In honor of National Poetry Month, I have just finished Ovid’s Amores (love elegies), which are flashy, facile, and very funny, with roots in Roman comedy. He wrote these when he was very young, and developed many of the themes more elegantly in his later work. Amores I.8 is very comical indeed: the narrator happens to be hidden behind a door and eavesdrops on a bawd/procuress who is advising a young woman on how sluttily to attract a prosperous man who desires her.
If, like me, you do not live in ancient Rome, you are unlikely to attend such entertaining readings. But there are many amateur workshops in every city, and you no doubt know some poets. You are always going to some bar or dark cave of a cafe to hear your friends give a poetry reading. One friend will be talented; the rest just love to write. “Great feminist image of the filthy t-shirt soaking in the sink,” you will say wildly.
And you dread the moment when they whip out a manuscript for you to criticize.
“This is so good!” Say that, no matter what. Your friend does not want your criticism. It doesn’t hurt to lie and say you read little poetry and don’t like to criticize, because (a) it will get you off the hook; and (b) make your friend feel superior, since she has no qualms about criticizing others. Don’t tell her to throw it in the wastebasket. That is the job of the teacher at the Summer Writing Conference (and if she is a good teacher, she will be tactful).
AND NOW FOR SOME PRACTICAL TIPS.
EVERY POET NEEDS A BAWD, OR AT LEAST A PATRON.
A friend thought she would publish her poetry if she had contacts. She was as beautiful as the dawn, but very quiet. She wrote pared-down poems, two or three words per line, as if she could never let go. When a colleague poet agreed to read her work and discuss it over lunch, she was excited. I didn’t dare say it might end badly. She had attended some New Age workshops where everyone was positive and empowering, and had no idea how ruthless professional writers could be. She came back from lunch furious, because he mercilessly criticized her work. Perhaps he dealt thus with the situation so he wouldn’t be inundated with manuscripts. He was in an awkward position. But couldn’t he have told her he never criticized friends’ work and just had lunch?
2. If you have friends, you will sell more poetry.
Small presses are the places for poets. Or so I thought. Then an employee of a small press showed me boxes and boxes of hundreds of unsold books. “If I had my way, I’d never publish a poet who didn’t have friends,” he said sadly. Heavens, I didn’t like the sound of that. Were all poets garrulous? Were they popular? Where on earth did they make friends who buy poetry books? The small press was local and funded by grants, so did it matter? Well, they probably were expected to sell the books.
3. Publish a chapbook. You’ll be happier!
I have seen many beautiful chapbooks of poetry: they are small books or pamphlets, sometimes illustrated, sometimes hand-stitched. Most are self-published, but no less wonderful for that. You won’t need contacts. And you can give them to your friends!
4 Get a patron.
Poets need patrons. They need a rich person who wants to give them gifts so they can write. You need somebody to lend you a free house on Cape Cod for the summer, equipped with a liquor cabinet and jacuzzi, and then whisk you into New York City for a poetry reading at the 92nd Street Y. You’ll open for Robert Pinsky. What? You don’t have a patron? You don’t live near the 92nd Street Y? Well, how about Java Joe’s? What do you mean, it’s not the same?
5. Get an agent! Do poets have agents?
Well, I am not a poet, but I cannot imagine that many have agents!
GOOD LUCK, POETS, DURING NATIONAL POETRY MONTH!