Weakness for/from Poetry

After three weeks of banging words out for NaNoWriMo and stalling out way short of 50,000 words (with a respectable 24,000 words), and after a Thanksgiving holiday filled with headaches, low pressure systems, and an attempt to reduce my caffeine intake (all three related), instead of throwing myself back at the fiction grindstone, I instead finished the edits on my poetry collection and sent it to a book contest.  I should write “finished”; it’s never done.

When I was drafting for the novel, it felt good to have that word flow going every day.  But I don’t have the focus or stamina to finish a long piece of fiction.  Two things it takes to be a writer: talent and persistence.  I definitely struggle with the latter.  I struggle in general with anxiety in my life, but lots of it gets attached to poetry.

I’ve studied lots of books about procrastination, blocks, etc., trying to figure out why I finished an MFA and then stopped writing poetry entirely for a decade, and the short answer is a sort of anxiety about criticism and failure.

One sort anxiety starts when I open a new issue of Poetry magazine.  In some part of my thinking, I’ve made Poetry the pedestal for what counts as “good” poetry.  A mixture of anger and jealousy starts sometimes when I read a poem and can’t for the life of me figure out why that poem is better than the several thousand they rejected for that issue (90,000 submissions a year averages 7,500 submissions a month; last month they published work by 14 poets).  The demon dogs start barking, with all the reasons not to write poetry:

  • Most people don’t care about poetry
  • There are thousands of poets writing and submitting
  • It’s too late to be someone’s protégé
  • I have a better chance of winning the lottery than being a famous poet

Yes, there’s the f-word in my list.  I’ll be honest, when I dream of the successful poet’s life, it involves literary fame: giving readings to rapt audiences, running workshops with adoring participants, being known among people in the crowd at a conference.  It’s not a part of my personality that I am proud of, but I acknowledge.  Whenever I feel good about writing I find myself having flights of fancy about what I will say during an interview: “the idea for the book first came to me in an airplane over Cincinnati . . . ” (definitely the sign of an anxious person: practicing what to say ahead of time).

The reality of my dearth of publications is a good antidote for this sort of thinking.  I’d have more of a swagger in my step if I had real publications to think of.  Publication, though requires submission, requires calling your work “done,” requires putting the work out there to be rejected, and even though when editors reject most work it is totally gone from their consciousness I still imagine that moment of rejection (who does that Jonathan Jay Taylor think he is?).  Alas, my anxiety puts blocks in the way of decisions and actions that may result in criticism.  I fight it all the time, anything from grading papers to picking out paint colors, anything that I worry won’t be good enough my brain just likes to hold off on.

And yet, I keep coming back for more.

So, my next task is to get that submission mill going again, sending poems to journals. . . tomorrow . . .


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