Advice to a Young Poet
You know you are old when young writers write to ask for advice. I have received a number of letters over the past few years asking for my insights and practical knowledge. Each strike me as a memento mori. But not only as a memento mori but also as a moment to reflect upon what got me into the business and what keeps me feeling like I am a victim of the Myth of Sisyphus and in a masochistic way loving it. So when I got this latest request for advice on how to break into the publishing industry, I decided to gather some of my thoughts and bits of advice and put them down. I may add more bits and pieces and thoughts when I feel like it.
Advice to a young poet.
You asked me for advice on how to break into to the publishing industry. I feel that if I am going to take the time and effort to give you information, then I feel I have to give you some advice a la Rilke. ee cummings has some good advice to offer as well. Take it as you will.
My first piece of advice is, it’s not too late to abandon this folly of writing poetry and return to the military. The military offers a regular paycheque, benefits, security, dental coverage, order and occasionally, excitement. Poetry doesn’t. (The excitement part; yes but in a different way.) Poetry can only lead to heartbreak, depression and a skewed view of the world. You might come to believe that what you do matters and there are thousands out there waiting for your words.
It always amazes me how many people want to write. It says something about the written art as part of the human condition. So many believe in its cleansing, healing and rejuvenating power. It’s right up there with homeopathy. Yes it does come from the belief that the word of the poet is imbibed with magic. Beware the poet, if aroused, s/he will not hesitate to turn you into a poem. Poetry is thought to be an instant out pouring of emotions. And done. Not so easy my young friend. It’s much more than that.
But maybe it is too late to dissuade you, since you said that you have already published one book of prose poetry. Prose poetry sounds like a hedging of the poetry bet. Not a bad strategy. It could lead to prose, a less risky life and gives better odds of making it big (name and financial).
Maybe it’s too late to dissuade you because you find yourself doing it for its (your) own sake and no other reason.
Here are some the symptoms to look out for:
You like the way words have sound, rhythm and opinions.
You like the dance of lines, line breaks, stanza breaks, breath, etc.
You like the way words have shape, architecture, texture.
You like its concreteness and abstractness.
You like the act of naming of things, feelings. It gives you a rush.
You see the potential power in imagining the world.
Here is a second piece of advice:
Watch and listen, listen and watch the world come and go.
Notice that very few talk of Michelangelo.
You should, and of the moment and moments as well.
Wonder/wander about the wonder here, there and everywhere.
And feel bad, I mean allow yourself to feel bad. Bad can be good.
Here is the third piece of advice.
Know that you can be out of this world but you have to be also a part of it.
Know that you’re an exile. Note that it isn’t necessarily because you want to be but you have no choice.
Know that you are an outsider, a peeping tom, a squealer, a dealer, a bummer.
Here is my final piece of advice:
Know that the writing life is not a job, it’s a life sentence.
And if this is the part you are waiting for, think that this is the most important, then consider another passion. This is the business part. The necessary task. Use your military training of persevering, of going on against the odds.
How to break into the publishing industry:
Read & write daily and nightly. And in between time.
Go to the library (old school) and look through the literary magazine section.
Go to literary/independent bookstores and buy poetry magazines and books.
Go to (Canadian) LPG, Literary Press Group and see list of publishers.
Go to their website and check out if they’re right for you.
Google (new school) “poetry magazines”
Attend readings (not just spoken word) and meet other writers. They tend to be the audience (family & lovers don’t count).
Form your own writing collective, (outside of writing class). Organize magazines, readings, etc.
Did I mention read and write?
Light nightly candles to lady or gentleman luck.