Of Ambition and Survival (I)

It’s been some thirteen years now since I landed my first poem in a major literary journal. I heard a securely established poet recently answer a question from an audience member at a reading that he had forgotten his first significant publication. I was irritated, for sure. But jealous?

I even remember cashing the $50 check from The North American Review, as well as the other checks that followed soon after from Prairie Schooner and Five Points. I felt like a professional poet. And I expected my success to keep rolling from there. Next would be the books and grants, the prizes.

Then Joseph Parisi, the editor of Poetry at the time, wrote me a personal letter of rejection stating that a particular poem was “very close,” that he, and not the poem, was probably “to blame.” And then the Indiana Review sent me a hand-written letter saying that they “loved” my poem, but that they were steering clear of any work that mentioned canines because they feared that they were publishing too many “dog poems.” Worst of all was the Colorado Review’s letter explaining that one of my poems was among the top fifty of the thousands they’d received that year, but that they had only published a total of forty-eight (did I really need to know this?). All mentioned to send more poems. And I did. Again and again and again.

Those magazines are not among my list of publications, which, when I look at it now, seems scant compared to the promise of my early successes. And the book? The prizes?  The grants? Well, I did publish a limited edition letter-press collection of poems from Penhallow Press, but they are no longer extant, and I can’t even find my own copy. Of course, I’ve entered the contests, but too often I remain baffled by the winning manuscripts.

Somewhere along the way I became cynical. I would pick up journals only to tear apart the clichés I found there. I continued to write, though, because that’s how I survive, but more and more music became my focus; I felt freer there, less weighed down by expectations to make a “career” of my creative work. My methods of learning new instruments were unconventional; I didn’t have to go back to school for another MFA. I just explored making articulate sounds that pleased me.  And yet, at the edges of my sense of self-worth there nagged a growing sense that I had missed my chance as a writer.

It was around this time that creativity and suicide became the wings of a singularly large dark bird that circled above me constantly. Not only did I become obsessed with writers and artists who committed suicide or disappeared under conspicuous circumstances (Hart Crane, Randall Jarrell, Virginia Woolf, Frank Stanford, Weldon Kees, etc.), but suicide became obsessed with the writers and artists I followed (i.e. David Foster Wallace, Mark Linkous, Vic Chestnutt, Spaulding Gray, etc.).

It wasn’t that I, too, wanted to end my life, but I became obsessed with the idea that I just might find my way there. When I thought about what I hadn’t yet done as an artist but knew I could, I imagined a self-induced gunshot blast to the heart. Through all this I continued to teach, a vocation that, even when I feel like a fraud, has sustained me in ways that I can never articulate. My students inspire me always to be a better person, to give more of myself—goals incommensurate with the violent image that, too often, keeps me from sustaining any long-term writing project, the kind I love to conceive of in the wee hours but for which my enthusiasm wanes within a week or so: the cut-out poems based on Montaigne’s essays, for instance; the strict absurdist narrative prose poems written in an uncharacteristically flat voice; the poems titled as prepositions. And so on.  What keeps me now from these projects?  I think my therapist has some ideas he’s keeping from me.

What I have been able to sustain, however, is the music, a commitment  that manifested itself in a recent solo project under the moniker They Went On.  The RPM Challenge is an international event that puts musicians to the task of composing and recording an albums worth of material in the four weeks of February.  I tend to work well within these kinds of restraints, and the results can be found here.  There is much more I intend to explore in subsequent posts in relation to my motivations and limitations as an artist.  In the meantime, I continue looking for ways to further enter life’s promise of unceasing creative commerce; for the truth is that even though it is hard to believe that art, in all its confounding and disheartening  manifestations, can transform us to meet the world’s many forms–I buy it.