If I had it to do all over again, I would do it exactly as I have done it: jumping both feet in the deep end without a lifeboat.
To my knowledge, I am the only poet from my cohort to publish straight after graduation (less than a year after graduating, I won the 2014 New Issues Poetry Prize.) In retrospect, I remember having mixed feelings about it all. The moment I received word, I received mostly notes of congratulations from my circle of friends, but there were a few notes that stand out. Maybe it was the tone. One poet wrote to let me know he was a finalist of the contest and is looking forward to reading my book (read: he wanted to see if I was deserving of being picked.) So, I began this journey feeling unsure of myself. Feeling lots of pressure. Why did they select my manuscript?
Sure, I really enjoyed the validation that came with winning a prize, but there is an interior journey as a poet that one must take. Getting published doesn’t necessarily mean that one is growing, discovering oneself, and figuring out where you fit in in this world. The two are separate journeys. And it’s difficult to quiet the noise and get sure about what your aesthetic sensibilities are, what you want your work to do in the world, and by all costs, not get sucked in to wanting to become famous. With the ubiquity of social media, it’s almost impossible not to get sucked in to wanting to post “…and this happened” or you’ve just placed a poem in this “journal” or you’ve gotten accepted to this residency. It all becomes a drag after a while. You lament the good old days when you spoke unabashedly about something honest that made you feel vulnerable and you released it on the page then shared it with the public in person.
I’ll admit that I didn't (and still don't) fit the typical profile of any of the poets coming out of a graduate creative writing program. My kid was almost finished elementary school at the time. Graduation felt like the interruption of a blissful honeymoon. Suddenly, I needed to find a job. Poetry was a luxury at that point until it wasn’t. It became more necessary than air. I began to remember why I started writing. Why I cared about it. The space that it filled in my life. Those moments of political unrest, the restless nights, the sleepless nights. I wasn’t alone in feeling restless. The more I made my rounds connecting with readers, and audiences my world got bigger.
My first few teaching appointments were teaching composition, so it didn’t really matter professionally that I had a collection of poems in the world. Talking about poems wasn’t what I was paid to do. And so, I learned to split myself into halves: one half thought a certain way at work and the other was ravenous for a jolt of emotion. I wanted to remind myself that I was still alive. That this was just a part of my journey, not the entire thing.
I knew nothing (and admit that I still do not) about promoting books and becoming “relevant” in the way that many poets leverage social media and other resources to do this. And yet, I managed to perform with a band twice, toured the east coast, manage to get on a number of syllabi, read with amazing poets. Exciting stuff! The best part of it all is sharing the work with readers. Getting asked hard questions. Figuring out, each time, how these poems have crystalized in a way that they hadn’t at the time I wrote them. Of course, I privately envy my friends who brag about how many books they’ve sold, but more than anything this journey has taught me to delight in what I do have rather than the list of things I do not have.
So, what’s next? How can I challenge myself to grow as an artist and not repeat the same tricks that folks seemed to enjoy from my debut collection? The truth is I have no idea. A part of me is excited and scared shitless. Meanwhile, I travel wth my notebook recording lines of conversation, passages from books, off-key headlines from newspapers, images from dreams. Something is coming and I'm completely fine with not knowing what that something is.
In an effort to explore this question, I’m dedicating all of my posts this week to engaging poets and poetry collections that have made an impact on me and the reading public at-large.