from New Letters, Volume 74 Number 4
Many writers harbor the desire to become successful poets and rise to the top of their profession. To see one's name on the cover of a slender paperback, to have tens and perhaps even hundreds of readers, to ascend to a lecture podium in a modest-sized auditorium after being introduced by the less successful poet who has been introduced in turn by an earnest graduate student unsure of the pronunciation of your name—these are heady rewards. Beyond these lie the true grail: generous grants, an endowed chair at a university, the big money that will allow you to write and remodel your kitchen, while freeing you from reading the incoherent ramblings of inferior wannabes. How can you realize your dreams? Follow this step-by-step advice.
First, receive some measure of recognition as a writer. Publish in a few literary journals of small circulation, then publish a book or two with a struggling non-profit press and receive a pittance of an advance on royalties. This is step one. Step one is not as simple as it sounds. Think of a little baby, of how long it takes to raise its head without a hand cradling it, then how long to flail its arms about, until the happy day it manages to roll over of its own accord. Think of the months of crawling; multiply them times one-hundred-to-the-tenth power, and you will have some idea of the difficulty of step one.
Yet babies do stand, and eventually walk, and soon no one thinks anything of it. Of course, some babies will never learn to walk, and if you are one of these unfortunates, it is true that you may never reach step one. If so, be grateful that you don't face the challenges of those who must make their way on two legs. Cats and dogs, opossums and peccaries, rabbits and armadillos and scarab beetles—these are all more content than humans, and all are equally valuable—are, in fact, beneficial to the earth rather than a blight upon it. Humans who are writers are a devastation. Writers plunder, excavate, and strip mine without regard for the consequences to others. They suck their loved ones dry of vital fluids, revealing their beloveds' deepest fears and yearnings. They expose the most precious secrets of their friends and families, and then take the credit and get the applause.
But if you can manage to stand, and are willing to be such a vampire, a succubus from the realms of depredation and darkness, read on. Step two is to win some small, local awards, and then, after half a lifetime of literary labor, finally to be nominated for a major award. For the ceremony at which the winners will be announced, fly to New York City with the miles it has taken you seven years to accrue. Bring your boyfriend with you, even though the two of you are breaking up, because you are afraid to go alone. Spend an afternoon having your makeup professionally done for the taping of a Barnes & Noble interview in which you say things like, "If you want to be a writer, you must simply persist." Say this while looking directly at the camera, like an actor in a movie who has dropped all pretense of being a believable character, like a politician feigning sincerity while laying the groundwork to rip away every freedom you hold dear. This interview will never air. Try to get through the next twenty-four hours without washing or even touching your face, so your makeup will be intact for the ceremony.
At the ceremony, stand beneath a four-by-six-foot black-and-white photo of your face that makes your actual self look ugly, overweight, and slovenly. Smile. Later, you will weep in the empty ballroom—everyone else will be at the cocktail party—while your almost ex-boyfriend (all wrong for you, not to mention fourteen years younger, but what an amazing body, you will never feel those muscled arms holding you again, sob, weep, weep) goes around to each table loading up on the leftover stacks of free books. Later still, you will watch a revered male writer, honored earlier with a Lifetime Achievement Award, relieve his compromised old bladder in a potted plant in a corner of the lobby. When asked by a concerned publisher if he needs help, he will respond, What, do you want to hold it for me? and you will weep again. Not because of the frailty of human beings, no matter what the scope of their accomplishments, but because, when the winner of the major award was announced, it was not your name that was spoken by the celebrity MC, not your folded-up speech thanking your mother that was heard by the hundreds of people pushing the berries-and-chocolate dessert around their plates.
It is crucial not to win the major award, because then you might feel too great a sense of achievement. Be a finalist, but not a winner. This will keep you forever unsure of the scope of your talent, and you will be able to continue the habits of excruciating self-doubt and misery that stood you in such good stead during the many years you received no recognition at all. Notice that all around you, people of little imagination and even less heart are being honored with prizes, with obscene sums of money, with publications of their execrable twaddle in prestigious magazines like The New Yorker. Hold fast to the simultaneous sense of moral superiority and abject failure this observation inspires.
At this juncture, pay attention to your e-mail. Your account name should be chosen from among these: poetrybabe, writelikecrazy, hatemyjob, writergrrl, rimbaudsister54. Check your inbox compulsively to see if anyone wants to offer you money to give a reading or workshop. These offers will be few, so you will find yourself reading spam to justify running to the computer every three minutes. You will begin to seriously consider adjusting the size of your nonexistent penis, or giving your bank account number to the stranger in Nigeria offering to split his inheritance with you. You will become fascinated by strange strings of words such as bullyboy bangorcumberland jehovahmonetarist antares driftdeadline embeddable ephesusmyrtle, and wonder if you can use them somehow in a piece of writing. Ordering a large, unaffordable prescription of anxiety-relieving drugs will be a constant temptation. Resist that temptation, and steal your new boyfriend's Xanax instead.
Once or twice a week, drink a little vodka mixed with lemonade in the middle of the day, while your new boyfriend is at his real job, making four times as much money as you. You are a poet, after all; a little something to take the edge off is allowed. You work part-time in order to write, and lately you aren't writing much of anything. What you do write, you realize, is crap, garbage, shit. That major award nomination, which once seemed to promise such a heady future, was in fact the apex of your career. Since the nomination, you have received numerous form rejections, no grants or fellowships, and several fan e-mails from people who clearly meet the legal definition for insanity. These are the people who want to date you. They have pored over your poems and concluded that you will not only share your naked body with them, but also read their demented poetry and thrust it into the hands of editors they are sure you must see socially, or how else would you have become a recognized writer in the first place?
Occasionally, the subject heading of the e-mails will say "Offer of Reading" or "We Would Be Honored .... " Open these e-mails and respond immediately. Don't wait the few days you give the insane fans so that they will assume you are a busy, wildly successful writer with no time to correspond. Accept with alacrity all offers that contain the magic word "honorarium." Reject the others, no matter how nice and gushing the offer, because you are likely to end up sitting through a three-hour open mike during which someone will sing, someone else will break into cathartic sobs, a third person will drum, and the technician recording the evening will step out from behind the camera to read his first-ever poem that he just now wrote, he was so moved and inspired. When formulating your rejection, it is acceptable to lie. If the reading is nearby, respond, "I'm so sorry but I have a previous commitment." If the reading is farther away, say, ''I'm so sorry, but I was recently injured and my doctor has not cleared me for travel."
Once a bona fide, i.e., paying, invitation has been extended, try to obtain as high a fee as possible. Tell yourself you are worth every penny, but secretly feel the way you did when you were on food stamps—other people need and deserve this more than you. Feel anxious about the upcoming trip because you hate to travel. Feel anxious because you are basically a private person and can't live up to the persona that is floating out there in the world acting tougher and braver than you. You are a writer, after all, and prefer to be alone in your own house with your cat. You don't really like your fellow humans, except for your lover, whose stories and mannerisms can be usefully stolen and put into your writing. When he traveled with a carnival as a young man, he learned to eat fire and to put a nail up his nose. Sensibly, he left the carnival to work in sales, while you suspect that you have become a sideshow act, a fake mermaid shriveling in her tank, uselessly flipping her plastic scales.
As the event approaches, ramp up your level of anxiety and focus on these specific possibilities: the presenters will not have obtained a single copy of your books to offer for sale. There will be an audience of three in a six-hundred seat auditorium. You will miss your ride from the airport and end up lost in a strange city late at night, in the rain, trying to climb in the window of a private citizen's apartment you have mistaken for the university guest residence. Two teenage girls will come to the window and ask you for cigarettes, and then their redneck father, who thinks you are a prostitute, will show up and tell you to get the fuck away from his daughters and drive you back out into the freezing elements. These things have all happened to you, so your anxiety will be well-founded. Go ahead and have a little more vodka with lemonade, and get slightly drunk by dusk. Try to write a few good lines and then give up in despair. Tell yourself you are foolish, feeling terrible when you have actually been asked to share your work with other people. It is the work that you love, and sometimes you even get paid for it. Tell yourself you are lucky, that people envy you. Tell yourself this is what you toiled and sweated your whole life to be able to do, and now you are doing it, and above all, don't be such a goddamned little baby.
About the Author
Kim Addonizio's awards include two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Pushcart Prize, a Commonwealth Club Poetry Medal, and the John Ciardi Lifetime Achievement Award. Her recent books include Ordinary Genius: A Guide for the Poet Within and Lucifer at the Starlite (W.W. Norton, 2009), a collection of poems. She is the author of four more books of poetry, as well as two novels, and teaches workshops online and in Oakland, Calif.
University of Missouri—Kansas City
Editor: Robert Stewart
Administrative Director: Betsy Beasley
Editorial Assistant: Amy Lucas