Tuesday, July 10, 2012

If a poem costs nothing to write I don't want to read it

MR: Oh, sure. By my early thirties, I think I'd stopped believing I was going to succeed as a poet. It'd been years since I'd had a poem accepted anywhere, and I could tell that what I'd written up to that point was no good. It was indifferent, middling work. I knew that I didn't really know what to do as a poet. I could write semi-competent poems in a couple of different period styles, but they were exercises, nothing more. I continued to write for myself, but I was concentrating on becoming a critic — I'd entered the doctoral program at the University of Chicago and started reviewing poetry for Chicago Review, where I eventually served for a time as contributing editor. It was really because of two people — Srikanth Reddy and Oren Izenberg, both then at the University of Chicago — that I decided to knuckle down and try to be a poet again, for real this time. I showed them some of my middling attempts, and they were both honest and supportive. I remember the first poem I wrote that I thought was good. It's called "Self-titled.” I was 35 years old, had written hundreds of poems, and was only now beginning to feel like I knew what I was doing. More important, I knew what I wanted to do. I knew the sorts of poems I wanted to write and how to write them.
Tweeted the following earlier today: If a poem costs nothing to write I don't want to read it. This interview with Michael Robbins at LARB gets at what that means for me to say. Nothing, not even flarf, or conceptual poetry, or erasures, is good if it's too easy. The world is already full of empty gestures.


Also, further to my earlier posts about mentoring and supporting, contrary to popular belief, Robbins' poems were not pulled out of the New Yorker slush pile. 
Well, that's not the whole story. Briefly, I'd written to him {Muldoon} to ask a question about one of his poems, he wrote back, I asked if he'd look at some of my poems, he said they were smart, and asked to see more. This was all before he was named poetry editor of The New Yorker, but when he was, I thought there was a chance he'd notice my submissions. So it's bit misleading to say I was just plucked from the slush pile. 
Not to say they aren't worth pulling out of a slush pile, but they weren't....
He rejected the first batch I sent in. "Alien vs. Predator" was in the second batch. Then he took "Lust for Life" from the third. Since then, by the way, he's rejected everything I've submitted, like ten rejections in a row. He always writes a nice note with the rejections, and I certainly don't mind: no one's promised atThe New Yorker, and anyway, who cares. 
But that was validation in spades, yeah. Getting a poem in The New Yorker, seeing it in that font, dealing with the fact-checkers ... it's a trip, I won't deny it. I don't see any point in playing it cool, you know? I was tickled as punch. I told everyone I've ever met. I cried. And then to get a second one accepted almost immediately? No fucking way am I playing it cool.
There are people who think publishing in The New Yorker is selling out (but not when Rae Armantrout does it; love Rae, by the way); there are people who think I'm a narcissist for refusing to affect false modesty. Fuck 'em.
Indeed. I do disagree with one point though. The following:
I had been half-heartedly playing with such fragments, sort of post-Language-poetry lyric-hybrid things. I could name a hundred exemplars, but who needs the grief? Those poems are easy to write: they're easy to write badly, and they're easy to write well. 
Yes, they're easy to write badly, but not so easy to write well, though I guess it would be a matter of going through a list of many and putting them on one side or the other--not so interesting. Can one write off the entire "lyric-hybrid" thing in one swipe? I don't think so, though I agree, there are way, way, way, way, way too many easy poems out there. We're drowning in easy poetry.

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