we older folks get used to a particular type of social media (Facebook, Twitter), young people move on to something new, or start using the old sites in new ways.

I think we need to recognize the bullshit involved in the current agent/editor system, where agents require multiple rewrites before they even send out to editors. Agents have their own ideas about what will sell–why do we assume those ideas are always right? How many really interesting books have been flattened, squashed, diluted, by these ideas?

I think we need to recognize that there are a lot of readers in the middle, and neither academic nor popular publishing is serving them well.

And I think we need to recognize that the university/small press model, which was initially set up to free literary writers from the constraints of the marketplace, is no longer sufficient. That model assumed literary writers would be making a decent living teaching at colleges and universities, and those same institutions were essentially paying them for their time spent writing. But as higher education has declined, fewer literary writers are supported by it. For years, the blame has been placed on the “proliferation” of MFA programs (too many writers, and what are they doing expecting to make a living in the academy anyway), but in fact, the blame should be on the decline of higher education and publishing and the pernicious effects of the unequal wealth distribution in this country.

And I’m not the only one calling for change. Institutional sexism is taken on brilliantly in this essay (read it!). There are so many other ways in which prejudice and oppression are built into the system. That’s why we need change.

This is just a start, a few notes scribbled on the virtual equivalent of a napkin. But we have to start somewhere.

I’m Nobody

The Manifesto

I’m Nobody! Who are you?

Are you – Nobody – too?

Then there’s a pair of us!

Don’t tell! they’d advertise – you know!

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How dreary – to be – Somebody!

How public – like a Frog –

To tell one’s name – the livelong June –

To an admiring Bog!

–Emily Dickinson

How many of you have 1) identified with this poem and 2) secretly thought, “I doubt it’s really all that dreary”? I mean, are we allowed to call bullshit on the old masters? Because pretty much all of us have felt like Nobodies. If being Somebody sucks too, then is the point that it sucks either way?

Well, Buddhists would say yes. Yes it does. It’s called dukka, and it means something like “suffering” but more accurately “the dissatisfaction of knowing you are a being stuck in time with very little control over anything, especially the…

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