Friday, June 04, 2004

I received this email the other day & it caught my attention because the question it asks is a good one & the answer I might immediately think to give — “form a community with your peers” — is one that has already been received & found wanting. I’ve made a few edits to render the letter functionally anonymous at the request of the writer.


I don't know if you respond to personal emails or not (& I have no idea how much email you might get on a given day)* but having looked at your blog relatively regularly for over a year I wanted first to say thanks (it — your blog — turned out to be a lot more educational than grad school turned out to be) and then ask a Jeff Clark-related question, which amounts more or less to the same old thing: what's a young writer to do? I mean this in the most naive and literal sense.


I tried grad school, where I was encouraged to write fiction & where I had the opportunity to have awkward, brief meetings with publishers both large and small. Editors, at least the ones I met, don't seem all that interested in reading and/or writing. Nor did my writing professors at the up-and-coming (they think) grad school I attended for a year. Nor did most of the students, either. (This wasn't the case at all in the other half of my studies, which are in the visual arts, so it seems writing-specific.)


But all of that money, time and awkwardness has amounted to scratch. The best (i.e. only) advice the teachers there could give me, in terms of advice, was to "form a community with your peers" but I'm not the community-forming type, especially when my "peers" are all straight and young and in an entirely other tax bracket.


The older I get (and I just turned 27) the more I think that the Emily Dickinson model is the way to go. Publishing seems like a function of knowing the right people — which, then, why bother?


Not to be (too) cynical but to sum this up (and I'm operating on the assumption, here, that my writing is "publishable" in the first place), any general thoughts on the subject?


Sorry for the long and rant-laden query, but judging from your blog it seems like you're in a position to have an opinion on this. Any thoughts?




I’ve written in the past that one of the primary distinctions between fiction and poetry lies exactly in the relationship these historic — and social — genres have to the question of community. From my perspective, if publishing isn’t part of the process of community forming, then what is it? And what is publishing?


It is not an accident — not even close — that the rise of the novel & that of  the trade publisher as a particular niche capitalist enterprise occur in tandem. The poet’s audience is, for the most part, a community. But, with very few exceptions, the novelist’s audience is a market. And while I may joke from time to time about the ways in which market dynamics enter into the poetry scene — the brand equity in a name, for example — I do believe that the differences between these two realms are huge. That is why, I think, we have seen the rise in my lifetime of something that could be called the poet’s novelist — stretching from Jack Kerouac in the 1950s to Pamela Lu & Dodie Bellamy today.


The concept of the poet — or novelist — writing without any interest in community is of itself not necessarily foolish. That critical — hypercritical, most often — audience of one is a legitimate target for a person’s writing. Poetry has been used as a tool for thinking by many over time, and there are ways in which those of us who do publish promiscuously may even envy the individual whose concentration goes entirely into the notebook, never again to emerge. That is a kind of focus whose value should not be underestimated.


Yet we should notice that even those poets we think of as isolative — Dickinson in her century, possibly Niedecker in hers — reached out. It is only because Emily D shared her writings that we have come to know them at all. What nobody knows is just how much else poetry of interest &/or value — to us, that is, as readers — remains to be discovered. & how much has been irretrievably lost.


But if publication is the fundamental literary act of community formation, the question of which community & how it is to be defined opens up another range of consideration. I hear this writer noting his sense of alienation along lines of sexual orientation, age & class — although to my 57-year-old ears, it is hard to imagine someone 30 years my junior characterizing his “peers” as being — in a negative sense — “young.” What this reminds me of even more pointedly is the steady trickle of emails I get from genuinely young writers (for this argument, anybody born after 1964) who live anywhere other than in a big city, especially if it is some distance from either coast. Try, if you will, being the language poet of Rock Springs, Wyoming, or the lesbian poet of Crawford, Texas. There is lonely & then there is lonely. Yet the internet strikes me as a unique resource of our time, not because it lets you do flash animation on your vizpo, but because poets in Norway, Turkey & Singapore need not be that terribly far from one another. If you can’t reach out within your geographic community, you don’t need to let geography constrict you.


What I don’t hear in this letter — and it may just be because the writer wasn’t focusing on it at the moment, tho it’s an absence I note a lot when I hear the “where can I publish?” question — what I don’t hear here is a sense that this writer is a reader also. Literally, I don’t sense any enthusiasm for an already existing community of poets or novelists or quick fiction crawdaddies whom the writer is aching to have read the work. What I tell poets – I don’t usually get the question from fictioneers – is to ask the question “Where do the poets you most admire publish?” Rather than scattershot your work among the literally hundreds of hardcopy & online publications, it makes far greater sense to focus on two or three mags whose table of contents most excites you. After all, the writers who appear in a publication are, at the very least, the best proxy for its readership one might find. Better to submit – even to be rejected – ten times from a great publication than to disappear among the contributors to ten indiscriminate journals whose audiences never overlap one another.

So my response to the query, “What’s a young writer to do?” comes down to this: read more, read better, read with a passionate intensity & focus your energies there.







* On any given day, the answer is several hundred email messages, not including spam & listserv discussions.