Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added) is the best-kept secret among contemporary American writers. --John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Gary asks a question...

Marly, here is your assignment for the week now that you have signed your contracts and judged your contest. 

In your life and career as a poet, are you writing for yourself, for an existing audience of poetry fans, or are you tying to help expand those who appreciate poetry (and yours, specifically)? 

I think that this is a question, if answered thoughtfully by any author (or any builder of any creative output for that matter) could be a good guide to how successful they feel. In other words, does their idea of what they WANT their output to do for the world match their approach in how they deliver that output to the world -- and how far along are they to reaching their particular goal (and what could / would they change to help better achieve their goal). 

I expect my answer in sonnet form. In French. 

Thanks, Gary 

BEING 14 BURBLINGS (14, as in lines of a sonnet) 
+ SALTED WITH FRENCH for Gary

Sacre bleu! Writing is different from marketing or promotion--very different. Poetry and business do not often go together. Even on the rare occasions when they appear to go together, they don't go together. And writing poetry is different from writing prose. Usually people who find joy in playing with words aren't the same people who find joy in playing with business. (Gary Dietz, you may be the exception.)

When I draft a poem, I am not in the least concerned with readers. If the poem is any good, I am concerned with an alien, vertical infusion of force passing through my body and soul. I'm trying to capture some of that for my very own. (If it's not good, I'm just fiddling. Fiddling for a long time can be enjoyable and produce some quite pleasant work, but it's not the same as being struck by a metaphysical asteroid--and that's the strange sort of thing that a poet ought to desire.)

So, no, I have absolutely no thought of any possible reader here or in any other world when I make a poem. I am in the grasp of word-pleasure, a certain sort of intense, self-obliterating celebration.

That means I am not even thinking of me as a reader. If thinking of myself or of readers, I would not write as well as if I let myself be cast away by the tide of the poem. No poet would. Not one. All poets desire to be that kind of castaway. (Well, maybe not what we used to call the avant garde. They're up to other things.)

Poetry is evidently one of the weirder activities a human being may devote him- or herself to pursuing. Because the Muse wants all. Whenever the Muse visits, she seeks to seize.

Not only that, the proper stance toward the poets who wrote memorable poetry in the past is one of humility. So a poet's desires must demand a kind of humility toward the past and a kind of self-obliteration in the present. What a weird pursuit!

Do I have "an existing audience" of poetry fans? Yes. Is it large? No. It is composed of, insofar as I can tell from observation and what people say, writers and painters and bloggers and friends and kind strangers who love poetry and like to own poetry books--particularly people who love form and force in poetry. Because I do a certain amount of collaborative work with artists and designers, I collect a few readers among their fans as well.

How do I know such people exist? Some of them write email notes or leave facebook messages or blog comments or twitter messages or some such. Sometimes a publisher tells me what fans say. Sometimes I get a letter on paper. I get comments on places like Eratosphere or blogs, particularly when I publish in an online journal like Mezzo Cammin or qarrtsiluni, which has a large readership and an editor who sometimes lets me know how many readers show up. Those places may be where I have the most readers; certainly far more than in a paper journal or even a poetry book.

Do I worry a lot about the number of readers? No. Saperlipopette! That poetry no longer sells the way it once did is a hard pebble in the shoe, impossible to remove. I have mentioned before discussing with an editor the dropping of a line of poetry from a well-known press with well-known poets. Why? Because not one book they had published in the past ten years broke the mark of selling 300 copies. Holala. That's fairly sad, given the number of potential readers in the U.S. We lost readers in the very long wake of Modernism, and I alone will not bring those readers back to poetry. Easier entertainment has replaced the arts for many, many people in our culture. So I am glad that there are people out there in the world who make it a friendly goal to try and get young people and others to read more poetry. It's not my calling. Nevertheless, I'm always glad to talk to people about poetry.

And what do I do about such things when I have a new book?  I make a plan with my publisher (unless said publisher is on the other side of the ocean, in which case I do a rather less) and try new ways of reaching readers. I tour. I do various things on the internet. I go to West Chester. I record and let the wondrous Paul Digby make videos of my poems. Etcetera.

But the best way a poet of genuine ability and sufficient obsession can improve the status of poetry, including her own, is to write good poems without the least worry about the status of poetry. The only way a poet can lodge a poem in longterm human memory is to pursue the Muse with sufficient stamina and passion and joy. Period.

Luck helps. It's always a mistake to discount sheer blooming luck in a culture that is as jammed with garbage (zut!) and diamonds as ours. If the poet is true to the chase, eventually he or she will find readers.

How am I doing? Well enough so that my second, third, and fourth poetry books were not submitted but solicited, sometimes by more than one publisher. Enough to get magazine requests. Enough to have a little band of readers. Enough to be asked to do panels and events. It's something. Sure, I'd like more readers. What poet and writer would not?

But those are just facts that leave out the joy and word-frolic and metaphysical asteroids. And that's what the goal always is: the joy, the word-frolic, the metaphysical asteroids. And in those measures (un jeu de mots!), I am a happy poet.

9 comments:

  1. Excellent questions and perfect answers, just what I'd have expected from such a gifted writer. It's so gratifying and inspiring to see an artist (which poets are too) being able to create for themselves and still be successful in recognition and book sales. Bravo, Marly!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Wonderful! And very fun. Interesting: I write poems very much to other people, about other people, around other people. But I feel no dissonance from what you describe, even so.

    I consider that probably the most I can do for poetry is go on resolutely writing it and treating it as one of the basic human activities. Which I believe it to be. I don't go into languid faints or conniptions: I just write it and post it and go on my way. Just like it was normal :-)

    ReplyDelete
  3. Dale,

    Despite the asteroids, I agree with what you say! I feel that many contradictory things can be said about the making of poems and still be true...

    ReplyDelete
  4. Marja-Leena,

    If I am at all "successful," it is because people like you engage with what I do and complete it! And of course that's true of what you do as well.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Delightful as usual. In the process of writing, I am generally intent on telling a story. However, if the poem is going to work well, it is as you say: I am waylaid by a wave of words. The story may go overboard in the rush. Or it may get told, just not the way I imagined.
    But you have a warm way of communicating intimately, one to one, in your blogs and FB and other communications that is quite different from the poems themselves.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Thanks, Robinka--

    Blogs are a place for yack and fiddle!

    ReplyDelete
  7. For Facebookies: In addition to comments on the link for this post, you can find a French sonnet in progress. So far there are two quatrains. It's a mad, mad world!

    ReplyDelete
  8. I thoroughly enjoyed this!

    Why is it that people are so wary of poetry?
    I think the Romantics killed it for a lot of people.
    It was the 'attitude' of prissy superiority that some poets in the past appear to have adopted. I think this drove people away from what is a perfectly natural way to use words as art.
    Perhaps, those great Romantic poets were writing for an audience more for themselves?
    I have a sneaky suspicion that many were...

    Not so you, Marly. You write for yourself and then share with others!

    Right on!


    ReplyDelete
  9. Hi Mr. Tree--

    I usually think of it starting with the Modernists, but maybe you are right!

    Share with whoever is willing... a number that is rather select compared to world population, XD.

    ReplyDelete

Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.