In college, I took the advanced poetry class (after the beginning and the intermediary) and on the first day the professor asked, “Who here is a poet?” Two or three hands went up. I didn’t raise mine.
In booming outrage, the professor asked me and the other non-hand-raisers, “How can you come in to my class to write poetry and NOT be a poet?”
Me, I thought, “I don’t get regularly paid to do it, asshole, so it would be wrong to claim it.” But I didn’t say anything. He was a scary poetry professor.
To this day I believe the definition of a gentlewoman is one who writes poetry, but is kind enough not to mention it.
So… sorry about this blog post.
I write poetry. I wrote poems before fiction, and I started writing stupid stories in grade school. Before that, I was writing “The Cat Sat / On a Mat / How about That?” in block letters instead of the assignment to write “Cat” over and over. I can still picture those newsprint pages with the dashed lines for half-height letters and my teacher’s long-suffering sigh that the poem was nice and all, but I needed to concentrate on making my lines straight.
In high school, I had this idea to foist a poem on every member of my graduating class as a graduation present. Sorry, random colleagues. I’m sure my pasted-on-construction-paper couplets about your hairdos went deservedly into the trash.
Admitting I write poetry feels like telling strangers I masturbate. It doesn’t matter that everyone does it, you don’t talk about it because it makes the other person intensely uncomfortable.
“Poetry” calls to mind “bad poetry” to most people and the recalled misery of being trapped listening to a treacly hour of couplets penned by the Best Man at a wedding.
Poetry is also, perhaps, the most pretentious of art forms. Or maybe just the most-likely-to-be-called-pretentious. The most pretense-esque? I dunno. There’s something in how subjective poetry can be and how non-commercial – a perfect storm of opinion and ego.
Regardless, I keep doing it, and foisting it on others. My first publication success was in poetry. I sold a poem while still in high school. I published a few pieces in college, including what I thought was flash fiction being printed as a prose poem.
“People say poetry is harder to break into,” I’d breezily say, “but I have had no trouble at all! It’s effortless. I wish I could publish real writing as easily.”
Yeah, what a snot I was. I didn’t even see the true reason for my imagined success was simply that I wasn’t trying that hard. My ego was completely insulated from the trauma of rejection. Let me explain how:
Trying to break in to short fiction meant sending stories out as I wrote them, over and over. I kept spreadsheets and printed innumerable cover letters and assembled self-addressed-stamped-envelopes. (This was back in the day day!)
I didn’t do that with poetry. Oh sure, I produced poems while I was producing my stories, but I didn’t seek out publication venues for them. I let them build up on my hard drive, occasionally airing them for revision when I thought of something to add or take away. Then, if, while searching for the fifteenth place to send my Spies on the Moon short story, I saw an editor post about how all he really wanted was for someone to send him a poem about email, bam! I had a poem about email and I sent it.
That’s no way to build a poetry career. It’s the way to sell maybe a poem a year. I was all right with that so long as poetry was my dirty little secret. Little time invested, lots of time stroking my publication credits to convince myself I was legitimate.
When I started selling fiction and made this website (in 2014) I decided to include my poetry. I’d sold a lot more poems than stories then – I think I had like three fiction sales? I owned up to my poetry because it made me look “more published.”
Then I sold more stories. And I started to notice how the poetry numbers weren’t, well, growing. I made a resolution to get more serious about poetry. To try to sell more of it, to write more science fiction poetry in particular. I joined SFPA and started tracking poetry submissions in a spreadsheet. I expected this to be easy. I’d buff my stats, right? I was soooo old hat at poetry.
I don’t need to tell you where this is going.
Yeah. Not so easy after all, when you’re actually trying. The tidal wave of form rejections was glorious and well-deserved.
I started reading more poetry. I started revising everything.
I lucked into joining The Submission Grinder’s beta release of poetry market tracking last year. Since then I’ve tracked 112 poetry submissions on 32 pieces with 4 acceptances.
So yeah, I guess I’m a poet. I guess I’m admitting it. I guess the cat was probably out of the bag four years ago, but still. It feels good to own up to it and stop being so dramatic. It’s only poetry, for Gort’s sake.by