Dogsbody to the Muse
Updated: Sep 5, 2021
My work in the poetry field the last 40 years has been largely behind the scenes — editing, publishing, promoting, organizing, raising money. An impresario. A fixer. A literary hob-knobber and busy-body. Friends of mine whom I came up with are now famous for their poetry: they win “genius” prizes and are interviewed on public television. One poet friend I’ve known since we were teenagers has an elementary school named for her. A couple of others have won Pulitzers. Where’s mine? I wonder.
I feel a surge of resentment that I’ve helped build their careers and gotten nothing in return. Then my son drops by to fix our roof. My daughter calls for financial advice. My wife looks at me with love in her eyes. And I would not change my state with kings.
Lately I often hear the word “kindness” coming from people on the left. No doubt this word has come into vogue because there’s a singular lack of kindness in public dialogue these days. We hear the president denigrate women, racial minorities, immigrants, and people with disabilities on a regular basis. He attacks his opponents in the most unfair ways imaginable. The policies coming from his administration include the jailing of refugee children and the withdrawal of healthcare from people with chronic conditions. So it’s no wonder that we have kindness, the opposite of his attitudes, on our minds. However, I also notice a misuse of the term creeping into our private conversations. For example, a young poet recently thanked me for my kindness in accepting a few of his poems for publication. Another poet thanked me for a kind review of her recent book. In both cases, I should have said, but didn’t, that I support their work not because I’m kind but because the poems are excellent. I hope the readers of Vox Populi don’t think that I publish or praise poems because I want to be kind to the writers. Don’t get me wrong. I believe that kindness is important. It just needs to be balanced against honesty and objectivity.
When I was a young man I admired an older poet. He was my teacher, my mentor, my co-author, my best friend, and my drinking buddy. I loved him more than I loved my own father. But the way we drank nearly killed me, and I had to get sober. We drifted apart. Years later, when I was starting a publishing company, he submitted a manuscript and I published it, even though I knew it was not his best work. Then, a few months after the title was released, I made one of the worst mistakes of my life. I tried to 12-step him, and I did it clumsily, stupidly. I told him, among other things, that he was squandering his talents by drinking. He was enraged, and he never forgave me. He spent the rest of his life trying to destroy my reputation in the poetry field. His turning on me was one of the most painful experiences of my life. Even now many years after his death, old poets who knew him ask what happened between us, and each time I hear his name, I feel an unbearable sadness over the way we hurt each other.
Once — only once — I struck my daughter, a sharp pop on the bottom, when she was about six because she’d disappeared for several hours. When I finally saw her, my fear and relief that she wasn’t lying murdered in a ditch caused my outburst. It turns out she had gone with a group of children to the amusement park, and the adult in charge, a neighbor, thought my wife had given permission — which she hadn’t. For years my daughter referred to the incident as “that time you beat me.” Hey, it happens, and it’s not even the thing that I feel most guilty about concerning my kids — not even close. It’s not possible to be a perfect parent. Or for that matter a perfect teacher, a perfect editor, a perfect friend, a perfect spouse, or a perfect anything. We are all — each one of us — fumbling in the dark, screwing up right and left, doing the best we can to protect and nurture what we love.
I was telling a friend the other day I’m surprised Vox Populi has become so popular (11,000 email subscribers, millions of views this year). It started in 2014 as a website for anti-fracking activists in Western Pennsylvania, and we offered poetry just to keep the website from being too dry and wonky. Well, we lost the battle against fracking, but in the meantime, Vox Populi has published over 4,000 poems, essays, and films, including more than a few which may be works of genius. Consider, for example, the poem Kindness by Naomi Shihab Nye. Or the short lyrical film Daybreak Express by D A Pennebaker. Or the street art of Banksy or Bill Traylor. Or the essays of Paul Christensen or Janna Levin or Rebecca Solnit. And it’s all free: no ads, no fees, no pleas for donations. I pay for everything out of my own pocket. I want to build a place where works of extraordinary imagination are available to everyone — anytime they want.
Some days I prefer publishing dead poets. Not only is it clear which are the ones worth reading – the ruthless hand of history has, for the most part, sorted out the lesser talents – but dead poets as a rule are less snarky than live ones. Poets love to trash-talk editors who reject their work. But to be fair, some editors publish almost exclusively their own friends – which would be fine if their friends were strong poets, but often they are not. Although it’s almost never discussed openly, trading favors with friends is an extremely common practice in the poetry field. Blurbs are traded for magazine publication. Readings are traded for recommendations. Contest judges choose manuscripts written by their own students. And reviews are almost always written by friends. The very real danger is that gifted poets who are too ethical, or perhaps too naïve, to engage in this barter are unjustly ignored while politically savvy poets with marginal talent bring home the bacon.
Of course, the desire to help your friends and avoid your enemies is a perfectly natural impulse. Years ago when I first became aware that magazine editors publish their friends, I complained indignantly to my professor, an old hand at the publishing game, who gruffly responded, “You damn well better publish with your friends because your enemies are certainly not going to publish you.”
Cronyism is endemic to every profession. A plumbing contractors’ convention, I suppose, is full of people slapping each other on the back and guffawing at each other’s jokes, and a knitters’ convention probably has people dividing themselves into cliques based on who is whose BFF. But this kind of behavior, normal in other pursuits, is death to the intense listening and brave honesty that the writing of poetry requires. Plumbers and knitters are not throwing away their tools in order to network in their respective fields, but for poets, schmoozing, flattering, and gossiping are the exact opposite of what the art requires of them. The best poets are often phenomenally incompetent at networking and self-promotion. Emily Dickinson was not much of a schmoozer, and John Clare’s poems were largely forgotten until a hundred years after his death.
Sometimes it’s painful to watch a group of poets trying to work a room as if they were politicians. The AWP conference, as the wag put it, is comprised of 15,000 introverts pretending to be extroverts.
The recent deaths of W.S. Merwin and Mary Oliver compel us to look back at the large body of extraordinary work they left us. One thing that strikes me is that they – along with James Wright, the third great American poet of my lifetime – were unapologetic Romantics. They worshipped nature and believed in love. Their visions of the world were rich, textured, and complex, but in their writing styles they strove for clarity — “the pure clear word” as Wright put it. Here’s a poem I find both beautiful and mysterious:
By W.S. Merwin
All these years behind windows
With blind crosses sweeping the tables
And myself tracking over empty ground
Animals I never saw
I with no voice
Remembering names to invent for them
Will any come back will one
Saying look carefully yes
We will meet again
August 22, 2019: As I write this, the great forests of Amazonia are in flames. Frackers are pumping billions of gallons of toxic waste underground, poisoning lakes and rivers for generations. Yesterday, the president of the United States proclaimed he is “like the King of Israel…the second coming of God” and “The Chosen One.” At this late stage of decline, historians, philosophers and scientists cannot save us. Only poets have the power to stir hearts to action. Brothers and Sisters of the Word, there’s much work to be done. Let us put our queer shoulders to the wheel.