A few nights ago, my boyfriend and i were getting ready for bed, and he asked me to tell him a story. He does that from time to time, and it never goes well; i'm not good at spontaneous story-telling, and anyway i mostly write non-narrative poems, so it's completely out of my wheelhouse. So i always ask him what kind of story he wants, and he always says, "I don't know; you're the writer," and then i tell him that i don't do that kind of writing, and then he whines, and then i snuggle him to sleep.
But the most recent time, when i asked him what kind of story he wanted, he said, "One that would make a lot of money."
I laughed. "If i had a story that would make a lot of money, don't you think i would have sold it by now?"
"No, because you write poetry," he countered.
Ignoring the irony embodied in his own words, i had a flashback to senior year. In our senior seminar class, we had an assignment designed to make us seriously consider our career prospects as English majors. (Hint: they are not bright.) Those of us on the Creative Writing track had to research the market, look at publishing houses and magazines and journals and calls for submissions and find out what was profitable, what our demographic was, what our chances were for success. There were four graduating English seniors that year: two Literary Analysis, one Creative Writing (fiction), and one Creative Writing (poetry). The fiction writer was writing a Christian teen romance novel which will almost certainly sell. I thought it was okay: fluffy beach fiction with structurally sound but stylistically flat writing. But that hasn't gotten in anyone else's way, so she has a good shot. Anyway, when it was my turn to talk about success in the poetry field, the professor called in some other experts.
So we sat there, me and Beach Fiction and the two Literary Analysts, and Benji and McCann (published poets, both), and KP, and we talked about what it means to be a successful poet.
"Emily Dickinson never published anything in her life," McCann pointed out.
"And Maya Angelou made a million dollars last year because she sold out to work for Hallmark," Benji added.
Then there was a debate about Maya Angelou, and whether her more popular, money-making poetry was as good as her earlier work, and whether any of it was as good as Emily Dickinson's work, and whether either of them would be read in another fifty or a hundred years, and does success as a poet mean that you get published and are famous in your own time, or that you're still read after your death, or both? Or what if you never get the recognition you deserve, but you're still talented and you feel good about your body of work? What does it mean to be a successful poet?
I've been looking at submission calls again lately and getting depressed. It's hard and scary and heartbreaking and awkward and forward to just send people your poems and ask to get them published. And what's the upside? You get published and then you have to start sending things out again? You get a ten dollar check and a free magazine and you can't tell anyone about it because the poem they picked is the one where you yell at your mom or the one about the time you had to buy Plan B? You get published and then some other random publication actually asks you for work and then you have to find something that's polished and ready to go? And then you've published all of your stuff and then you have to write more? And what if you only had ten good poems in you and then you've sent them all out and then you're faced with the inevitable truth that you suck, that that part of your life is over, that you'll spend the rest of your life showing visitors the laminated magazine page with your poem on it and serving people coffee? You send out a submission packet and promptly die of embarrassment and anxiety?
Still, my workshop requires me to turn things in every week for review. And when i'm applying for English teacher jobs, it looks good if i have some publishing credits on my résumé. And knowing is better than not knowing. And even ten bucks is better than nothing. And who knows? Maybe i'll be some kind of Maya Angelou/Emily Dickinson crossover: an introverted white lady who doesn't title her poems and makes some money off of them while she's still alive. Okay, so i guess that's less of a Maya Angelou/Emily Dickinson crossover and more of a Profitable Emily Dickinson, but whatever.