Poets: How famous do you need to be?

I’m not an “emerging” or “young” poet anymore–I’ve got two books out and I’m over 30 (but not by that much, so!). I publish pretty regularly, but never in Poetry or The New Yorker. I only adjunct online, not full-time on-campus for a big university, and I don’t live in a major literary city. I’d say I’m a moderately successful poet, at best.

 

A question I’ve asked myself in the past few years, as my desire to be More of a Poet consistently clashed with my desire for a family (and to do family a certain way). I know I’m not the first one to say it, but you really can’t have it all, not if you want to do it well.

So I had to face up to it: how famous do I need to be as a poet? Because that is the real struggle–having a four kids in six years and Homeschooling them certainly cuts into my time to write, but I still wrote two books in that time (and I’m working on two more), so it isn’t like I’m not writing.

No, what it cuts back on is the “po-biz”–all that stuff that helps you get a little bit ahead as a poet. I knew it was hurting my chances of being a big deal when I quit my tenure-track professor job to stay home with my kids, had less time / ability/ money to travel for readings or do readings at all, less time to work for literary magazines, to review other poets, basically to be a literary citizen at all. I love literary citizens, I would love to do more of that, and sometimes I try it out but quickly find that it doesn’t work with my season in life. There are too many obligations tugging on my shirt asking for a sippy cup of juice. When it comes down to am I going to write another poem or review a book, I’m going to write the poem, every time. And sometimes just read the book.

Anyway, I’m not saying that I’m even good enough to be a big deal, but I think as a writer it is important to know what your goals are. Do you NEED to be the next Mary Oliver? Then goodness you need to get AT IT with social media, contest winning, all the things! Are you cool with being a professor and having a handful of solid publications a year? Then you don’t have to worry about gathering up that global audience so much. Are you a work from home online adjunct professor with four kids who homeschools? Then your goal might just be survival.

Ultimately, I decided that as much as I would love to be a literary magazine editor, poet laureate, and/or tenured professor, my gotta-have-it level of fame is that I would like Some people to have Read my Poems. Not everyone–I’m not shooting for “household name” level of fame (no, impossible for poets– “creative writing student can remember your name” level of fame?), just some people to really have read my poems and maybe liked them.

So knowing that goal is important–it lets me know it is ok for me to quit all the side hustling things that are great but that aren’t important to my ultimate goal of Some People Reading My Poems–for me this means pretty much anything that isn’t just reading poems, writing poems, and occasionally on social media linking to poems I’ve written and poems I’ve liked that others have written. So literary magazine involvement to a minimum, social media at a minimum, readings at a once-a-year.

And it, probably most importantly, lets me know what to do with my current work! I don’t need to be Mary Oliver, so a big contest isn’t really worth my money–I need to buy diapers, y’all, I’m not wasting my hard-earned diaper money on contest fees! (contest fees, which weed out poets who don’t have the funds to be famous? maybe that’s another blogpost…)

And I want a press that will do the side-hustly social media junk mostly for me? I know that presses don’t really completely do that ever anymore especially for poetry books, but if I’m going to choose making art over selling art, I need a press that will do a lot of the Getting the Book Into Readers Hands for me. That is the number one thing I am looking for in a press right now.

so that is about how famous I want to be. What about you?

3 Comments

  1. This is such a clarifying way to look at it. Poets are no different that anyone else in our society (much as we might hope they’d be more imaginative): constantly made to feel inadequate, striving to fill the emptiness with a fleeting sense of accomplishment. The po biz gatekeepers are huge beneficiaries of this, because it perpetuates a culture of scarcity in an age of publishing abundance…

    Liked by 2 people

  2. It sounds like you have a healthy sense of your calling for this season in your life, as you describe your professional and familial roles. You’re still a very young woman, by my reckoning, and because of your experiences you will have more of life to draw on for your art.

    Like

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