Monday, April 18, 2011

On Not Being a Poetry Star

As you may very well know at this point, we are deep in the throes of National Poetry Month. If you were trying to forget about that, please accept my apologies.

As in most previous National Poetry Months, I am haunted by an all-pervasive question. To wit, "Where's my cut?"

To paraphrase the words of Nils Tufnel in This Is Spinal Tap, "The answer is nowhere. Nowhere is my cut."

This is because, while National Poetry Month affords much-needed exposure to an art form that is all too easily overshadowed and shouted out in an era of spectacle, the exposure and such perks as exist go to those who are already poetry stars. In this instance, it must be said, "star" is a highly relative term. Even the best and most established poets in the United States, the ones with multiple prestigious publications and an impression collection of grants, are fortunate to have a book sell five thousand copies. Few have literary agents, and none of them needs a bodyguard or entourage. All are blessedly immune to the prospect of a reality television role.

Still, poetry stars get a few expenses-paid readings and maybe some extra sales this time of year, as well as the attention noted above. And the last time I checked, I am not one of them.

It might be a wise marketing move, a way of making a virtue of necessity, to say that such poetry stardom as exists probably isn't all that great, or that the poetry world is completely corrupt and toally composed of the "phonies" that Salinger's Holden Caulfield denounced in The Catcher in the Rye.

I can't honestly say those things, however. The fox in Aesop's fable may have consoled himself with the thought that the grapes he couldn't reach were probably sour grapes anyway, but I suspect that the grapes of poetry stardom (however few or small they may be) are actually kind of tasty. Put me down for two bunches, please.

Moreover, the poetry world is only partially corrupt and only partially composed of phonies, which in this instance means handing out scarce prizes and publication slots to friends, students or family. Sorting out which poets are and aren't inspires no small number of off-the-record debates.

Worrying a great deal about one's status in poetry, an oxymonoric phrase to be sure, is a decidedly First World problem. Doing so betrays both vanity and envy, at various times called character flaws or besetting sins. I am comfortable with either term, if not the reality it names.

One question that arises from this morass of self-involvement is, in short, "Why am I not a poetry star?" By extension, why aren't many others?

A variety of answers come to mind.

  1. Inadequate achievement. Poets are not the best judges of how their work stacks up. Maybe my work to date doesn't deserve poetry stardom, or doesn't show signs of doing so any time soon, if ever. Maybe my best poems are far ahead of me or, heaven forfend, behind. The truth can hurt. We'll see how things shake out.

  2. Inadequte achievement. See Item 1.

  3. Insufficient charisma. As noted in Pulp Fiction, personality goes a long way. Some people command attention simply by being present, and all other things being equal that will help them to find audiences and sell books. Some of the rest of us are more retiring by nature and don't electrify a room by walking in.

  4. Insufficient connections. In the prestige economy of poetry, connections are a kind of currency. One can inherit them by being born into a literary family or acquire them by attending certain schools, whether Ivy League stalwarts or better-known creative writing programs. I have more connections than some and fewer than others, and no amount of connections will help a poet whose work doesn't attain some theoretical minimum degree of quality.

  5. Being insufficiently "beautiful" in a conventional sense and/or insufficiently photogenic. People gravitate toward good-looking and photogenic/telegenic people, especially those who are charismatic. It just works like that. If Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt start writing good poetry, or even average poetry, many of us poets are in trouble. As it is, poetry careers sometimes benefits from the poet's good looks. The same could be said for this as for Items 3 and 4: we play the cards we're dealt, and who wouldn't use the advantages they have?

  6. Writing poems that may not find favor with current factions and fashions. Poems and poets can fall between the cracks that separate different schools, styles and publications. Falling between the cracks can happen to a good or very good poet, but it also happens to plenty of mediocre or worse poems.

  7. See Items 1 and 2.

I may attain some level of poetry stardom, or maybe not. That's largely for others to decide. In the meantime, to paraphrase Allen Ginsberg, I will put my slight shoulder to the wheel.


Rose Kelleher said...

#5 doesn't really apply to men. Have you seen this picture of Garrison Keillor and August Kleinzahler?

And look at Auden. Whew. I think looks make more of a difference when it comes to women poets.

Sue Guiney said...

I love this post. Fame is a rather bitchy taskmaster. Actually, she reminds me of the dominatrix in your story know, the s&m one the Guineys read at Xmas....anyway, I think we all understand that fame is shallow, hollow, unreal etc etc, but we want it anyway. I think that the 2 of us are among the most talented people I know (so there - I said it). We're kind of cute in our own ways, too. But still we're not famous. we're not stars of anything and, alas, I am on the verge of giving up in that dream. I do think that University degrees or appointments have something to do with it. I also think chutzpah does. It is infuriating though. Actually, it's not that I want to be a star, it's just that it would be nice to be recognised (and I don't mean just on the street). And a bit of money would be helpful, too.

J.D. Smith said...

Rose: Poetry, like life in general, is unfair to women this way. No doubt. Still, I think this is starting to catch up with men as well. Appearance helps in our increasingly image-driven days. From a sales perspective, I would rather look like Mark Strand than myself, and if James Franco turns out to be at least a passably good poet things could get weird.

Sue: Thank you. Your comment reminds me of the David Bowie song of the 1970s. Understanding it more thoroughly at an earlier age could have saved me a lot of self-inflicted grief. As for looks, I know that while I have no cosmetic deficits as such, the camera does not love me. I've seen myself in both photographs and on television (the latter with the benefit of the make-up person's art and craft), and I am not a visual media person.