Guest Post: A Life in Poetry Ain’t for Sissies by Peter Serchuk

Now into my sixth decade of life and my fourth decade as a serious writer of poems, I can say without hesitation that my life in poetry remains the most exhilarating, depressing, titillating, frustrating, constructive, destructive, enlightening, and numbing experience anyone could ever hope to avoid. While saying so may seem flip or even comical, the underlying truth couldn’t be more serious. Once the young writer comes to understanding the hard truth of Oscar Wilde’s observation that “all bad poetry springs from genuine feelings,” the task of finding language and a voice that resonates both internally and externally is a laborious, disheartening struggle—especially if one has the good sense to compare his work to the very best poems he’s read and not merely to what appears to be the current fashion in journals. While the younger poet may find virtually every poem he or she writes to be a “keeper,” the longer one writes the smaller the ratio between a keeper and a nice try. As Mark Twain famously said, the difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.

To put it simply, the writing of good poems is hard rowing; a time-consuming, soul-swallowing task whose joys are fleeting and whose frustrations and disappointments are many. One must learn to accept if not fall in love with the process itself—the daily discipline of facing the page regardless of inspiration or lack thereof, the continuous wrestling match with language, the pot-holed roads of ideas and their detours, and the almost always uncertain destination. In short, it’s a recipe for failure guaranteed to leave a sour and often bitter taste. For even when the writer somehow manages to get one poem to a place that satisfies, there’s always the next poem and the poem after that which will very likely lead you to a dark street in Hong Kong when you were hoping to arrive in Times Square. Consider the masters themselves. After a lifetime of writing, what survives the scrutiny of time is usually no more than a handful of genuine keepers. Should you seriously devote yourself to a lifetime of writing poems, you must do so with the understanding that the vast majority of what you’ll write will be highly forgettable, even by your own generous standards. And that’s the good news.

The bad news? That’s the business of poetry, which in the case of poetry is not really a business, as it has virtually no commercial value. No, the business of poetry is finding an audience for your work, finding editors and publishers who will respond and embrace your best efforts. Having published in many of the best-known journals over a long period of time, I can assure you that there’s very little guidance to be offered in terms of what’s likely to appear or not appear in those pages. Occasionally, you’ll find a great poem. Sometimes you’ll find a good poem or two. Most of the time, you’ll find mediocre poems and journeyman poems. Even worse, you’ll find poems whose only reason for being present anywhere is either their political or social message or the constituency they represent.

Editors will tell you to read past issues for guidance, but more often than not, you’ll likely come away knowing more about their inconsistent standards than some well-defined ars poetica. And that’s assuming your work even gets to the editor and isn’t weeded out by some well-meaning and passionate graduate assistant or intern. If the editor happens to be a poet as well, you may have a leg up. You can read his or her work if it’s been published. But then, there’s yet another quandary. If you find the poetry lacking and the editor loves your work, how is that going to make you feel?

But let’s move ahead. Let’s imagine you’ve persevered, you’ve worked diligently, read extensively. You’ve even written some pretty decent poems. You’ve attended several well-known writing conferences and have received some extremely valuable input not to mention making some very good connections. You’re on a roll. A growing number of journals have published your work, although none has a circulation over five hundred. But who cares? You’ve spent long nights and countless months crafting those poems into what now appears to be a complete collection. A collection ready dazzle publishers near and far.

Which brings us back to the understanding that poetry has no commercial value (unless it’s written by Billy Collins or Mary Oliver, the latter of which, her Pulitzer Prize aside, must now be scoffed at by the literary community largely because of her success). And because publishing poetry is not a moneymaking venture, commercial publishers will have zero interest in your work (unless, perhaps, Billy Collins or Mary Oliver submits the book for you—but damn, you weren’t thinking about that when you met them at the writing conference). Which leaves you three or four other choices. You can submit to small, independent presses that publish a couple of titles each year. They each receive hundreds of manuscripts during their open reading periods. You can enter the dozens upon dozens of poetry book competitions listed in Poets & Writers as long as you can afford the $25 (or more) entry fee and recognize you’ll be one of up to a thousand entries. Or finally, you can self-publish your book with a vanity press or with one of the on-demand publishers so long as you can give them the names of a hundred people likely to be guilted into buying your book for $18 or more. I bet you can’t wait to start writing those cover letters and uploading your manuscript.

If you think for a moment that I’m being some kind of smug, arrogant, above-it-all smartass, please let me set the record straight. Mine is the broken heart made of steel that a life in poetry demands. I’ve published nearly two hundred poems in journals and have received rejection slips more than ten times that number. I’ve been lucky enough to publish two collections (a third still searching for a publisher somewhere) and have seen my work included in more than a half-dozen anthologies. And do you know where that leaves me? Nowhere. Absolutely nowhere. Or more specifically, nowhere but at my desk, fighting the same fights I fought 40 years ago, trying to conjure language into something that feels genuine and resonant, chastising myself for my lack of talent, commitment, inspiration, or whatever else would enable me to up my ratio of keepers. All the while knowing that despite whatever skill I might possess or whatever my previous success, the poems I submit to journals have no better chance than yours. And that I will throw out most of the journals I subscribe to because I can’t stand the writing. And that my contest entries may well be discarded in the early rounds by someone who was playing video games in the Student Union not so long ago. And that the poets I go back to time and again for inspiration (Williams, Frost, Dickinson, Roethke, Stafford, Hugo, Wright, Sarton, Swenson, Clifton, etc.) are mostly out of fashion etc. which in its own way dims the light on my future prospects.

Well, so be it. That’s what I signed up a long time ago. And I’ve written a few keepers along the way and hopefully there’ll be a few more to come if I’m lucky. Because for most of us, that’s what a life in poetry is all about. No money, no glory, no predictable success, no Chair at Princeton, no Presidential Medal of anything. In the end, it’s just the poems and the time and sweat it takes to write one that’s worthy of the paper it’s written on. And if that’s not enough, and it really never is, better to get out while you still can.

And leave it to the rest of us sissies to carry on.

 

Peter SerchukPeter Serchuk’s poems have appeared in a variety of journals including BoulevardPoetryAmerican Poetry ReviewHudson ReviewDenver QuarterlyNorth American ReviewTexas ReviewTampa ReviewNimrod, Poet Lore, and other places. His work has also been featured on Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac, as well as in more than a half-dozen anthologies. His poetry collections include, Waiting for Poppa at the Smithtown Diner (University of Illinois Press), All That Remains (WordTech Editions), and Learning the Language (currently in search of a publisher). He lives in Los Angeles, where he occasionally runs a poetry workshop through the UCLA Writer’s Extension.  More at peterserchuk.com

Peter’s poetry is printed in Black Fox‘s Issue 12.

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