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
Inclusion in anthologies
Publication in top-tier journals & magazines
Residencies at colonies
First book publication
National fellowship 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.