Unlikely Roads

I think that any path to becoming a poet is a difficult, unlikely road. 

I'm not talking about writing poems themselves, which is both difficult and easy, but about the process of becoming a publishing poet. All those detours, those improvised exploding devices, those wrong directions, those off-ramps, those washed-out bridges: how any one of us gets it done through the self-doubt, the rejections, the laurels-not-received, the to-MFA or not-to-MFA questions, the culling over The Poets Market, Poets & Writers, and NewPages.com, the cover letters, and the waiting. You see friends succeed, wildly, and you cheer them. You see posers succeed, wildly, and you fight cynicism. You keep score. You take yoga and try mindful living. You imagine the best job for being a poet: a professor? a librarian? an editor? a social worker? a pilates instructor? a vice president for General Mills?

I don't envy any one poet's path. The overnight sensation, winning an NEA fellowship before turning 30 and winning a major first book poetry competition . . . . well, some of them are lucky to be alive in the first place, and some of them are riddled with imposter complex. The long-hustling poet, gradually climbing the literary magazine food chain, from the Doglick Undergraduate Literary Review, to the Greater Rockford Quarterly, to the generic MFA Literary Magazine at State U., to the very established and tony Poetry Journal of the Stars, and then finally big time, landing something in Poetry or the American Poetry Review. The hot-shot university poet, finally getting tenure, and then somehow, going out of fashion, out of favor, getting fat, becoming fossilized. The blazing street poet, putting up that hot YouTube channel, getting thousands of subscribers, and currying all that heat into some legitimacy.

What I see is great investment of time by these artists, dealing with the improbability of getting anything published, and treading that highwire of caring and not-caring.  It requires arrogance, foolishness, determination, patience, idealism, and dreaminess. All that pressure, just to stay up there, suspended, where the audience is either dazzled by your light-footedness or is hoping, just a little, to see you slip. The worst of it, of course, is our own self-questioning.

So when I consider the roads of those poets who face additional cultural and societal burdens--be it race, gender-identification, class, sexual orientation, disability, ethnicity--I realize those roads have more hazards, fewer signs, fewer rest stops. That's just a fact, one that doesn't lessen the individual hardships I might've faced, but one that requires me to be alert to how my road was more level, more predictable, more well traveled. To state the obvious, my road is built on privilege, protected by privilege, and contingent on privilege.

I also recognize that even my "retirement" from poetry publishing is a privileged position. I am a full professor, thanks to my public and private education, assisted in part by my parents through my undergraduate degree, having the freedom to pursue an M.F.A. and a Ph.D., landing a tenure-line job, moving from position to position, to land at a place that valued my work, but also didn't object to my "giving up" poetry to pursue playwriting. As a white, male professor, I endured fewer hassles from students, lowered expectations for service, and less questioning about my creative scholarship from administrators than what my female and minority counterparts typically deal with. Saying "I prefer not to" is not so much a statement of defiance and unconventionality, but of affirming the order, my safe standing.

Now, this has led me to take on responsibilities in the face of this privilege, from making inclusive choices in teaching materials and approaches, to mentoring faculty and students, to recognize the power structures that control, limit, and manipulate creative agency, all of that and more. It's also about yielding the floor, listening, really listening. And ultimately, this is what this "retirement" is about for me, to hear some very difficult, very challenging things, and then even more difficult, to act honorably and positively. And still, my unlikely road remains so easy.

Thus, I love hearing, reading of other poets' journeys, even if I've exited the highway. That they are where they are seems such a happy, lucky, miraculous thing.