Jeannine Hall Gailey, “Feeling Discouraged about Poetryworld”
I’ve heard from several friends recently who said they felt so discouraged about what I call “poetryworld” that they have given up on poetry for the time being. Sure, the junior-high-like list-making, the awards you don’t get, the residency/fellowship/job rejections, the rejections from literary magazines and publishers, the back-scratching and in-crowd sucking up…sometimes, poetryworld can be a pretty nasty place. I’ll tell you a secret – when I was in my early twenties, I was very idealistic. While I was studying in my MA program, I was so repelled by what I saw as the necessary evils of poetryworld that I vowed to leave it behind – and I switched majors and for a few years I didn’t do anything connected to poetry except write it in my spare time and attend an occasional reading.
When I felt ready to return again, I was older and wiser and a bit more hardened, I was determined to do good, to ignore the crap and to create opportunities for people who deserved them and attention for poets who weren’t out for themselves. I’ve volunteered for worthy causes, literary magazines, reviewed books, and tried to generally create a positive atmosphere for the good things in the poetryworld. But I’ll admit, I’m occasionally still prone to the kind of icky feeling my friends have written me about. So what do you do when you’re so discouraged you’re ready to quit? Sure, you have a couple of manuscripts in your drawer, you feel your poetry is as good as you can possibly get it, and you still read new poetry books in the hope you will find something so witty and charming it will take you back to your first, truest love of poetry…but you’re not sure you can take the rest of it.
1. Give yourself a break. Yes, the world won’t shatter if you don’t send anything out for a few months, or you decide to shut off twitter or Facebook earlier than usual. You can avoid reading the industry rags and try not to pay attention to the gossip. In short, stay away from anything that’s toxic to your writing and your outlook for a while. Every job – from journalism to surgery – has its seedy underbelly, because it’s human nature to hobnob and climb and sometimes talk behind other people’s backs and try to push forward people who may not be deserving but whom are owed a favor – and poetryworld is, sadly, no different. I think it’s one of the big things that makes people really disillusioned in academia, too – somehow they thought the world of biological research (or whatever) was pure, but then they find out that it’s not, and it makes them want to quit. Resist quitting forever, but don’t beat yourself up if you want to take a break for a while, until you catch your breath and remember why you got into your field in the first place.
2. Feed yourself inspiration, wherever you can find it. This is a great time to give yourself permission to wander into areas you don’t normally wander into. Go to a science or history museum, visit a glassmaking gallery, try an “arts and crafts” class. Take up reading music or community theater. Really throw yourself at any art form that calls to you, that you’ve felt you weren’t good enough to try, that you were afraid of, that you felt was beyond your depth. If you usually keep only to literary fiction, read mysteries and cultural criticism and science fiction. Go to a wine tasting. Plant a garden for fall.
3. Experiment. I’ve been trying this myself lately, as I’ve gone through some personal hard times related to my health stuff, and just felt like poetry was beyond my grasp. Try writing a personal essay, a microfiction, a short story, an article on cooking…in short, anything you felt you couldn’t do, try it for a while. Don’t worry if you’re not perfect the first time out of the gate. You probably won’t be. But give yourself permission to fail at a new genre, to stretch your writing muscles a bit, to try out plot and flash and lyric and whatever else you have an urge to try.
4. Talk to writer friends who are uplifting. Call up an old friend from your previous “high points” – whether that was your MFA program, a residency, or even back in high school. Talk about why you got into writing in the first place. Try to avoid snarking – I know it’s hard, it is for me too – and focus on giving each other some encouragement. When I have hard times, I immediately and instinctively reach out to people I know will pat me on the back and tell me it’s okay – even if it doesn’t seem that way at the time. Those people are worth spending time and energy on when you’re not feeling discouraged, too.
5. If you’re really ambitious, you can try some old-fashioned do-gooding – that is, making your own positive change to poetryworld as you see it. If you feel, say, women’s (or minority, or…) writing isn’t getting enough attention, shine a light on a favorite female (or minority) writer. If you were discouraged because no one bothered to try to mentor you as a young writer, go out and start mentoring a young writer. (Honestly, working with teens is one of the most inspiring things I do. I never leave a teen workshop or the like without feeling like writing again.) If you feel like making an impact on the poetry world, go write an article on something you feel strongly about and submit it somewhere – Writer’s Chronicle, Poets & Writers, HuffPo. You might actually get your voice heard and change the world.
from Unexplained Fevers
When the Princess Becomes a Prophet
The daughters of kings run feral
through the forest, skin roughened
by sun and dirt. They decorate with feathers,
fur, sometimes the teeth of their prey.
They’ve traded the glass coffin
for the wilderness experience;
like all prophets, they lay in the mire
with their honey and locusts,
waiting for the crows to feed them
and the word of God to arrive.
They take up the staff and shake
their sticks at visitors, claim to be the true
heir to the throne, their hair behind them
twisted with mud and gold, the kind of halo
no one expects on their angels.
In Which Jack and Jill Decide Whether to Climb Yet Another Hill
When this new narrative began it had nothing to do with moving trucks or hospital rooms. It started with clover and costumes, charming children and clamoring crowds, less claustrophobic. It all turned on a dime, the tipping point, and then the long trip down. We swore we would follow each other anywhere, but anywhere turned out to be a lot like Ohio, so we headed for the Coast, the climate cool and the clouds less dramatic. Somehow we turned thirty without thunderous applause, our dreams dissipating into piles of paper. We stopped trying to perform pirouettes, preferring to keep our feet on the ground. We’ve sunk into the hard mud of a river valley, fingernails turning blue for lack of oxygen. Time to conjure some new magic, one more act for the play, where the pop-top lid reveals not snakes but snapdragons, where the earth stops keeping count of the mornings and shakes us loose.
Our backpacks loaded
with crocus bulbs and rosemary
ready to set root.
Jeannine Hall Gailey recently served as the Poet Laureate of Redmond, Washington and is the author of three books of poetry: Becoming the Villainess
(Steel Toe Books, 2006,) She Returns to the Floating World
(Kitsune Books, 2011,) and Unexplained Fevers
, just out from New Binary Press. Her work has been featured on NPR’s The Writer’s Almanac, Verse Daily, and in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror
. Her poems have appeared in The American Poetry Review
, The Iowa Review
and Prairie Schooner
. She was a multiple Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Award winner (in 2011 and 2007) and is a 2013 Jack Straw Writer. She volunteers as an editorial consultant for Crab Creek Review
. Her web site is www.webbish6.com