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THE 6.5 PRACTICES OF MODERATELY SUCCESSFUL POETS
A Self-Help Memoir
By JEFFREY SKINNER
Copyright © 2012 Jeffrey Skinner
All right reserved.
Chapter One Protects Talent
What Is Talent? The Part That Learns Without Effort Rigor, Precision Unfairness Necessary Selfishness Life and Work The Background Check
Talent is insignificant. I know a lot of talented ruins. Beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck, but most of all, endurance. —James Baldwin
What Is Talent?
One of my academic colleagues once announced to me that he "believed in talent," as if it required a reluctant species of faith in things unseen, and he was feeling generous. I was surprised, since I'd been teaching poetry for a number of years and thought that poetic talent was more or less self-evident. Out of a beginning workshop of twenty, after the first or second exercise, I would generally find at least one student handing in pieces that had a freshness and ease with language, a startling honesty, an offbeat beauty, that were to me the hallmarks of talent. Perhaps at first these elements would be present only in a line here and there, or an image, a scrap of vernacular speech. Or they would be buried in the usual gummy mass of cliché and conventional tropes of "poetry" that had hardened in the public mind.
Nevertheless, traces of the real were unmistakable. I'd be plowing through student work from Intro to Creative Writing, a generally cheerless task, when an unexpected line would suddenly make me laugh out loud, or cause a dry catch in the back of my throat or the hair to rise on the back of my neck.
These involuntary responses were the giveaway: I'd stumbled across poetry ... the student had bumped into poetry. Maybe the student had done so by design, more likely by accident. Whatever. It was a rare and celebratory occasion.
But, if I kept on finding such moments in any student's work, I would call it talent. And I would not hesitate to call that student gifted.
The Part That Learns Without Effort
I hadn't taught the students to do such things—they came to class bearing the capacity. Part of my job, I considered, was to point out such lines, such moments, to say, here, look at this, isn't this interesting? To get them to feel the peculiar energy in a line of poetry they had written, how familiar and how oddly alien at once, how detached from the ordinary "self."
Try to follow the strange aptness of what you've said, I'd say. Pick up that line like a string and follow it back to the source, the big ball of string, wherever that is.
Bring me back more of the same.
I love how students come to me with those dilated, belladonna eyes after discovering poetry, the astonishment and excited hope that poetry has opened. I know exactly how they feel, and I confirm their excitement with the reflection of my own. I give them the names and books of other poets I know will feed that fire. I assure them that no moment spent reading poetry is wasted. I tell them their parents won't help in this business and will probably become anxious if they try to enlist their interest. I implicitly offer myself as in loco parentis, a kind of wacky, renegade, but still trustworthy dad. You can give me your wildness, your poetry, I say. I'll take it seriously, I'll dig it. I won't say, That's nice dear, now get back to work.
I don't tell them anything I don't believe.
I do all this within the institutional structure and, even though I encourage students to trust the reality of the post-adolescent storm of strong feeling, as well as their awakening to what language has hidden from them all these years, I am no guru and will not set up as one. I don't want followers—too messy, too dangerous, too ... silly. Besides, I looked into the purchase of one of them giant egos, years ago. It's way more than I want to spend.
Students, I say, we have to live in the world as it is, with all its drudgery and material necessity. Don't sneer at the world outside poetry. That's where most people, including most of the kindhearted ones, live.
Then I detail the costs and risks of the artistic life, the unpredictability, the real fear of failure, the selfishness and bulletproof ego absolutely necessary for the job. I tell them to do any other thing with their lives if they can.
And, after knowing the costs, if they still insist on giving themselves to poetry—Go! I say.
Providence has a soft spot for poets and drunks. I know this as fact, from personal experience. And I will go with them a little way on their journey. Partly because it's my job. But also because their enthusiasm restores me and keeps at bay, for a time at least, that old Wordsworthian sadness—that place where poets end.
Students are after all just beginning, in gladness.
But I do not forget that rigor and precision are part of the real world of the arts, as much as science or business or any other human sphere. I owe it especially to my gifted students not to coddle, or to pretend that talent will be all. I want to temper their awakening to the word, to sharpen and focus their beautiful enthusiasm.
In general I'd encourage what remained after I'd taught them to pound the crap out of their little clay balls of language. I was not mother or father, I was not their friend. I was some kind of freak who had read thousands of poems, tens of thousands of lines of poetry and, having written a somewhat lesser amount myself, come back to tell them, having gone through many years of being harsh with myself.
I could do students the favor of lifting to consciousness the varied sources of clichés and received bits of language and thought. I could help in unmasking the censor that barred access to the place where observation, feeling, and language are one. I could tell them how intimate I was with my own failures, past and continuing.
I could show them, through study of published poems, how essential precision in language is to opening their inner states to others. Tool and die makers are accustomed to working with exceedingly low tolerances, and if we're talking about something like airplane parts, for example, the quality of their making has a direct impact on human safety. Okay, your poem probably won't kill anyone. But language can be as hard as metal, and words do have consequences. You want to be as insistent on fit and finish in your poems as the tool maker we unknowingly trust, stepping on the plane.
How you say goes a long way in determining how the reader receives. You want to communicate with other humans, I say, or you wouldn't write poems. Always then there is one who insists: But I'm writing for myself, really.... Oh yeah? Dear Reader, Dear Poet, if you're writing for yourself your audience will always be too lenient, too quick to reply, Yes, yes, I know exactly what you mean! even if your words on paper do not say anything near what you mean.
These things I can do. I can try and do. My own way, my style, is brio with a bit of absurdist humor, respect for each student's dignity, and zero patience for the 99% crap we spew (myself included) when we claim to be writing poetry. Talent can take it. If it can't, there's always law, or real estate, or politics. The sweet meat of poetry needs a good dab of wasabi—yes! I want to burn my students' tongues, in a flavorful, humorous way, before the world does it with boiling water.
My blunt honesty is nothing compared to what even my most gifted students would encounter when they left school. There is no less democratic or compassionate field than that of "professional art," whether the art is visual, performance, or writing. Cuts in the applicant pool (any of the applicant pools) are made for the most part quickly and with surgical detachment. Explanations are not offered. Next please.
A moderately successful life in the arts requires blazing, unmistakable talent, or a mix of some degree of talent and the qualities James Baldwin enumerates. Also, as Baldwin says and Charles Bukowski so eloquently agrees, luck counts.
So it is a meritocracy, with waivers.
It is an irony, of course, that most artists, when you make the mistake of asking them about civic matters, will almost invariably proclaim the virtues of tolerance, inclusivity, cooperation, and working for the common good. These same qualities vanish when artists, writers, performers are chosen for parts, or shows, or book publication, or record deals, etc. But maybe even Simon Cowell talks this way when he is not considering investing his own money or reputation in a new singer or group.
The gatekeepers of the arts are all Simon Cowells.
I have worked in business and in the academy, and in those domains (and, I suspect, also in law and medicine) there is always a place for mediocrity, sometimes a warm and cozy place. But in the arts you have to be really good just to be invited in from the cold. And then you better keep on being really good, or your ass will be summarily kicked back into February.
I'm speaking generally. It's not a pure meritocracy. There is no pure anything, and art is more subjective, and therefore more definitionally impure, than almost any other field.
Everyone has his list of untalented posers who have published x number of useless books. Pandering works, if you're good at it. Poets who are "popular" (within the tiny arena of poetry) and sell a comparatively large number of books may or may not be artistically respectable. Sometimes book sales are due to the accessibility of the poetry itself, and a larger, Garrison Keillorian "nonprofessional" audience bumps sales figures. Sometimes the opposite: the book is aggressively obscure, or trendy in some other way, and book sales rise because young poets hunger for the cutting edge.
And it must also be said that there exists today a hierarchy of "kinds of artists" who are deemed automatically interesting (or not) because of something about them, some biographical detail, or trauma, or scrap of historical legacy fate has handed them—their "identity"—which has little to do with the art. It's tiresome, but also part of life as it is.
I know that saying this will raise objections, accusations. I will not engage the whole, huge argument. Besides, global language is for global politics, not poetry. I will say that it once seemed possible to talk about poetry as poetry. What do I mean by this? Dear Reader, thanks for the question.
A few decades ago (Lord have mercy) when I read every new issue of Poetry magazine because it was interesting, I remember a review of the last book by one of my favorite poets, John Berryman. The reviewer remarked on a tone, new in Berryman, that colored the book. It was ominously dark and, for the reviewer, prefigured Berryman's suicide. But the review went on to say the tone did not, overall, detract from the quality of the poems. He went on to quote one short poem in its entirety, and the next sentence of his review was, "The poetry is superb."
We would be hard-pressed to find such a simple, declarative sentence in a poetry journal today.
Sometimes it seems that all of postmodern art has been (is) various embodiments of the shadow argument about what art is, and who gets to say what art is. This has been largesse for the cultural critic and the academic. For the intelligent, nonprofessional reader of poetry this argument, while it has its charms, is of limited interest. For the contemporary poet it has resulted in a radical opening of the possibilities for what poetry might include, as well as an explosive undoing of the word "meaning." This is exciting, sure. But it also has had the effect of flattening the landscape of poetry, so that there are no longer any mountains or valleys, and the best terrain means only that place some individual or group prefers to live.
There is no authoritative person or thing to appeal to. No one here can be better than any other there.
Cultivate necessary selfishness. The world—even the literary world—will ask you to do everything except write a new poem. That, you must ask of yourself. —Jane Hirshfield
Because there are always far more important things to do than write a poem (do taxes, cook dinner, call Mom), I have to induce in myself the illusion of temporary freedom from those things. —Chase Twichell
But I have said no to committees, opportunities, parties, dinners, friends, etc., in order to say Yes to poems. I do not regret the choices, though sometimes I regret the poems! —David Baker
Because I am so easily distracted by the matters of domestic life—and will put anyone or anything ahead of my writing—I need to go away from home, where I can be completely alone. —Cleopatra Mathis
Selfishness has helped a lot over the years. That is, if you have a spouse and a family, the claiming of time and space to work. Of course, as we the selfish know, there's a cost for selfishness, but that's another matter, perhaps the stuff of memoir. —Stephen Dunn
Dear Reader: Enough said?
Life and Work
After I'd begun to publish my poems some and finally had a few friends who were also poets I stayed with one such friend overnight while en route to an artists' colony. I can't tell you his name but his initials were Michael Waters. It was summer and Michael taught college and so I asked him what he'd been up to in June, the previous month. He said he and his wife had traveled to Thailand and found a beautiful beach where you could stay dirt cheap but live like royalty. They rented a thatched cottage on the beach the whole month for an embarrassingly small amount of money, and enjoyed the ocean and the weather and the sweet Thai people. And, Michael added, he had actually managed to do some work.
Why? I asked. What kind of work? He looked at me suspiciously then as if to discern whether or not I was fucking with him. It must have been obvious from my expression that I was not—that I was serious, because he answered, I was writing poems, you idiot. I was working on poems.
Writing poems was work? Hmmmmm....
If you grew up working-class, as I did, around other working-class people, your attitude toward work was that it was something one did for money, to pay the bills. It was necessary and honorable, work, and one's self-respect depended on it. I was raised by parents who had lived through the Depression, after all. To have a job of any kind was a very good thing. Every job came with its own built-in dignity.
But work and money had a direct relationship: you did one and then got the other. There was no requirement that your work be especially "meaningful," to you or to anyone else. Of course, if you were working on a road crew spreading asphalt then when you finished the job there was that new road you had helped to make; and roads were meaningful.
But this is a kind of archaic meaning of the word meaning. The meaning of meaning has shifted, particularly as used by the educated classes. The idea, for example, that back in the day one of us kids might hold out for a summer job that contributed to social justice, or the environment, or for an internship that would be relevant to one's later career, was unheard of. Literally. That was for another era—coming soon but still at that moment invisible. If we had even been able to put such an idea into words (Cutting lawns is swell, Dad, but I really want to see what I can contribute to social justice) it would have been dismissed out of hand as gobbledygook. If we had then been so crazy as to persist, our parents would have stopped what they were doing and studied us with sharp eyes. Then they would have labeled such nonsense as a fancy excuse, and ordered us to get up off our asses and find some lawns to cut, or shopping carts to fetch from the local A & P parking lot.
Or, to ask Uncle Gene if we could join him for the summer in his roofing business, and of course thank him profusely on the off chance he said yes. Yeah, yeah—that's a good idea. Go on over and see your Uncle Gene, this weekend. And don't let me hear from him if you do get the job that your roofing is anything less than excellent. You will not embarrass this family. You will make us proud. And I know you don't like Aunt Alice, because—you say—she has a "funny smell." Tough luck. You just better be the soul of politeness and act the gentleman whenever you're over by her. Are you listening to me?
So from the time I was around fifteen I did a string of different jobs, including fetching carts at the A & P and helping Uncle Gene roof houses for a summer. I drew the line at mowing lawns; doing our own lawn was misery enough. I was able to maintain this low standard because there was always an even crappier job available if I wanted it.
Excerpted from THE 6.5 PRACTICES OF MODERATELY SUCCESSFUL POETS by JEFFREY SKINNER Copyright © 2012 by Jeffrey Skinner. Excerpted by permission of SARABANDE BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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