Friday, May 27, 2005

Cattiness, and the Dog-Eat-Dog World of Poetry

No, I don't think the poetry world is exceptionally nasty, yet the animal metaphor serves well as an entry into the subject of competition. Following the concepts that writing is a way of thinking and that the nature of the blogosphere is one of immediacy, I don't have this all figured out but I'm working on it as I go along.

Here in San Francisco, on Highway 1, on bluffs overlooking the Pacific, there's a dog and dog-walker's paradise called Fort Funston. Despite the posted warnings that it is a leash-only area, thousands of dogs a weekend come and go along the paths and shrubs and dunes unleashed, following (loosely) their masters, running after balls and other toys, and sniffing each other's butts in friendly greeting, as dogs will do. Many of these same creatures, walking leashed down the sidewalk with their masters, will snarl, bare their teeth, even attack another dog. (My dog only picks on the ones who are smaller than she is, heh heh.) I think the reason behind this is an animal's territorial nature, its need to guard itself and its master from encroachment or perceived danger on the sidewalk. However, free to run from threat and surrounded by miles of space, mastiffs mingle with mutts, pit bulls are rarely pugnacious, and wagging tails are the rule.

What does this have to do with the world of Poetry? Bear with me. As many of us have experienced, success in the business world is as often a matter of who you know and connections, in general, and being in the right place at the right time, as how hard you work and how good you are at doing your job. The smaller and more competitive the world--the high tech situation today, for instance, compared with that of the late 90s--the more those things factor in. Believe me: I am in an enviable job situation while people I know who are far more talented than I have been out of work for years, including people who interviewed me for my job.( Yet no one sends me hate mail.)

In Poetry, where many of the big rewards (I'm not talkiing personal satisfaction now; that is another thing entirely) come in $35/page increments--or two free copies--where, as others in the blogosphere have noted, no one, in the world at large is going to know you even if you win a Macarthur or Pullitzer, and where you will have a hard time all your life explaining to your own family what you do, let alone why you do it, we're all mountain goats, struggling for a foothold on the hill. And we don't want to admit the Facts of Life and Luck here. We don't want to allow that sometimes luck or who you know, or simply knowing how to play by the rules can help or hinder an individual poet's case. And I'm not even talking about sleeping with the contest judge! Let's exaggerate the situation: Suppose you wrote exquisite poetry, were master of both form and content, could assimilate tradition and yet be avant the rest of the garde--and yet you wrote in pencil, in longhand, on onion skin erasable paper and never included an SASE. Believe me, you'd have a better chance of winning the lottery than getting anyone to publish you. Yet when someone wins a competition, even one we did not enter, how easy it is to forget that aside from being a good writer, that person played by the rules. In the latter case, they actually entered. Is that so terrible? Yet sites like Foetry play up tenuous connections, as if all of us should have been born, instead of from the sex act, of immaculate conception and a virgin birth. What I'm trying to say is that the contest mentality, or the intense competition in general for the small (worldly) rewards of poetry is, in my mind, why this happens. If there were room for more of us--or, actually, if there were the perception that there is room for all of us ( because really, my "success" doesn't diminish the chances of your success, does it?) would we be all wagging our tails happily?

Speaking of perception, the ease of connection and communication is, I think, also a factor increasing our sense of competition. I personally think that the Internet is a good thing--because in the past, a nobody like me wouldn't have stood the chance of publishing in the same magazine as T.S. Eliot, let alone maybe communicating with him (if he were alive, that is) or even studying with him. In the past, poets expected to commune only with their typewriters and communicate by mail--and sometimes it worked, but there were many fewer places at the table then. So now, if my right hand and your left hand conflict for space, we can at least be thankful that we are there to sup.

This post is not meant as an excuse for nastiness, not at all. Neither is it a thought-out theory of what we should write or whether poetry matters. We should write our poems. And it does.


Anonymous said...

Interesting post. It does seem that those that are the most competitive tend to be those who haven't yet broken through all the noise, though, doesn't it? And it also seems to be those exact same people who haven't broken through that seem particularly obsessed with competition. It seems that the poets that are successful seem to be the ones least concerned about all such stuff and just write. I'm pretty tired of the woe is me mentality amongst poets that haven't been all that successful (in their own minds) and I'm not ranting at you perse. Such people (like foetry) tend to spend all their time pointing fingers and you have to wonder what's really there to point at? Maybe those poets who are successful are successful because they are simply better than you/one? there's a thought. I vote for more humility in the poetry world. Maybe poets that can't make it just aren't good enough. Who knows?

Diane K. Martin said...

I vote for less anonymity in the poetry world. If you want to be taken seriously, why not leave your name.

Robert said...

I think competition is natural in the poetry world. Is it so different from being an actor? If you’re consumed with envy because someone else won an Oscar, you’re wasting your energy. On the other hand, you really do need a good role if you’re going to act—you need a break. You need someone to give you a chance to get on stage. It’s not narcissistic to be obsessed with that—it’s just realistic. Actually it’s the actor who’s perfectly happy performing Shakespeare in front of the mirror and nowhere else who’s the narcissistic one! You don’t have to be on Broadway, but you can’t be an actor if your only audience is your mirror, and you can’t be poet without readers.

As far as what it takes to get that break, I think Diane is right that it’s a combination of talent and luck and persistence and knowing how to play the game and other factors too. (I guess luck and persistence come down to the same thing: if you stay at the poker table long enough, you’ll draw a royal flush one day, if you don’t die first.) But I think it’s a mistake to think it’s all talent or all luck or all playing the game. I’ve gotten a couple of books published and I think they deserved to be published, but I can also think of half a dozen manuscripts I’ve read that have not been published even though they contain poems of a quality I can only dream of. Also, my manuscripts that were ultimately published were often not even in the top fifty “finalists” of many other publishers. I do think persistence pays off! On the other hand, poets have enough to feel bad about without feeling guilty about feeling bad. If sometimes I feel like pounding my head—or someone else’s head—against a wall—well, right now I’m watching my two cats fight over the one sunny spot on the couch, or at least “negotiate” over it the way cats do, nuzzling and cuddling one another but at the same time trying to nudge their own nose a little further into the light. If we do as well as cats, I think we’re doing all right.

Diane K. Martin said...

Robert, thanks for your comment--as usual, so clear and to the point. Although, come to think of it, we started off with dogs and ended up with cats!

Anonymous said...

Good stuff going on here, people. I like what anon. says, and I also like what Robert says. You're all right in a way. It seems that I have another thing to add to the mix in that it seems those people who are trying to get in the game, but haven't, can sometimes (emphasis on sometimes) criticize the merits of those who are already in the game. To criticize someone who wins competitions that you didn't enter delegitimizes those people who win contests (versus, let's say, turning the camera on yourself and your own writing). Perhaps if you had entered that particular contest, you might not have won. Then again, you might have won. One will never know! But does that mean the winner didn't deserve to win? Absolutely not. We know that at least some people thought that winning manuscript was worthy. Poetry is so much a matter of taste. To criticize people for entering things you didn't enter just seems like bitterness and unnecessary "cattiness." It's downright unfair. Robert said it best. But what he said is different than the original post, or at least said in a more fair way. And at what point (decades?) do you start wondering whether other people are right? Sure there are lots of manuscripts that could be published, but it certainly seems that the best ones find a way to find light somehow. Now, if you get feedback from teachers, mentors, colleagues that your manuscript is good, keep going! Keep sending it out! But most certainly I would spend less time focusing on how yours compares to those that have won already, and instead focus on improving your manuscript more and your writing, which I'm sure you already do.

Diane K. Martin said...

(It's very eery to be talking with anonymous people.)

I don't think Robert's comment and my post disagreed. I think we're just trying to examine various aspects of the competition question.


Michael said...

I find the posting of anonymous comments to be somewhat disingenuous. If you can't take ownership in what you have to say, then you diminished your very dialogue.

Diane- a thoughtful post.

Robert said...

It’s hard to generalize. Obviously it’s unfair (and foolish) for someone who’s published a lot to take a condescending “Unlike you, I’m a real poet” attitude toward writers who have published less, and equally unfair for those who have published less to take a holier-than-thou attitude toward those who have published more (“You must have slept with someone, metaphorically or literally,” or “You must have sold out or else been shallow to start with”).

Diane K. Martin said...

I certainly never meant to imply that people who won contests did just because they knew how to play the game (or sleep with the judge)! I hope my post was not read that way. I'm just saying that it's hard to get published, which makes for a competitive situation. It's kind of obvious, but, I thought, needed to be said.