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.
1. Do not ask the Poet in Residence to play the role of bawd.
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!
Poetry is good, and so are chapbooks – I wish there were more of them locally!
I miss the old chapbooks: now so many poets self-publish in volumes that just aren’t as pretty!
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Funny but bitter. I’ve been on a Wompo listserv for years and I used to post and talk with them; now I mostly listen. Once in a while someone posts a good poem and people discuss it, but more often it’s about the “po business” (poetry business) and it’s not fun. It seems to me those who stick it out are those who early on do get encouragement, early publications, and every once in a while another publication. They are those who get positions in universities (so as to make money out of literature in effect — teaching it) and a few do produce a volume of verse and it’s published. By small presses or by themselves. Nowadays online.
I know you’ve spoken of Wompo before. The poets I know are strictly amateurs, and most are writing for fun (though of course they would all like to get published). The winners of university press competitions are usually excellent. I do occasionally find a good self-published poetry, but there must be fewer places for poetry all the time. Not that there were ever many.