I’ve just waded through Anis Shivani’s critique of the New York Times Book Review at the Huffington Post. I agree with most of what he says about publishing elitism and nepotism– much of his argument has been made, but he recasts his points with trademark, exquisitely complicated vitriol.
In this piece he heralds the small presses as somehow exempt from making politically and financially safe choices in publishing. But this is not the case– take a quick look at the much vaunted Greywolf’s list. Like other independent publishers Greywolf purports to be open to the new, undiscovered or emerging voice. You gotta love that word “emerging.” But Greywolf plays it safe by publishing the current literary elite, those whose work is pre-lauded by the traditional sanctification of having been in the Paris Review, Poetry, The New Yorker, American Poetry Review, the Nation, Prairie Schooner, et al. ( I love you and am happy for you, Jim, and brava, Terese.)
Years ago I was featured as an up and coming poet alongside Carolyn Forche and Marilyn Hacker in Ms. Also back then there was a journal called The Little Magazine which published the younger versions of a number of poets who have gone on to make a splash and at least one who hasn’t– me– derailed by a twenty-five year depression.
It’s quite true that you can’t rest on your laurels– in my case, a few years of sustained magazine publication and onward with an NEA, two chapbooks and a small press book, Reunion, from Lynx House.
The sun came out in my head last year and I’ve been going gangbusters. But try breaking back in now. Try sending work you know is strong and good to The Beloit Poetry Review, for example. Beloit doesn’t know who I am and it just turned around the mss of my very best in a day. It wouldn’t, I guarantee you, do that to anyone who has any degree of visibility and recent publication– it might wait at least two days. Or a week. I got an intolerably arrogant e-mail: “I’m not keeping any of these.” Time to get another job, Editor– I think you may be burned out.
Try sending to Poetry without current name recognition behind you. Or Field. Or Kenyon Review. Never mind the quality of your work or that said quality has been underwritten and validated in the past. Rejected you are. If I’d never been published extensively, I might not be standing on my good leg here. But I was.
In addition to gauging your work by the light of where it has or hasn’t appeared, it all still seems to be about who you know and who thinks highly of you. Copper Canyon won’t take a chance on a someone they don’t know or who hasn’t been recommended to them; neither will Pitt, or Wesleyan, or others, I wager, no matter how rich, beautiful, dazzling your work.
It becomes ever more important to have some kind of community of fellow writers who read you and believe in you, however you can get it. I live and write in intensive isolation– something that has been quite good for my output and pretty hard on my heart and soul, because I would love to know that at around five today I’d be rendezvousing with other writers somewhere for a “drink” and a few laughs. Fortuitously I’ve just reconnected with a host of Minnesota writers on Facebook and been friended by several other fascinating, forward-looking people, so that I do have a sense of being part of the larger map of literary endeavor.
Regarding the issue of getting read, my solution at the moment has been to put up several blogs for my writing and begin to build a readership. I’m very glad now that I have posted much of my work here on this blog but especially, at La Parola Vivace, a site that is turning out to be a testing ground of my latest poetry for me.
Shivani never mentioned the brave new world of self-publishing online and via outskirts, lulu, et al. He’s probably too much of a purist to consider any aspect of putting yourself out into the world as legitimate.
I used to be a purist too. But in the past months I’ve seen that the 800 or so creative writing programs on this continent put graduates out into the great salmon migration every spring, and that even so, our new technologies make it possible for one lone writer to build a small readership and then to grow it. At the moment it seems that I have more people reading my poetry and memoir online than I ever did a single poem in a single journal in the seventies and eighties. Poet Samuel Peralta, who is quite good, has a gazillion followers on Facebook and Twitter.
I recently sent my memoir Nightfall in Verona to several agents. The agency I thought the most highly of lost the mss; I didn’t know this until four months out, I contacted the agent. She apologized, said send it again, and had it back to me with a “This isn’t right for us” in two weeks.
I am sixty-two years old and I am not going to put up with this. I designed a beautiful site for the book, put up notifications on Facebook and emailed my contact lists, and began publishing it chapter by chapter. I’m very proud of my memoir, and I have no idea who’s reading it but I wasn’t going to put it away in a box and hang my head in despair.
Shivani recently interviewed Allen Kornblum of Coffee House in Minneapolis– that press’s books have been making some splashes. He tells Shivani that a writer came up to him in a bar and asked him to read his mss. Bravo, writer. Kornblum did read the book, and go with it.
But I suspect such a leg up is a complete rarity now. I think, to be straight on about it, we are all on our own. For me to keep on and write for the joy of writing, I feel that I need to stop caring whether or not I have a poem accepted, or have been beknighted by a high profile quarterly or included in a recent anthology of the best American poetry, or read on Writers’ Almanac, or any of the other external things out there in the world that might give me a shot in the arm.
Don’t get me wrong– I’m still submitting at the moment. But every time I look at where other people are and where I’m not, it hurts like holy hell and I’ve had enough hurt for several lifetimes. It has to be enough that I believe in my work, that I love to read my own words, and that I think my poems are beautiful. Of course I love to hear that from other people, and I don’t like everything I produce. But at this point in time, for a host of reasons many of which I’ve mentioned here, I’m all I’ve got. I don’t see anyone else sitting next to me while I try to make art, and live a writing life. Not even Jesus or Buddha.