Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Excuses Etcetera

Outside, the sun is bearing down as the temperature crawls slightly down from a triple-digit precipice. The dogs sprint around the backyard, circling the sweet gum tree before bolting down the hillside to the mulberry tree near our neighbor's yard. The constant symphony of cicadas fills the air, and sparrows twitter an occasional whistle in what seems perfect counterpoint.

Michelle arrives home, and we laze in front of the TV, watching a favorite sitcom. Perhaps tomorrow, I will think of these moments as time squandered, but for now, I'm vaguely happy with the way my work is progressing. I leave for fast food, listening to the chugging guitar strums of a New York-based band, bobbing my head to the flittering hi-hats, and singing along with strained nascent vocals. I return home to eat the greasy food, as the puppies clambered for a morsel or two or people food, staring at both me and Michelle to see which of us would break first. Then, I sprawl out in the guest bedroom to watch an evening's worth of poker and boxing as Michelle laughs from the other room at another sitcom she's been renting lately.

Over the past few days, I've ferreted through the many poems stored on my laptop, and culled a few of them together into a couple of collections. I don't know whether or not either of the temporary manuscripts will stand up to my own critical scrutiny, but I hope that at least one book can withstand multiple revisions and the long, arduous process of submissions.

For me, these are the third and fourth "manuscripts" I've had. In college, I had my honor's thesis, which lacked the cohesion of an actual book—although, as I remember the "collection," it came close. In retrospect, of course, I'm actually quite happy that nothing from that period—other than a self-published chapbook—ever became public. I do have a few poems, written while I was in college that have stuck with me. I still think they're publishable, despite a little evidence to the contrary, and plan to include at least one poem from that time period in my first book of poetry.

The second manuscript I put together was actually my master's thesis. At the moment, I think there are only two (or is it three) copies of that document in existence. One resides in Miami and the other one is in the possession of my primary advisor. I do not doubt that there are quality poems in that manuscript or that, if I had more patience and a stronger stomach for rejection when I was in my early 20s, I would have gotten it published it by now—and regretted the decision a few years hence.

Not that I never sent those poems out—I did. Scattered about the country are a dozen or so editors that have seen poems that, if I had a choice, would not have my name attached to them. Of course, none of them will likely remember a single line or a single phrase.

You see, about a year after graduate school, I moved back to Dallas and into a second-floor studio apartment with bright blue carpet and a bright blue balcony overlooking the parking lot. The apartment was about a mile from one of the projects where my mother lived when I was younger, and about a mile and a half from the nearest coffee shop.

Since I was working a temp job at the time, I didn't yet have a car, and rode the bus on a circuitous route down Northwest highway to the building of a motor oil company that had just been acquired by their sternest competition. Each day, I'd spend the 45-minute bus ride to work reading Kierkegaard, the Poetic Edda, or some volume of contemporary poetry or fiction that had caught my eye at Half-Price Books. All day, I'd fill boxes with file folders, tape those boxes, inventory files, shred paperwork, and do whatever other miscellany was necessary while employee after employee picked up their last day's pay and I kept on working, until the building was empty of everyone other than myself, another temp, and the woman who gave us our orders.

Each evening, I'd stand on the corner, thinking about music or poetry, and wait for that same bus to take me back to my neighborhood in North Dallas. Sometimes, I'd exit the bus early and stroll up Greenville Avenue for a spot of coffee or to pick up a few groceries. Always, I wished I had a car.

If I ended up at the cafe, I'd sit down to write, scrawling one thing or another in a notebook before walking home with a cigarette as my only company. At home, I'd either watch a movie and crash on the semblance of a bed I had, or I'd flick on the old 386 desktop and type away at a few poems, revising and saving what I had.

At some point, during that year and a half, I did manage to submit a few poems to a variety of literary journals. I remember waiting anxiously for a reply, as though I'd asked a girl out. Each time an envelope arrived with my own shaky ink address on it, I felt giddy. I'd run up the black metal steps, fumble with my keys, and tear open the tiny missive, brimming with both certainty and hope.

Inevitably, I'd find my poems, neatly folded, with a bright colored form rejection slip. Alas.

Of course it stung, and at the time, I pinned far too much hope on a hand-written note from one editor.

Yet, after that first flurry of rejections, I didn't send out any poems for about six years. Instead, I ended up in California, chasing the dotcom dream, working odd hours, and writing in furious spurts between my day jobs and my romantic life.

In retrospect, I do not doubt that rejection had more to do with my inaction than I'd care to admit. Even now, given relatively ample time, I'm hesitant to submit my best work. Of course, I have myriad excuses—some of which are even valid. I'm uncertain about which markets to try. I'm uncertain how many poems I have that are—to me—finished. I haven't decided on a marketing approach for my cover letters. I have other projects that need my attention more. I don't have any stamps. My printer needs ink. Etcetera.

I suppose, in all honesty, that if I'm only writing poetry for myself, than these excuses are fine. I may as well wait for my perfect book of forty or fifty perfect poems to be completed. I may as well fiddle endlessly with one poem for months on end until it glitters like a rhinestone. I may as well wait for that book that's certain to win the Pulitzer.

If, on the other hand, I truly write poems so that they can be read and enjoyed, I have to suspect that I've done a tiny portion of the world a disservice. I should have already taken the rejection lumps I'm about to receive. I should have already signed a copy of my book as many as 50 times.

Unless you submit, of course, there's no way to know for sure. Now, which poems did I want to lose for 3 months to Poetry first?


Blogger Les said...

If you check out the Ashbery link, you must listen to the audio.


11:25 PM  

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