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.

It’s Not Your Fault (You Don’t Suck)

I talk to people all the time—inside and outside of academia—who don’t have the faintest sense of why it’s so hard to make a living teaching at a college or university. Many, of course, don’t even realize that it IS hard to make a living as a professor. The term “professor” is still associated with upper-middle class intellectuals who don’t know how to tie their shoes but exist in an idealized, ivy-covered dream world and get summers off.

Those of you in academia know better. But what bothers me the most is that so many people who teach at the college level have internalized harsh, soul-crushing judgments that simply aren’t backed up by the numbers. Primarily: you think you aren’t “making it” in academia because you just aren’t good enough. 

My darlings, that’s just not true. 

Of course, as in any profession, there are people who aren’t really great teachers, and people who haven’t written their best work yet. Also, as in other professions, some of those less-than-stellar people get the best positions, or at least some of the available jobs. However, there are thousands and thousands of college teachers in America who are excellent teachers, writers, and researchers, and they can’t get jobs that pay them enough to live on. The reason? There are fewer good teaching jobs available now. A LOT fewer.

perks-scaled-03_0What’s happened in higher education over the past 40 years is a complete flip-flop in tenure track positions and contingent positions in academia. Tenure track positions aren’t just plum jobs because of the job security, but because they are the highest paying faculty jobs–entry-level tenure track professors generally make at least a third more than even long-term full-time non-tenure track teachers ($60,000 to $40,000, in English and creative at least). And part-time faculty, also known as adjuncts–get paid as little as $1500 per course (common here in Memphis), and almost never more than $4000 per course.

Notice the line with the sharpest incline in that chart: part-time faculty. Tenured and tenure-track faculty have been in steady decline, somewhat sharply since around 1992, when I entered the job market with a freshly-minted MFA in poetry from The Iowa Writers’ Workshop and an absolute love of teaching.

There are many articles that discuss the reasons for this shift–I lean towards the running of universities like businesses, the proliferation of administrators, and the general movement in the U.S. economy of a higher and higher percentage of wealth to the CEOs/1%. But the biggest danger, it seems to me, in failing to recognize the numbers in the chart above is that people will believe they don’t have good jobs because they just weren’t good enough. We live in a culture that believes it is a meritocracy, and it’s difficult not to think higher education, that bastion of higher ideals, must be a meritocracy.

But it’s not. The professors who get tenure track positions are lucky. They won the academic job market lottery. Oh, they also worked their asses off—they wrote, published, networked, applied for jobs (in academia, a process that takes at least 20 hours per application to do well), taught, went to conferences on their own dime, did professional development, wrote letters and reviews, and did a ton of unpaid work as editors, mentors, and conference planners. But the vast majority of the people who didn’t win the academic lottery also did all that work. 

Why am I bothering to tell you all this, when it’s so fucking depressing? Not because I think this little post will change academia (though there are organizations dedicated to doing that). Not because I want you to give up your dream and go sell cars for a living. But because—if you’re in academia and haven’t won that fabled tenure-track job—I want you to remember that you ARE talented, intelligent, and highly skilled. You are as good a teacher, writer, and researcher as the people who seem to have “made it” (I say “seem to” because tenured professor salaries have gone down, when factoring in the cost of living, since 1975, and continue to drop, even while teaching loads, committee work, and publication requirements continue to rise). You’re not damaged, and you sure as hell don’t deserve to be 2nd or 3rd or 5th or whatever class in the unfortunately rigid hierarchy of higher education.

In short: you don’t suck. The system does. If you can keep writing, researching, learning, and even teaching under the oppressive conditions of your unfair job, then that makes you a hero. If you decide you can’t—forever or just for a while—then that’s totally admirable too.

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!


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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