For #NationalPoetryMonth, more thoughts on being a poet in the “industry.”

Hello all, do you remember “Dear Sugar,” over at The Rumpus?

Years ago, Sugar wrote this awesome response letter to a writer who wrote that perhaps they were a bad person because of this:

Even when I pretend to be happy when my writer friends get good news, the truth is I feel like I swallowed a spoonful of battery acid. For days afterwards I go around feeling queasy and sad, silently thinking why not me?

I loved Sugar’s response, because it was so real and no BS. Yes, Sugar wrote, you are a bad person, and your friends know you’re not really happy for them. Yes, we all experience jealousy, and then we make a choice to stop, to move on, and to keep working. If writing is what’s truly the most important thing to us, if it’s the thing that matters most, then we continue writing, industry be damned.

Sugar wrote: “Your cause is to write a great book and then to write another great book and to keep writing them for as long as you can.”

Of course, there is the industry/commerce part. We write these books that we hope are great. But then, what if no one reads them? In other words, what if it’s never published? And then of course, without publishing, there is no distribution, and there are no reviews, course adoptions, and book clubs. In other words, no book sales.

I too get caught up in industry. We all do. Could we keep doing what we are doing, writing one “great” book and then another, if not for industry and commerce. For myself, what would I do if there was no publisher of any kind (indie, small, micro) to publish my books?

I think back on the DIY-ing so many of us did, before we ever found ourselves on any publishers’ radars. For some of us, it is precisely our DIY-ing that got us noticed, by people who wanted to read more of our work, by people who could mentor and direct us, and in my case, by someone who wanted to publish me. I wonder whether I could spend my entire life as a writer DIY-ing. It’s labor intensive, and it can get costly, and there is no guarantee of financial return. You have to hustle.

But where does “prestige,” fit in this conversation? Sugar calls out this jealous writer on their use of “prestigious,” to describe themselves and their credentials. So then, prestige is related to accomplishment? Prestige dictates the ability to have accomplishment?

Surely, one can become accomplished without prestige, no? Through grinding away at the work of writing. Surely, one can become accomplished through publishing in non-prestigious venues. Surely, one can become recognized by others in the writing world and even in the publishing industry through their deeds, for example, because they have been writing amazing poetry for years, because their writing has been growing stronger and more impactful — and perhaps, even important — with practice and maturity.

And within this arc, a writer can gain readership and audience simply because their work comes to matter to the people who read it in books, and/or hear it in performance/live events, in which this “mattering” to people can be personal, and it can be social, cultural, historical, and political.

I think the publishing industry, and prestige are two different things.

I think of my entry into the world of publishing as the thing that amplified my work, brought it into the hands of so many unforeseen readers and students. Publishing has changed my life, and it has changed me too. I have developed the ability to be outward directed, in which “outward” means outside of my familiar circle. I’ve become articulate and confident in representing my poetics. I’ve had to become self-reflective while simultaneously inhabiting public space. I haven’t always handled these negotiations well. I am a work in progress. Who knows what kind of author I will be when I’m in my 50s (this is sooner than you think), in my 60s, and so on.

I keep thinking that when I’m old, it might be nice to hunker down and exit the hustle, to write my piece, and just DIY everything. Who knows.

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