I can't get no
Two of my poems were published this week, which is the first time that’s ever happened. Shortly after announcing their release, I found myself wondering how many poems I’d have to publish before I felt comfortable calling myself a poet. The only thing I’m sure of is that the answer is greater than two.
I’ve had the great fortune to talk with a lot of poets over the past few years, whether on my show or via social media, or just the kind of private dialogue that happens between artist and audience. I think there may be something more implied by the title “poet” than merely “a person who has written poems.” Rather, it is a declaration, a statement of intent. There is implied a certain dedication to the form, such that even though a poet may write novels or essays or practice visual art in some way, some significant piece of the poet is steadfast in their devotion to poetry. I’ve been willing to call myself a writer even though my output can only generously called “modest.” And perhaps I still aspire to become a poet, one day. But I don’t feel I’m there yet.
Still, I’m reminded of a long-standing argument I’ve had with Jeffery Saddoris, going back years since he first mentioned it on On Taking Pictures. Jeffery will call himself a painter or a photographer or a writer, but he refuses to call himself an artist or to refer to his work as art. As he puts it, it’s for the audience to decide whether or not what he makes qualifies as art, not for himself. And this is an idea that I’ve always pushed back against, because there’s a difference between “art” and “good,” and putting “art” and “artist” up on a pedestal like that can really only serve to discourage people from making art. It’s an act of elitism to tell someone else that what they make doesn’t deserve to be called “art.” It’s not less true when you tell yourself that, just more self-loathing.
You know where I’m going with this. I know. I’m working on it. Or, at least, I’m thinking about it.
I have to admit, I’ve been in a crap mood most of this week. It makes me feel like an ingrate, but I want to talk about it all the same. Last night I saw a thread from Delilah S. Dawson, talking about the weird dissociation she experiences when she has a new book launch. The part that made me sit upright was when she said this: “I think those of us who've built their career on rejection and failure know that if we put all our hopes in a book, it's going to break our heart. Most books never hit big like we dream, and if we protect ourselves from the possibility of success, it doesn't hurt so much.”
I think there’s a lot to what Dawson is saying. The most common piece of advice I’ve heard for creative types is to develop a thick skin about rejection. And, mostly, we do. We get so much practice coping with rejection. Some of us (me) come to expect rejection, even cherish our rejections as evidence that we made the attempt. Nobody really talks about how to cope with success. It’s assumed that that will be the easy part.
But it’s not. Not for me, anyway, and not only because I’ve trained myself so well to brace for disappointment. Rather, it’s that creative success, however you define it, is fleeting. It’s not that success is a moving target—though it is—it’s that success at any level isn’t really satisfying. You’d think I’d know this already—after all, my show is named for a Martha Graham quotation in which she declares that there is no satisfaction in being an artist.
As I’m writing this letter, my poems were published three days ago. One of them took me three years of writing and revising to get it right. The other took a mere 13 months. Both were rejected multiple times before finally being accepted. I’ve bookmarked every compliment and retweet those poems have gotten in the last three days, so I know how many times it’s happened: fifteen. And now, three days later, people are mostly on to other things. And rightly so—there’s so much great work out there and more coming every day. Fifteen people spent time with my work and were moved enough to say something. That is a gift. It’s more than most of us get. It’s more than what I’m accustomed to getting. I should be grateful, and I am. But part of me wants to know, now what?
I don’t doubt it would be the same no matter what the response had been, whether it was 15 comments or 15,000. I’ve never won an award for my creative work but if I keep at it I might some day, and I expect that I’d still feel this strange hollowness afterwards. It’s not that I think external validation is the reason to make art. I know that success is fleeting, that any satisfaction that can be had must come from the doing of the thing, not from how it’s received. But people expect you to feel something about success, something other than a strange, aimless, floating feeling. And so you come to expect that, too. Not feeling elation over it makes me feel like there’s something wrong with me. I don’t think that’s true—I think this is more common than we might realize. But we don’t talk about this. At least, people don’t talk about it in front of me.
I think the important thing is just to recognize (again) that life isn’t the big moments, it’s all the ones in between. Even when that high does come, it can’t last. Where you reside is in the everyday, the grind, the routine, the ordinary. I’m thinking about that moment when you come home from a fun trip. There’s always something of a letdown, I think, some sense of disappointment that the thing you’d been looking forward to has now passed. But in the best times there’s also a pleasure in coming home, in returning to the familiar. I’m trying to get back to that place.
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Some other news:
- If you're in the San Diego area, I'm going to be participating in the Last Exit reading on Saturday, July 27, along with Kristen Arnett, Sarah Rose Etter, Lilliam Rivera, and Tommy Pico. (It's a hell of a line-up, and one that I'm quite overwhelmed to be included in.) The event is free, starts at 8 PM, and will be at You Belong Here. Come say hi!
- I released a new episode of Keep the Channel Open last week, a conversation with photographer Ashly Stohl. We talked about her photobooks Charth Vader and The Days & Years, about photographing your family, about the perception of motherhood in art and society, and about the difference between New York and Los Angeles.
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I hope you're well. I haven't said it recently, but I'm glad you're here.