Wednesday, January 26, 2011

In Which the Author Takes Presumptuous Umbrage with Galway Kinnell

Just when I resolve to be comfortable calling myself a poet, along comes the estimable Galway Kinnell with this little bit of rebuke in American Poetry Review:

A poet should not call himself a "poet." Being a poet is so marvelous an accomplishment that it would be boasting to say it of oneself. I thought this well before I read that Robert Frost took the same view.

At the risk of impudence, I think Mr. K. is completely wrong.

Being a "poet" just means you've written a poem, know it's a poem, and know what you did to write it. Being an accomplished poet is a different thing entirely, but to be aware enough to know what goes into creating poems and then skilled enough to create those poems is not something we should be reluctant to name in ourselves.

Look at it this way: I'm an engineer. I don't need anyone to tell me that I have the credentials for that title. I have the knowledge requirements (through education). I have the behavioral tendencies (a relentless quest to fill my head with details on how things work*). And I have the tangible output, among which is an issued patent, publication in conference proceedings, products launched, etc., all of which are work products deemed acceptable by technologists other than me. I am an engineer.

Am I a good engineer? Well, 20+ years of continuous employment in the field suggest that I probably am, and when I look over my career portfolio, I admit that I think I'm pretty good. In the end, of course, the quantitation** of that goodness something others will do. It's for my boss and his peers to evaluate at my job. It's for my peers to consider when they choose to come to me (or not come to me) for counsel. It's for young professionals to ponder when they decide if mine is a career path they would emulate. But I'm an engineer. This is not debatable.

Likewise, I'm a poet. I have sufficient knowledge in the art to define it and to distinguish it from "greeting card verse". I have the behaviors that cause me to mull over word choice like Snoopy on a dark and stormy night and to find the occasional line so compelling in my ear that I repeat it until my tongue aches. I have the tangible output in journals managed by poets whose talents are not debated.

Am I a good poet? Well, I have some ground cleared for a career there - albeit a smaller foundation than the one I've built in engineering. And I would argue that just I am aware of at least some level of proficiency in my engineering, I am aware of some level of proficiency in my poetry. I recognize elegance in analysis and I recognize the witness markings of poetic craft. Yes, I believe I'm a good poet; if I didn't, I'd not be here. But irrespective of my opinion of myself, I am a poet.

This is not debatable.

* - for example, I probably know more about the design of beverage bottle closures than all but the people who work with them daily. I certainly know more about them than most people care to know. Not because I work in the field, but because I think it's neat to know.

** - Yes, it's a word.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

In Which The Author Does Not Blame Weather, Jury Duty, Or Illness

... but oy, what a month.


I keep a card with me most of the time with "my numbers" on it. These are mathematical reminders of my personal goals - weight, hours spent with my kids, etc. One of those numbers is 2; this is the number of journal submissions I want to have pending at any time. I've failed to meet that at any time in 2010. I'll attribute that to a single-minded focus on publishing my chapbook, but that's (of course) not the whole story. The big reason is that I permitted myself to be overwhelmed. I'm targeting a particular caliber of magazine, I decided a couple years ago to aim outside my own backyard (read: not to bombard editors with whom I have a relationship), and my acceptance ratio went into the abyss. And of course, about the same time, my cumulative contest fees reached the level at which I had decided to consider self-publishing. You'd think, having been at this for a decade, I'd not crumble in the face of rejection. Heck, I'm a accordion-playing poet who roots for the Mets. Still, sometimes you sit down and wonder.

But 22 days into 2011, I'm feeling like I'm over it, finally. I'm meeting the number (even challenged by the courtesy of a quick reply from one zine). I've migrated my ISO-registrable submission tracking system online and am leveraging electronic submissions exclusively at this point; but in doing so, I've learned that tracking and printing and signing and mailing were maybe 10% of the time involved in preparing a submission for me. I have learned, to my horror, that I like to tinker. I would rarely spend minutes worrying about word choice once I'd printed a poem for submission. Now that I'm just formatting for upload, I cold lose a whole afternoon reworking a single line. That's a whole different risk of being overwhelmed.

So what? So this just comes back to my single, simple resolution for the year - just to be confident, unembarrassed, and persistent in being a poet. Simple, right?

Not that I lack good projects to rally myself to: My lunchtime writer's group in my office will be elevating the energy level this year, taking on some larger projects and scheduling more time for critique and revision. I'm designing this month a program on poetry and prayer for an adult-education series a group of churches in my area present every year. And I have a box of chapbooks that ask me every time I walk past them when I'll be showing them a little daylight.

More on each as progress warrants. I'm resolved.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Leaving the Blanket Behind

That's literally (a nice warm quilt) and figuratively (my nice, secure silence). After two days where a nasty chest cold had me horizontal for the vast majority of its contained hours, I got out into the world again today for a wonderful event hosted by Jim Gwyn - "EXPRESSING ELVIS", poems and music in honor of the king on his 76th birthday. I used the event to introduce an aunt to the world of poetry; she has a shelf full of Elvis books, busts, and brickabrack in her den, and I thought this was as close as her orbit would ever be to the art. It was a great deal of fun, and included a local chef presenting a sampling of Elvis-endorsed (horribly-bad-for-you) foods, including catfish po-boys, fried PB&Bs, and sweet potato pies. Just delightful.

And yes my aunt, who's never been to a poetry reading before, ran into someone who knew her. You just get used to it after a while.

Also got to see two of the grand ladies of NJ poetry, Maria Gillan and Laura Boss, to sing a little bit (quite and down an octave because of the darned cold), and to read a new work of my own. That little 90 seconds of my own reading let me live up to my 2011 resolution. I hadn't planned to read, but when asked to by the organizers, I "penned up" and said yes. I hadn't planned to sell books, but when Jim encouraged the audience to visit the poets' book table, I put a few books up and moved a couple. Poet. Don't use the term unless you mean it.


Confidential to the green and white: Breathe while the air is good, fellow fans. And recall that we know the next beast well and have slain him before.