What Work Is

Eduardo posted recently about not pursuing publication for his work as fiercely as maybe some other poets do, and he says, "I've never been one of those poets who associated success with publication."

I think that's good. Publication isn't success because there are a lot of bad poems that get published. True, it's a bar that many poets don't ever reach, but that doesn't make it important per se. I remember Steve wrote that he felt like getting a Pushcart nom wasn't a big deal because they give them away with Happy Meals now—or, at least, the noms are fairly common. And that's true. There are a lot of journals out there nominating a lot of authors.

But, again, that's a bar not every poet reaches.

If you're the kind of poet who likes to measure, get your tapes ready: because I'm going to ask you now how you choose to measure success. Seth was writing about this recently, too, and I thought it was interesting to note that yes, we as poets understand the careerist levels of success involved in poetry. Maybe we can delineate these levels, in a loose ordering, that identifies a perception of success in poetry:

Publication in lower-tier journals & magazines
Publication in University-tier journals & magazines
Prize finalists
Inclusion in anthologies
Publication in top-tier journals & magazines
Residencies at colonies
First book publication
National fellowship awards
Publication awards
Additional book publications
Inclusion in textbook anthologies
University teaching appointment
Publication in glossy mags
A volume of Selected Poems
Pulitzer Prize/National Book Award nomination
A volume of Collected or Complete Poems
Major award win (incl. Macarthur)

If you perceive success as being ahead of the pack, then it's natural to assume the more bars you pass, the better off you are. Ultimately, only a handful of writers come away with the most major awards and the most comprehensive publications, which, in turn, makes those accomplishments (perhaps) the most sought-after or the most respected. It's possible. It's possible that we all harbor secret dreams of our own Selected Poems being nominated for the National Book Award.

There's nothing wrong with personal ambition, I think. The desire to better one's work is, hopefully, what we're all after. But, in some contexts, the work and the career share an uncomfortable comraderie, don't you think?

And I'm not saying it is this way for everyone, or that it should be this way, or that Eduardo or Steve or Seth are at all misguided. Quite the opposite. I'm saying it's natural to want to feel successful at what you do—otherwise, we're all just tired little masochists acting out our repetitive neuroses—but it is important, now, right here, for you to come to terms with what success means to you in writing, because it isn't (and should be) what everyone else thinks it is.

I'm happy when my poems get published. I am. I think it's cool! And I love it when people tell me they've read my work somewhere. I like it even better when they add they enjoyed it. I don't consider publishing a success. But I do consider it a success when I publish a poem that I am truly proud of, that I believe should be out in the world.

That said, like Eduardo, I revise 90% of my work over and over and over and over. Even after publication. I toss out published poems. And why not? I serve the work. If the work doesn't cut it, I cut the work.

I hope that everything I do in poetry serves my work. Blogging serves my work. Reading as many books as I can on my bus ride to and from my job serves my work. Showing my work to other people serves the work. I don't engage in these things to serve me. That's a different kind of poet, and a kind of poet I hope never to be.


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  2. I love to be published, I won't lie about it. But I feel validated (ack I hate that psychobabble word) maybe I should say I feel that measure when a reader tells me that he or she loves my work. Or feels it. Or is disturbed by it.

    Someone new to my work recently wrote something on her blog, a comment that was not directed to me, but to my poems I am drawn to her writing. I would say I love it, but that's not quite the right word to describe how I feel about it. It has an electricity. Yes, it is charged.

    That, for me, is success.

  3. But, C. Dale, look at your web page (not blog page). You list not only prizes you have won, but prizes you were "merely" a finalist for...how is that not spending time thinking about prizes? How is that not buying into a certain hierarchy of success? I know you'll be angry that I'm questioning you, but it's kind of hard to buy this breezy nonchalance in the face of that page. And, even as a blogger, it seems to me you are concerned with measures of "success"...as is any blogger who posts that Wow, they've had 20,000 visitors in 3 months or their blog is worth how ever many thousands of dollars...I mean, come on.

    Charlie, you write: "I do consider it a success when I publish a poem that I am truly proud of, that I believe should be out in the world." Hell yeah. That is, I guess, my ideal--my idea of how I would like to be a poet, and how I try to be, or always think I will try to be [grin]. Not to publish or even submit work that I don't truly believe in, not even to "round out" a submission packet (because, I found in my first year of sending out, often the poems I was least proud of in a submission packet were the ones that get taken...and then I felt bad, putting more mediocre poetry out in the world).

  4. "Success" to me is having readers who read and like the work -- which is pretty much what The Other Rebecca said, it's about validation. But even that is only up to a point -- if I was primarily concerned with that, I wouldn't write poems at all cause most people consider that somewhere within the range of weird to "loser." So yeah, when I find a home (and hopefully readers) for a poem, I'm grateful.

    As for the Pushcart nom/happy meal thing -- sure, one can look at it that way. A pushcart nomination will not pay your rent or do your laundry, but its an acknowledgment. I nominate poems from NTM because it's an additional way I can appreciate contributors (since I can't pay $). At NTM the nomination is not a happy meal. We can only nominate 6 poems a year -- and each year we publish roughly 260. That's less than 3%. If you consider the thousands of poems submitted that we don't use . . .

    I think it all boils down to this: enjoy any attention you receive with publications, awards, etc., don't feel guilty or unworthy or worry about all the other people who deserve it too. But never ever write for those things and for God's sake, don't expect them. It will never ever be a just system, accept that its there, participate in it if you must for a career, but don't get caught up or use it as a measure of worth. That's a recipe for bitterness and I know way too many poets who are awfully unhappy because the feel their "genius" hasn't been properly noticed.

  5. I agree with a lot of what's being said here, and I wanted to clarify, Reb, that I don't feel my Pushcart nom felt like a happy meal prize. It made my year to receive that recognition from No Tell because I love that publication, I love the work in it, and I love the poem that was chosen. I meant to add that a Pushcart nom may seem like a happy meal prize...until you get one. :)

  6. I appreciate the perspective you share in the end of your post, expressing essentially that poetry should serve, and not be subservient to, one's artistic work. I only wish I could claim to carry this same mentality with me at all times, for I admit to getting caught up in the comparison game. (How many times have I scanned the contributor's section of a journal to see where I stand, or would stand? Too many.)

    By the way, I am new to your blog, and would love to link to yours on my new site. Mind you?


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  8. Interesting question. I suppose success means to me that a poem of mine will mean something to someone after I die--at least that definition makes clear that I'm never going to know if I'm successful! All the other stuff (publication, awards) is just stuff that maybe slightly increases the chances that someday a poem will get into the hands of someone it will mean something to. It's almost impossible to judge one's own work--although I feel fairly sure that a couple of my weakest poems have been published and a couple of my strongest have met nothing but rejection.

  9. A very interesting blog post, and the comments are all thought provoking. I agree with a lot of what has been said already. I’ll add that it is completely natural as a poet to want an audience for what you do. If you are not just writing for yourself, you want to share your work—have it read or heard, and hopefully it moves at least one person in some way. I think wanting to have an audience is the other side of the coin to being a poet. You write and revise the work. Then you want to share it. Share the fruits of your labors. It is production and distribution. It is very nice when someone at a literary magazine thinks enough of your work to want to publish it. It is validation and encouragement from strangers (unless you have friends in the publishing industry) to keep at an art that is practiced in relative obscurity. I think it is tempting to get caught up in the vanity of an impressive CV, but the focus should always be on writing the best poems possible and then sharing them in some way. You could argue that if you win the Pulitzer that it is just a sign that you have a larger and more appreciative audience then perhaps another poet of possibly equal talent.

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  11. Robert Hass said to me, when I was fretting about my problem getting past the finalist stage in book competitions to actual publication, that he's heard many fellow poets (with impressive CVs) complain that they were passed over for certain awards. So it is possible at all stages of one's "career" to want greater success. He wasn't telling me that to critique my "ambition," but just to point out, I guess, that Life Isn't Fair. I think. Nevertheless, he said it was important that I get my book out there. Get it out there and get it behind me. Because I was a poet and that's what poets do.

    I think my attitude is different from some of you who have not been at this as long as I have. I mean, I overheard a poet (who shall remain nameless) at Bread Loaf say that it was not fair that he didn't win the NPS competition, because he had just turned thirty and he was supposed to win. Supposed to?

    It really is, for me, being part of the conversation, being at the grownups table. Maybe this is validation, but not that my writing is great--I think I can tell when I hit it and when I don't. But because poetry is not tied to monetary success or status it does feel important to me to have the respect (and maybe admiration) of my peers.

  12. Oh, I got that Charles. :)

    To be honest, I think the only valid way to measure one's success as a poet is by how much tail one's poems procure. Everything else is bullshit.

    Love Reb, the most successful poet in the universe!

  13. Reb, does that mean the No Tell PJ party in Austin will be the ultimate barometer of success?

  14. This is more personal, but, I also thought I was successful until I saw myself through my parents' eyes: 27, no steady job, no husand, no house, moving around every year, no writing that people they know read. That changed things. It made me feel sad, but also want to work harder.

    Charlies, you articulate issues that I'm not comfortable bringing up. Which is one of the reasons I like you, kiddo.

  15. Yes, interesting post! I was thinking about how happy I am to get into certain (admittedly, little tiny) journals, because I love the work in them and the work the editors do, more than sometimes big journals where I think the work is okay or scattershot. And so I submit to a lot of tiny journals, more so than big ones. A lot of times they just charm me more, so I love them more. Also, the poems that I love (esp. the ones that have been rejected a thousand times, it seems) getting recognition means a lot. If a poem I'm only okay with gets published, and people write to me about the poem, I'm a little embarrassed - when it's a poem I'm proud of, and people write, well then, that's the best moment, the moment you feel you really are doing the work you're supposed to do.

  16. Oops. I just typed Charlies. I'm so sorry (but I kinda like it).

  17. Wow, I missed a big ol' discussion.

    A few things for clarity's sake: I have yet to be nominated for a Pushcart, and I'd probably be pretty damn happy if I were. However, I wouldn't list it as an "award" on my CV or put it in a cover letter at all--consider that another cutoff point in that "success" hierarchy. If I got into the Pushcart anthology, on the other hand... :-) Anyway, I too nominate people for Pushcarts from The Eleventh Muse for essentially the same reasons Reb mentioned. I just think it's a small nice thing, not a big great thing.

    And I don't disagree at all with taking pleasure in being published. A couple years ago, I submitted in far too foolish and scattershot a manner, so when I got published someplace, there wasn't particularly a feeling of accomplishment--more a feeling of "was that poem really good enough, and was that publication really good enough?" Now that I'm more carefully targeting where I want to be, I do get that feeling of real happiness when I place something, because I know it's going to a good home.

  18. Interesting post, and interesting comments.

    I said recently that what I like about getting published is not so much that an editor liked my work (though it's always nice when someone likes my work!) but that an editor liked my work enough to want other people to read it. A journal is kind of like the editor's chance to run around tugging on people's sleeves saying "Here, read this! And read this! And this!" And that, to me, feels like success -- when someone thinks highly enough of my work to recommend it to someone else.

    I like getting published, I won't deny that. It's fun. I love being in the same journal with a poet I admire now and then. I hope to have a book published someday and to have it nestled on library shelves alongside other books. But getting published is being successful at publication -- it isn't being successful at poetry, necessarily.

    Last summer in Provincetown, at the student reading, I read a poem I had just started writing two days earlier. I could feel my words connecting with the people who were listening. After the reading I walked alone down Pearl Street in the slightly foggy night, and I felt so good, so open, so connected with the world that I spread my arms wide and was a little surprised that I didn't take off and start flying. And then I went back to my room and I wrote some more. That was success. I would bust my butt writing for years if I could have moments like that a half-dozen times in my life. It's not measurable success, and it's not something I can put on my CV. But it's real.

    As for Pushcart nominations, I got my first one this year, and it was nice. It made me smile, and I called my mom to tell her. It felt to me like someone saying out of the blue, "You know that poem I liked a while back? I was thinking about it some more and you know what, I really like that poem." Getting a poem accepted means I asked someone, "do you like this poem?" and they answered, "yes." The nomination was like someone saying it without being asked. And that's always nice, even if it does happen to a lot of other people too.

    Man, I'm long-winded sometimes. Sorry.

  19. I'd like to distinguish success from participation. I think publishing is participation: an opportunity to share, play, offer up your dealio to other people for consideration. Success, for me, is having warm clothes, food in the fridge, and perhaps even a car that runs.

  20. CD, I do feel bad now, and certainly realize that marketing and worrying have been two different things at least since the expiration of the stereotypical 1950s "adman" with an ulcer. I still sit behind what I said, if not stand behind it, though. And gosh, I wish you wouldn't use "retarded" like that, as I wish high school students wouldn't use "gay" similarly. Peace.

  21. Well said Richard! I hope Santa leaves a new car at your doorstop. Or at least one of those new car scent air fresheners.

    And let me state--again--that I have no issue with publication. I like to see my poems in print. I occasionally send my stuff out. I just don't submit to journals edited by friends/bloggers. I'm aware most poets don't agree with me on this point. But I don't frown at those who do publish with friends or bloggers. It's none of my business. A good poem deserves readers.

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  23. success is what you think it is. look at a list of Pulitzer Prize winners. anyone read Leonora Speyer lately? or George Dillon?

  24. George Dillon! His “Elegy for a Carburetor, Open Throttle” is surely one of the most incandescent works of the 20th Century. And Leonora Speyer! Her classic “Suite for Sour Eyes” combines the laser-like in-sight of Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup with the political outrage of Picasso’s Guernica.

  25. One other thing I should mention is that in talking about how common Pushcart noms are (the metaphor I used was a PEZ dispenser), you have to realize that the value of the nomination comes from the qualtiy of the place that publishes the poem, just like the value of having it accepted in the first place. There are lots of really lousy outlets that get to nominate for a Pushcart--I would put the same stock in a cover letter touting a nomination from the Shit Creek Review as I would in the original publication there. Contrariwise, if someplace like No Tell Motel, where you were likely highly pleased to be in the first place, nominates you, it is indeed spiffy.

  26. I take a realistic approach to my poetry. About four years ago, I stopped worrying about whether or not the work was going to get in the "important" journals or nominated for awards. When poetry becomes notches for your bedpost, then it loses all purpose.

    There are plenty of snobs at the academic and non-academic level who are relentless in their pursuit of some type of "fame." Maybe they want a cushy university post or they want to be able to fill a room like Billy Collins. I think the work begins to suffer with the pursuit of "status."

    I know I will never be up for one of those academic jobs, since I didn't even finish my degree, and I the thought of sitting through an MFA (at this point in my life) makes me nauseated. Would I like to be published in Poetry...sure. If I don't, it's not the end of the world. It has nothing to do with the writing or the craft of poetry.

    That said, I am thrilled everytime a journal selects my work. I was elated when I was nominated for a Pushcart last year. I was on top of the world when the small press in Texas that is publishing my second book said yes. Because all those "yeses" means my work is reaching an audience, that people are interested, that the words I write are connecting with others.
    That's better than any award I can think of at the moment.

    Keep your cliques, acadmeic circle jerks and Foetry gossip. I'll just keep writing.

  27. I'll admit it -- I'm excited whenever one of my poems is published and was happy to hear that one of my favorite poems received a Pushcart nominated. But more important to me is this email from a poet friend of mine who had lost her adult son a few years ago to a heroine overdose. I had written a poem for her in her grief and she replied a few days later:

    "If I thought I was without words before, I hope you can image what your poem has done to my capacity for expressing what I feel.

    I am overwhelmed by how accurately your poem, your gift, reflects the images that ebb and flow through my mind and heart depending on the stage of grief I may be trying not to stall in...

    Your every word is a treasured gem, of appropriateness (as if you knew him, as you know me), of your open heart, and is a subtle guide through, and perhaps out of, the narrowness that is admittedly my life. If indeed "there are more rooms than two in the world beyond", there is hope for a portal through which I might wrap my arms around that small bulb of light that was my son."

    To me this is priceless. The poem is yet unpublished and I don't care if it ever gets published. To me, this is the only success I really care about.

  28. I think people who are motivated by external validation pursue or lust after awards. People who are able to validate their personal worth themselves are less award-oriented.

    My understanding of awards for anything is this: it's nice to get them, they make you feel good for a bit, and then you should put them aside and go on to the next thing and not get a big head about it. Also, it's not nice to show off or rub it in. There's a difference between announcing and bragging.

    Awards and pubs are indeed important on a CV; these give bean-counters something to do. They are not the most important things in either poetry or life.

    What matters is how we treat each other, how we feel when we look in the mirror, how bravely we as poets engage with the blank page. The rest is all outside of us--just an illusion that can intoxicate our egos.

    Robin Kemp

  29. I've thought of one way in which publication actually does equal "success" in my book, actually. Because I do believe just about anyone can get published if they work at it hard enough and are sufficiently persistent (maybe they won't get published in Ploughshares or whatever, but somewhere) -- and because I think it takes a certain amount of belief in one's own work to send work out -- getting published is proof that you believed in your own work, at least for as long as it took to print out copies and address the envelope, and that you were persistent. And you know, I think that is success, in a way.