Not Everyone Gets To Be A Poet

Anyone who’s been in the academic world as a graduate student recognizes a general malaise that kicks in right about now. The sense of the imminent end of the semester, the end of the degree program for many (and for me this year), the end of funding, the end of certainty. For those still in grad school, but whose funding changes from year to year; for those leaving grad school and entering the whatever-comes-next phase for them; for those with non-tenure non-contract teaching jobs, this is the period of uncertainty that we come to expect. But I, for one, never seem to have adequately prepared for the emotional and psychological toll of it. The uncertainty of not knowing what will happen next, of feeling invested into a field and a career path that (odds are) will never pan out, of having to come up with stop-gap after stop-gap, plans b-f, and the anxiety of getting-too-old, not-enough-publications, haven’t-heard-back-yet.

It struck me, in talking about this, that I talk about poetry like it’s a chronic medical condition (which I have some experience with). That there are good days and bad days, and ultimately you can’t control them, you just have to keep going, because there really is no alternative. My chronic pain made me an optimist – I had to believe that things would get better someday, that it wouldn’t be like this forever. But somehow, I can’t quite translate that into my life as an artist.

Yesterday was a bad poetry day. I’ve learned that I have them, and somehow I have to accept that, just like part of my struggle with depression is accepting that I have good days and bad days. And accepting that part of being an artist means opening myself up for nearly-constant rejection, and very little measurable affirmation or success. My already-fragile ego gets battered daily. And some days are worse than others.

I know that I’m pretty lucky, for an artist. I have a supportive, gainfully employed spouse; access to a great community of supportive, generous friends and mentors. I have a set of skills that are easily transferable outside of academia and the arts, and a steady stream of freelance work in my fields. Logically, I know all that means that things will inevitably be ok, no matter what success or failures I meet with my artistic output. But somehow it doesn’t seem like enough.

The voice in my brain that wins on the bad days says things like: If you’re so smart, then why don’t you have a book out? If you’re so capable, then why don’t you have a career yet? If your life is so stable, then why don’t you feel happy all the time? A lot of the time, the voice says that I’m too old to be doing this. That I’ve been doing this for too long. That if you keep doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, you are legitimately insane. That those rejections are not a reflection of fit, but an evaluation of my talent and ability as an artist in the world. That the break I’m hunting for will never come, and by the time I smarten up and realize that I’ve wasted 10 or more years of my life on something that just wasn’t going to work out I’ll be too old to do anything else.

Not everyone gets to be a poet, the voice says to me.

Logically, that has to be true. The numbers that get bandied about poetry blogs say something like there are five zillion MFA programs churning out a cazillion poets every year, and most of those won’t ever “make it” in the sense of being able to support themselves through academia while also carving out the time in their lives to continue to have significant artistic output. Most of those probably won’t ever get a book published with at “nationally recognized press.” You know this, you’re smart, the odds are against you, the voice says to me.

And then the voice goes on. Plus you’re a woman, and there’s an observable gender bias in publishing. Not only are the numbers against you, your gender is against you too. And you write experimental work, so there’s another strike against you. You’ll never even come close to winning prizes, contests, fellowships, residencies, etc. These are all facts, indisputable, observable, demonstrable. No arguing there.

There’s a saying that if you tell 100 men going into battle that 99 of them are going to die, they will all think “too bad about all my buddies.” No matter how persuasive the numbers are, the logic of it, there’s always going to be that part of you that thinks you’re going to make it, to be the lucky one, to get the break, etc. That’s cruel hope, that optimism, or insanity, that keeps pushing.

So on days like yesterday, and today, when I’m having a bad poetry day (and had to teach, try to encourage 15 burgeoning artists to be excited about poetry) it’s extremely hard for me to answer the inevitable question. The one that comes at the end of all the logic and irrefutable evidence of my inescapable failure. When is enough, enough? When do I make the call, admit it isn’t working, find something else to do that at least is sustainable (as in supports me), or at least makes me feel like I’m accomplishing something in the world, however small?

I can’t answer that question right now. I don’t know how to. But I’d love to hear how other people face these days, if you do at all.

(But please, no pity here. As anyone who goes through the same thing can tell you, pity is absolutely the opposite of helpful.)


  1. CBH

    Oof, I definitely have these days! I had one yesterday, so I watched Game of Thrones. It helped. Last year, I came to the conclusion that I write poetry because I love it and because it will still spill out of me even when no one else cares. I love Rilke’s thoughts on the matter in Letters to a Young Poet…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.