On How Being a Poet Has Prepared Me For Being Published

Today I read this: “The Confessions of a Semi-Successful Author”

In it, a pseudonymous author bewails her fate – pseudonymously – regarding her publishing career which has included several large advances, award-winning books and, except for one book, low-ish sales (though the lowest she reports is 10,000, which according to all I’ve read, is a decent sale for a literary novel).

But what spurred this response is that at one point she talks about how The Curse of the Mid-List Writer is to be a writer who no one ever recognizes.  Strangers find out you’re a writer, ask if they’ve read your work, and you say, “Undoubtedly not, good sir.”

People couldn’t pick your name out of a lineup.

Your name couldn’t get you passage on the Titanic, First-class or Steerage.

Your name is a (collection of) dead letter(s).

Which is, truthfully, no different than any poet in this country.  Who is still living.  Even Billy Collins, as ubiquitous as he is, can’t be sure that the person he’s sitting next to on the plane has heard of him.  After all, no one makes movies specced from poetry books.  There’s no celebrity who is starring as your main character who, for the most part, is probably you.  If your book has reached the bestseller lists, that means that it’s been taught in a class this semester and that twenty to forty students bought your book with the same glee and excitement they approach buying any textbook.
Which is to say, not much.

Okay, the caveats: The screed linked to above was written in 2004.  The first deal she mentions getting was in 1994.  The advance for that deal was $150,000.

Granted, that was a long time ago.  Granted, there are taxes to be taken out.  Granted, I don’t know where the author lived at the time, what her expenses were, etc.

Granted, I could live off of that for at least three years, sans work, barring any major fatalities.

But none of this addresses how, exactly, being a poet has prepared me for being published.

1. Lowered expectations.

While I dream of being offered a huge advance, of being sold everywhere, of being sold out everywhere, of being able to live off of my writing alone, I realize that is probably not the case.  For example, I have already attended readings/book signings where the organizer was my only audience.

2. The belief that writing has to be the end in and of itself.

Jane Doe Austen (the writer of the Mid-list exposé) ends her article struggling with the idea of ever writing again.  Her theory is that the risk of her next manuscript being rejected is too great – based on her past experience – to go through with writing the novel in order to face that near-inevitable rejection.

Well, okay.  But so what?  It sucks, yes, to have had it all (high advance, multiple awards, a bestseller) and yet be relegated to fourth- or fifth-string status.

But writing poetry teaches that it is the poem that matters, not the publication because publication isn’t guaranteed and, truthfully, even if that poem is published, what does it get you?  For most, the reward is your poem in a magazine that has a circulation of maybe six hundred and a few copies for your personal library.

No great shakes (I prefer vanilla), but that’s why the writing has to trump the results.

You can’t control the results, whether with a poem or a play or a novel, but you can control the writing.  And if you don’t get joy from that writing for that writing, then, as a writer, you’re already a lost cause.

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5 Responses to On How Being a Poet Has Prepared Me For Being Published

  1. Phoebe says:

    Funny thing is, coming from poetry just made me scoff more at the poetry world where authors should expect to be paupers! When I discovered the genre world, where people get paid for writing (including poems!), I pretty much promptly freaked out.

    And pissed on poetry’s grave.

    (Well, just kidding. I’ll always love poetry. But the hopelessness of having readers did do something to turn me off to it!)

  2. Andrew says:

    True, people in the genre world do get paid for writing poems, but in my reading (granted, it’s from Best of SF books from the 60s and 70s) the poetry has been dire.

    My problem with writing poems in genre is that my poetry already exists in a world where fantasy is just as real as reality. What is a sci-fi poem?

    And, though I know it doesn’t sound like it in my post, I don’t think it’s impossible to have readers in the poetry world, just that the pool is smaller. Smaller, but no less gratifying.

  3. Phoebe says:

    Genre poetry is hit or miss. There are only a handful of big names in it, but every once in awhile, there’s a gem, like this one, one of my favorite wedding poems, ever.

    I guess for me, it’s significant that genre writing comes from a world where it’s right and correct and even righteous for writers to believe that they’re doing something not only culturally valuable, but also monetarily valuable–that they deserve to get paid for their writing, even if it isn’t much. I realize that the literary world puts a lot of stock into obscurity. The lack of crass commercial attitudes is seen as a badge. But if you google around, you can find, say, respected genre authors railing against low-paying genre markets. Don’t submit there, they say, to young writers. You deserve better.

    Coming from a world where the financial aspects of writing were so rarely spoken of that it almost seemed shameful to worry about how one would live, I found that liberating. As for whether your writing is already somewhat speculative, perhaps it is. But then, why not get paid for it?

  4. Andrew says:

    Oh, don’t worry, I have no problem getting paid. And there are a (small) number of literary markets that actually make enough money to pay writers (our alma mater’s Subtropics, for example, or The Chariton Review or Iron Horse Literary Review or AGNI); and because they pay, they get the first crack at my work. I’ve been paid about $250 for poems (six in all, though three were sold together in a lump sum). I’ve wanted to try Strange Horizons a while now, but the trick is finding the right poems for the job. And to get over my own prejudice re: SF poetry.

    I never got the impression you’re talking about from either Florida or Houston, i.e., that obscurity is better than money, etc. I’ve heard that idea float around, but I’m not sure where it originated. Most writers I know want to make a living writing — but I’d agree that most writing programs don’t really deal with the economics of being a writer. Though we want to make a living (or a least a sidejob) from writing, we’re not given any training how to do that.

  5. Phoebe says:

    It always seemed fairly implicit to me–that, for example, the poets would be entering many first-book contests with their theses, that the after-the-mfa workshops largely involve discussion of the types of teaching we could pursue, that even the fiction writers didn’t get much in the way of discussion of how to write a query letter or pitch to agents (though they did get a few chances to converse with them, my fiction friends in my cohort told me this was the case). The assumption seems to be that you won’t be pursuing more commercial routes with your writing–though maybe this should be the assumption in an MFA program, but at 22 when I applied I really had no idea that I was making a cognizant choice, there. Anyway, I think what constitutes radio silence on the financial nitty gritty aspects of it is what opens MFAs up to the Freys of the world, you know? And it also suggests that there is, and widens, the gap between the lit and commercial writing worlds.

    And yay for pubs that pay, regardless of whether they’re lit pubs or not. 🙂 I guess I was just surprised, is all, when I turned to SF writing and found that the attitude was that you stay away from magazines that don’t pay you or don’t have audiences, because your submissions should be building your career in a certain–and financially viable–way. In genre writing, money flows to the writer. In the literary world, particularly poetry, I’m not sure that that is the case.

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