After I had achieved some publication ‘success’ recently, a poet friend sent me an e-mail of support and congratulation, saying that the recognition was well deserved. I wrote back and thanked him, saying that it made me grin to receive such thoughts and good wishes. He replied with these words.
‘You’re my mate but even if you weren’t I would be pleased for you as I admire your work. Your success does not diminish mine.’
This seems to me to be a very wise position, a reflection of a state of mind that is not, perhaps, easily obtained or maintained.
Here an alternative, and I suspect, common response;
You see, it should have been me.
It could have been me.
Everybody knows, everybody says so.
Morrissey, We Hate it When Our Friends Become Successful
I suppose it might be easier to feel magnanimous towards the achievements of others if one has achieved some measure of ‘success’ oneself; I’ve written about what might constitute success in poetry before, but to summarise, this is generally taken to mean publication in a magazine, placement in a poetry competition, an invitation to read, acceptance of a manuscript for a pamphlet or book.
All these rare and wonderful things can externally verify, at least temporarily, your existence as a poet. And when none of the above individual or combined confirmations of your poet-self are happening, one response might be to envy the ‘successes’ of others.
‘A heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones.’
Envy and jealousy are understandable human responses, and I’m sure we’d all rather be immune to the occasional encounter with ‘the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on’ when someone else in our sphere does ‘well’ .
But when considering the nature of external success in poetry (as opposed to ‘internal’ success another matter which I’ll try to pin down later in this piece) there are few things it might be worth bearing in mind.
Firstly, if all or most of the work you are sending out is being returned to you without offers of publication, you are in the majority. There are a lot of people submitting work and only a small minority can be published. That doesn’t mean that this will always be the case. And there are many possible reasons for this. One possibility (and a difficult one to accept) is that perhaps your work isn’t ready yet. Perhaps your poem needs a tweak or even a re-write. One or two clunky lines or even a word could be enough to put the editor off. There is also the question of originality. Editors read thousands of poems and many are adept at spotting something they have seen before and possibly done better. I imagine the only way to know if this is the case is to read as much poetry as you can.
Secondly, you may have sent your poem to the ‘wrong’ publication. If the editor doesn’t favour the sort of work you write then you have reduced your chance of publication. It is their prerogative to publish what they like, so you might check that a magazine takes the sort of work you want to send.
Another thing – the editor may have been inundated with quality work and already has enough to fill three issues. Your poems may well have found a place but for the sheer number of quality submissions. That’s the way it goes sometimes. And even when one success or milestone is reached, it doesn’t mean the poet’s trajectory of success will continue ever upward until they are a household name. Each poets engagement with publication is surely undulating and unique.
When it comes to publication, it seems persistence is essential. I’ve written about some of these things in more depth before .
‘Anyone can dig a hole in a cemetery, but not everyone is a grave-digger. The later takes a good deal more stamina and persistence. ‘
The successful poet
The ‘successful’ poet has also, at some point, experienced frustration over not finding a home for their work. They will also have gone through periods of having work returned and in terms of writing, of not being able to write what they want to write. I imagine all good poets are subject to insecurity. And once success is achieved, what then? The award-winning poet may be wondering, at this very moment, how they wrote their award-winning collection. They may not have written a single poem for eight months. They may be wondering if they will write another poem.
Here is novelist J.K Rowling in a recent interview in the Guardian newspaper
JK ‘…success never feels the way you think it will be. Some people would assume that you’re sitting around feeling simply marvellous and shining your baubles. But I remember, a week after I got my American deal, one of my very best girlfriends rang me and said, “I thought you’d sound so elated.” From the outside, I’m sure everything looked amazing. But in my flat, where I was still a single mum and I didn’t know who to call to do my hair, everything felt phenomenally overwhelming… I now felt: “The next book can’t possibly live up to this.” So I managed to turn this amazing triumph into tragedy, in the space of about five days…You did the thing that felt natural, and then you’re put in this position where it feels very unnatural. You’re trying to reconnect with this thing that felt normal five minutes ago.’
The audience for poetry is not on the same scale as the audience for other forms of literature. Even award-winning poetry collections are often not stocked in bookshops. Hundreds or maybe thousands of fine poets are not widely known or celebrated, even by other poets. I’m not sure if it helps to remember this when one is feeling un-noticed- but it might.
I know a brilliant, articulate woman who reads the entire short list for various book prizes. She is never without a novel or set of short stories in her bag. When I told her my poetry book was short listed for a prize she was delighted for me, but said she really isn’t into poetry.
If one measure of success is reading to audiences, then few poets are able to regularly command a packed house in a large auditorium or theatre. Reading poetry to an audience, in my experience, often involves travelling, sometimes large distances, usually on a pitch black evening of torrential rain in February to read to ten people in a church hall or a room above a pub. That’s not to say it isn’t a privilege and a joy to read to anyone who will listen – on the contrary, once one has learnt to enjoy reading, it is a wonderfully affirming experience. And some of the more intimate readings I’ve been involved in or attended have been the most memorable.
This, for someone who writes poems, could be defined as writing a poem and being, at some point in the shifting and sifting process, pleased that this poem has chosen you to set it down; the feeling that you have done the emotion or idea some justice, that an image, a line break pleases you. It might be knowing that this is the poem you want to write, the poem you are trying to write. It might be the moment of surprise when you find you have written the poem you didn’t know you were going to write and perhaps needed to write. Internal success could be defined as losing and maybe finding yourself in writing the poem that is, for now, as good as you can possibly make it.
However you may define it, I wish you success.