Opening Myself to the Awkwardness

Dear Carolee

So many things to address in your letter. But I am going to start with fear. You wrote:

What if nothing comes of the writing. What if *I* don’t amount to anything”

Yes. I recognize that panicked, whispering voice.

Doesn’t everyone want to leave evidence that they have been here?

When my first book was published, a well-established poet that I’d worked closely with (translating a volume of his selected poems a couple of years prior) told me to go out and buy myself flowers, because it wouldn’t mean very much to anyone else. I did.

And actually, my colleagues – because I have amazing colleagues – also bought me flowers.

But none of them read the book.

In fact, I’m not sure that anyone I actually know read that book. Or the next. Or the next…

I had good reviews, though. Print newspapers. Odd that “print” is more ephemeral now in some  ways, isn’t it?

My first two books have already been remaindered.

So sometimes, that voice isn’t a whisper. It’s a scream.

All my fantasies about what could have been, in terms of community, are like little dreamy assurances that it’s only a matter of my physical displacement. Otherwise, my work would be out there: actually being read, discussed, making a difference in someone’s day. Connecting my experience to another human experience. I could read at poetry gatherings. Have those “fans” some poets talk about.

It would be a lot less lonely.

But I know that’s bullsh*t. 

When you say, ” I really want my manuscript to be published. And I want it to happen by going through one of those gatekeepers you mention.” Do you know which gatekeepers you are appealing to?

I’m asking because I recently quoted something from an interview with Mary Oliver, and saw how she came under attack from several (academic) poets who called her work banal. Some got downright ugly about it and attacked her. I’m not sure but I’m guessing these are the same poets who criticize Billy Collins for being populist or, worse, pedestrian.

The Nobel Prize committee’s choice just spawned the headline: Musician Wins Nobel Prize in Literature, and people are suddenly spouting off about Sappho fragments, and speculating wildly about her validity as a folk musician. There seems to be a thin road between elitist and pedestrian – and it seems to shift. I’m mentioning this because I think it is related to publishing today. Who are the gatekeepers?

I guess I shouldn’t say “today”. There has always been such a thing as elite fashion vs popular taste.

How does a publishing house that requires a minimum number of pre-ordered books to go to print differ from a Kickstarter project? Are they the taste-makers? The editors who take no chances? Who gives them that mandate? I don’t understand “publishing” anymore. I read recently about a woman whose memoir was turned down – even though the publishers said the writing was wonderful – because she didn’t have a big enough twitter following.

Is a list of journal publications a demonstration of quality, a proof of “dues paid”, or an indication of name-recognition that is undeniably important? What the hell is the value of a twitter following in terms of literature? Did you see the Black Mirror episode about the class system based on popularity ratings?

We like you. I have a little earworm now: “Stop Trying“.

When I was working with PEN, I was invited to several international poetry festivals and was surprised by the power of political poetry. Keywords would incite howls of appreciation, and flowers from the audience. It was a fascinating thing to watch. It was also something that I had no business taking part in.

And yet – I’m not willing to accept that my voice is of any less value because I don’t speak to a particular political movement.

So since then, I’ve been a little lost. Technically, I’m no longer an American poet. In practice, this means that there are several wonderful publishers that I cannot even submit work to. In Norway, I am – and will always be – an American poet.

Yeah. That’s not a good thing, if you are wondering.

What is my voice worth? How is it relevant? As you said before , “wtf do i want to say?” and the nagging voice that says “nobody cares what I have to say, even me.”

We care, though.

Is that enough?

This year the kulturråd that purchases literary work for libraries has yet to purchase a single poetry collection. My publisher is taking a huge risk with my book this year. And if this turns out to be a permanent trend, it may mean the end to my path for publication here in Norway.

Like you, I just want to want to shrug and say, “I don’t care. Whatever.” I’m working towards that. But I’m not there yet.

Maybe I will go back to making  handmade books this year.

Last week, with my GP, I explained that I was still slightly hypomanic, but writing a lot. She interrupted me: “Where are you putting this stuff you’re writing?” I explained that I had sent something things out under a pseudonym, some to my best friend for comment (because she’s a professional editor), and some on my blog.

She pronounced blog like it was something more disgusting than abscess (which really doesn’t sound all that gross, does it?  – makes me think of recess): BELAWGH. She caught herself mid eye-roll and told me I probably shouldn’t write these days, because if I were blogging I was probably not being critical enough of what I put out there.

It took me several hours to convince myself that she had never read anything I had written, had absolutely no basis for an opinion on the matter. (To be honest, I reread everything on my blog in a panic, and wrote to friends for assurances. And I’m still rereading in a panic every time I hit publish, with the fear that I’ve not be critical enough).

I’m sure you noticed that, in the Facebook group, when I tried to ask about poetry blogs -and even gave examples – someone suggested a blog with poetry prompts for elementary school children? How do I respond to that without sounding arrogant?

So there’s my greatest fear: It’s not the gatekeeper as a community elder (which would be weird to think anyway, since most journals are edited by undergrads); it’s the gatekeeper as an institutional  rubber stamp of quality. A second opinion. A safe little consolation in the face of criticism. “Well, they liked it.”

Legitimacy. I am ashamed that I still even think it’s a thing.

I also have a fear of being too personal. It’s like showing up in a dress that’s just a smidgen too short, and crosses some line no one explicitly told you about. Everyone lifts an eyebrow, and then looks away.

Be honest, but don’t be too honest. Earnestness makes everyone feel awkward.

I’m reading Gregory Orr’s Poetry as Survival  (I’m only on Chapter 2). He talks about the terrifying vulnerability of the self, and he describes the personal lyric as the self encountering its existential crises.

You know, I’m just going to give into this. To the fear. To the existential crises. To the who-gives-a-damn about propriety and position.  To the friggin´earnestness.

img_8174I’m also going to let go of expectations. I’m going to pause and listen, like you say:

“…In pausing you create an absence (emptiness, openness). Stillness, it turns out, is a physical sensation and can be heard just like a flame in the bone-dry woods.”

I learned this summer not to look ahead up the mountain, but take one step at a time and enjoy each one. To remind myself the trip isn’t about the destination – I mean, yes, what a cliché: it’s funny how often we laboriously arrive at a cliché, but at least we really understand it for the first time.

6 year-olds and 80 year-olds alike passed me by on the trails this summer. But my route so was very different from theirs.

“So let’s just decide that it doesn’t matter how we got here or why we came. Let’s decide to cast away any notions that blogging is a terrible idea because we can’t attach specific value to it. People climb mountains just because they’re there or backpack for days (as you and I have both done recently) in part to see what they can endure and how far they can go. We can explore here just for the hell of it, too.”

I’m in.

And now I think I might go take a selfie. Selfies make me feel very awkward. Seems like it might be a good starting place to beat down my barriers.

XO Ren

Carolee’s reply.


This is one of a series of public letters to friends – friends who write back to me on their own blogs. Please click through.  Category: Correspondence.

If you’d like to catch up, read the letters in chronological order here.

13 Replies to “Opening Myself to the Awkwardness”

  1. I can relate to Carolee. 😉 Your words are inspiring. They make me want to keep putting mine out there. So thank you.

  2. Woof. I had to properly digest before offering that I connect to many of your sentiments; belonging, being heard, connection and the chronic fear of not being good enough or why or mattering. I started a bible study this morning called Wait and See. (I promise I’m one of those people-loving, thinking Christians) and a line struck me: “Your only audience is God.” I wrote it out several times. The world is very fickle and unless we’re well connected or have a rich uncle or something, it’s likely we won’t matter to a big crowd. Getting caught up in a scandal also seems to bring lots of attention…oh and bum selfies. Those are a big hit at the moment. I see your selfie includes nothing of your derrière. I believe this is a wise and dignified choice. Deciding we are good enough is the true work. I found a huge relief to rediscover my insignificance after sending my first post out into the world. Family and friends alike didn’t care, huge, soft sigh of relief. The desire to share a good word and make a difference from our place of insignificance…now that’s a worthy challenge. Oh let’s try! 😉

    1. I really enjoy the posts I have read so far on your blog, Ruth-Anne, even though I have complicated relationship with my own concept of God. Although I like Carolee’s comparison to this kind of exploring to prayer, I cannot write to God. Not directly at any rate. Maybe that is part of the whole exploration process.

      There is a kind of comfort in insignificance, isn’t there? I wouldn’t want fame – not even 15 minutes of it. So, I am with you: making a difference from our place of insignificance is a beautiful goal.

    1. Ann – you are one of the people who made me realise it would be good to begin blogging again. Your blog is the one I offered up on Facebook as an example of smart, insightful poetry oriented blogs. (Yours and Sigrun’s) – blogs to aim for in terms of quality.

      And thanks for the hoorah!

  3. I could just read all of these words by you and your correspondents and write my own thoughts about them, but then I’d never get any paying work done. I think this correspondence project of yours is immense, Ren, as in wonderful and giving many people wings. I hope it goes on forever, because it makes me think good (if not uncomplicated) thoughts). R


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