I asked Julie Carr, who is thoroughly launched as a poet, how she would feel about being a poet if her work had never been published. Because that does happen to some of us. Julie wrote this:
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How would my writing have been different if I’d never been published?
This is a very difficult question to consider, since of course I have been published. I can’t honestly imagine an alternate history for myself, so instead I will say what being published has meant to me.
First, it has meant that some older poets whose work I admired and in some cases loved recognized something in my writing that they felt they wanted to support. This recognition has been invaluable, for I don’t, in writing poetry, seek a large audience of strangers. I seek, instead, to be part of a conversation that matters a great deal to me. Publishing is like being welcomed into the room, into the conversation, and that feeling of belonging has been important to me, as it is to anyone in any sphere of life.
Publishing a book also means I feel free to begin a new book. If the books remain unfinished, unread, unbound, they continue hanging around. I continue wondering if they are complete, if they’ve done whatever it was I hoped they would do. Once out in the world in that certifiable “finished” form, I can more or less forget about them – I can shift my attention, feel my interests sway, take on new concerns and new forms. This, of course, is exciting for me. It keeps my relationship to the art alive.
But there is another way in which publishing allows the books to have a new life – a life off the page. Reading from them, performing them in a sense, allows me to transform them into another kind of communication. The relationship with an audience is one of shared listening (I’m listening too as I read), and one of immediate exchange. Every reading is, to some degree, an improvisation. And the factors that go into this improvisation belong to everyone in the room. We are having some kind of experience together, and I learn from it, feel it change me. This is also a way that poetry stays vital, relevant, and present.
Of course not publishing could permit a kind of privacy, important, perhaps, to some writers. I’ve never been, however, the kind of writer that values being alone all that much. I’m interested in writing as a social phenomenon. I never write alone, for there are always books around me as I write. I’m listening to the words of others, to their rhythms, their thoughts, their vocabularies. In some ways I feel that writing is the most socially connected thing I do. Publishing is an extension of the interaction that begins the moment I sit down at my table with a pile of books on either side of me and a few on the floor. Sometimes I never open these books – but they are always there, keeping me company as I speak with them.
I think if no one ever found my poetry worthy of publishing, I would have done one of two things: I would have published it myself or, more likely, I would have found a form that suited me better. I used to be a dancer. I still consider myself some kind of performer. If the writing of books had simply not worked out, I think I would have heard that as an opportunity to discover other forms of art making that would. I don’t really believe in failure for artists. I think we fail only when we set our sights too narrowly. We fail ourselves by getting stuck on some vision of the future that we’ve invented or inherited from the culture. There are many ways to be an artist in the world. This is the one that makes sense for me right now. I am sure, had I not found writing books to be functional, I would have found another way. Making art of one kind or another is simply, for me, a way of living. It is not a “skill” I “master” in order to “succeed.” It is a, or the, process of living in a body with a mind.
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I agree with Julie that publication is essential for a writer and that self-publication is a viable option. I'm not so sure that I myself could find another art. (I did try screenwriting, but that's another story; anyway it didn't work out.) Creative moments come to me in words and lines. But I can think of a poet who became a dancer and another who became a filmmaker.
Never finding a publisher is unbelievably frustrating. And a waste of good poetry.
It's also painful to read published work and to know one could do better than that, than what somebody did for some reason decide to print.
Of course many unpublished poems are just no good. They get rejected and it hurts the poets but that's the end of it, or it will be the end again. One pities publishers' readers of unsolicited manuscripts—until they make a dumb mistake and reject something fine. They are the guards at the gateway to an audience in the present and maybe to the future, and they might just not let you in. They really do control literature, which generally consists of the "best" of what gets published.
The editors of magazines and the judges of contests have a terrible responsibility. (Scholars do too, when they uncover and edit a lost poet like Emily Dickinson—or translators when they decide to work on a barely known novelist like Sadegh Hedayat or the once unknown Alain Robbe-Grillet.) They give a manuscript the chance to find many readers, to be in print, perhaps to be remembered and reprinted. Or they reject the manuscript and leave the writer wondering whether there is something wrong with his or her work, commitment to poetry, hope to resonate with an audience, and ambition.
I was able to publish very few poems before my book Love If We Can Stand It, and they've already been forgotten. If my book had not been published, there would have been something essential missing from my life. The poems would not have been finished, as Julie says. But the way things nearly came out, my only audience would have been the people at poetry readings, since reading a poem to a group doesn't depend on the OK of an editor—though of course even readings are administered, and one usually has to get on a list to read.
But some poets don't feel the need to share their work with a community or to see their poems in print. They may get beaten down by rejection slips or they may, as Julie notes, seek privacy. They may come to conceive their work as a private concern.
Many great singers never make records; they may not even try. They may prefer not to be bothered with all the recording studios and crowds.
Emily Dickinson called publication "the Auction / Of the Mind of Man" (poem #709) and preferred to keep her poems in a drawer. We found out about her work only after she was dead, but while she was alive she was just as much a poet as she is now, in our imaginations and on our bookshelves, when we know what she was writing. She had a very limited audience if any, but she wrote the poems. It may not have bothered her (after a few tries) that her poems had no publisher, and she probably felt glad that she didn't have to answer to an editor or to the conventions of her time about dashes and capitalization. It helped her work that she wrote it for herself.
If you're never published, my advice is to remain a poet. Give readings. Self-publish if you can afford it. Publish online if you make sure your work is copyrighted. Look into other media, like audiobooks. Talk to other poets, make connections. Enter contests—though personally I never had any luck with them. Query publishers. But keep doing the writing. Someday somebody may want the work you're doing now. If nobody ever does, you'll still have had the satisfaction of making the poems and getting them right. Remember that even published poets leave unpublished poems when they die.