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« This Just In . . . David Lehman Kicks Off the Jewish Manuscript Project | Main | Live from New York: The Best American Poetry 2010, Kimiko Hahn/Jeffrey McDaniel/Eileen Myles »

September 30, 2010


I’m sitting here – hungry – and waiting for my next fix. I am the correlate of James Franco, often high off my ass in a (n East) Williamsburg apartment. Have my dues been paid? Yes. Have I gotten them? No. I’m writing this in the comment box of this article because I was rejected from Best American Poetry. Three times. I wouldn’t think I would be considered for a spot as “guest columnist”.
I don’t take to town anything James Franco does – I admire the man. I even admire his choice of poems and poets as suggested reading. They may be safe choices, but they are good choices. They are choices any of my teachers at my universities would have put on their syllabi. (Ten dollars to me for the use of the plural ‘syllabus’…still waiting on that check…)
Last week I wrote a few pieces on high profile artwork for a high profile art dealer. It paid well. But it was the first paying writing gig I’ve had in over a year.
While in university I was wholly discouraged from teaching. This coming from the higher-ups in the department. “You don’t wanna teach” They blathered. “There’s no money in it.” They blathered, amid sips of their martinis. Then they went on a 20-minute diatribe of which I have either blocked out because of trauma or because I was too buzzed at the time to remember. Probably a little bit (or a lot) of both. I went to university to get a degree. I wanted to get a degree to teach. This was my plan. And being a writer, as all writers are, I have a bit of a sensitive skin concerning those little things about my persona like MY ASPIRATIONS IN LIFE.
Here’s my point. I’m not just a writer. Failing being a writer/teacher (which I hear comes down, in this day and age, to one word – nepotism), I am a writer/artist/photographer/videographer/journalist. Add to those the prefix starving-. I have been paid in all fields of work, and am more than an amateur in every single one. Do I get work? Yes. Can I pay my rent on time? NO.
So Ms. Lawless is right. But what Ms. Lawless is failing to take into account is that amorphous, tiny slice of the American population known as the Poets. And I’m not talking about me, the guy on the bench in Union Square park, writing about the birds, waiting for his man. I’m not talking about the James Franco correlate. I’m talking about the Literati. The gatekeepers. The ones who decide who gets in what publication. Rejected three times from Best American Poetry? I’m looking you square in the eye, David Lehman.
Ms. Lawless has the distinction of being a published poet as well as a teacher of writing. I do not, at least not in any formal, Library of Congress catalogue number sort of sense or any check-from-the-bursar sorta sense.
So when Ms. Lawless feels a bit perturbed by the fact that a guy like James Franco just happens, in passing, to take up poetry as another source of his creative output, I say, “good for him”. I actually relate more to James Franco than I do to Ms. Lawless.
And here’s why. Though I might be starving, literally right now, starving, and sitting in my Williamsburg apartment, waiting for my next fix rather than high off my ass, I am working, and working on things most people who call themselves “poets” will never work on – namely, the other artistic media. I’ve taken up painting and playing piano in the last two years because I wasn’t “getting it” in the poetry world. I’ve had much more success in any other artistic medium, as far as getting paid, than I ever did with poetry. And much less rejection.
Nowadays, one might call this The Problem with Poetry. Imagine a trial taking place, in the vein of Howl, because of one of Ms. Lawless’s recently published poems. Not gonna happen. Why? Because the floodgates of culture have been opened. Nobody cares. And somewhere along the way, poets got swept under the carpet. Who is there now to help out? The ones who seem to only ever subscribe to CK Williams and Ashbery. Sure, they are the greatest living American poets. But where are the young’n’s? Where is their scene? Where are the publications that scoff “Best American Poetry” and are publishing the truly Best American Poetry by the crazies and the hacks and the intellectuals? Where are the broadsides of the ‘70’s nowadays? Blogs? No don’t think so. This is just the tip of the iceberg of the problem of poetry.
I once thought the real poets were the ones so dedicated to the craft that the only profession that would allow them to breathe would be teaching. Now I can see, considering my circumstances as well as the detritus of the almost nonexistent world of contemporary poetry, those best minds of my generation who, like Ginsberg’s, are still starving, hysterical, and naked in the streets, that there is only one thing any self-respecting poet can do nowadays. Something else.

good one!

Dear James, While I am glad to know you are looking me straight in the eye, I don't see how you can have been rejected by the Best American Poetry for the simple reason that we don't accept submissions and consequently do not issue rejection slips. Amy Lawless's beautiful point is that "poet and teacher" is positively boring and predicable compared to, say, "writer and worker's compensation expert" (Kafka's MO) or "poet and pediatrician" (W. C. Williams). To succeed as a freelance writer or journalist, you always had to be something of an entrepreneur, versatile and adaptable. Whining ill suits the aspiring poet. Read Keats's letters. If ever somebody was dealt a lousy hand, it was this tubercular poet who dwelled in the vale of soul-making. But I do love the last dozen words of your comment.

I posted a disbelieving tweet about how the Poetry Foundation follows JamesFrancoNews (still. cannot. believe. it.), and got a curt retweet and cutoff from the esteemed JFN for my cheek.

That said, I just lost it when I looked at Maslow's Hierarchy and imagined Franco's face looming behind it. Love it.

Thanks a lot, Amy, for actually making me give a crap about this James Franco situation. Meaning: until you wrote your really funny, excellent post I wasn't really paying attention. And I liked it that way. I figured I could just ignore it (the James Franco situation) and it would go away, like when Bruce Willis tried to sing in a blues band. That said, I've learned two important things in the last half-hour, checking out your post and the subsequent comments: (1) Best American Poetry does not accept submissions (just kidding, I knew that, it just cracks me up, the whole idea of it) and (2) the key to whining is this: come up with something original to whine about or whine about something old in a new way. Wait, that sounds familiar.

Website is awesome! He'll help you out on everything you need! His sub ohm cell products are adorable as well! They treat their customers like long time friends, and they always manage to memorize each of their customer’s names amazing!

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I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark

from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman


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