Saturday, August 05, 2006

Petty Business

A police siren screams down the street, past our backyard. The puppies jangle about beside the fence line searching for something to growl at. Saturday. The incessant heat of earlier in the week has subsided. A cool breeze wafts in from the west as another airliner overhead pierces the constant hum of cicada chatter. Michelle is upstairs in the corner of our bedroom that's become our office. She may be crafting a work of genius, reading fiction submissions to Ward 6, reading one of my newly organized manuscripts, browsing through iTunes, or playing solitaire. I'm not entirely sure.

I've been up since Dixie, the Jack Russell, woke us with her warbling pleas at 7:30 this morning. Most days, she's more precise than any alarm clock. Yet, even though I've been up for three hours, I've been mired by thinking. I did manage to drive a few miles across the sloping hills of Cincinnati and Cheviot to procure enough coffee to snap me from the sleep-induced daze that is threatening to return, and I did manage to check the variety of email accounts I keep, but I've yet to confront the task that seems to be knotting my back with stress: business.

Ah for the life of a freelancer! You can spend an entire week waiting for work, scouring contacts for work, soliciting strangers through the Internet for work, and contemplating any variety of hair-brained schemes to get work only to find that the work you wanted on Monday has arrived on Saturday, when you'd prefer to be walking the city streets in search of a bookstore or an as yet undiscovered bistro.

Alas, as a freelancer (at least in the beginning), you have to seize the opportunities you have. Some of us learn this the hard way. Others, I suppose, stumble from opportunity to opportunity, taking advantage of whatever luck they see while finding ways to make that luck happen. To everyone else, such people must seem blessed or lucky or immensely talented. Perhaps, this is true, but I suspect there is more to the story.

You see, in graduate school, a few of my peers had far more success than I did. In fact, ten years later, this is still true. For a number of years, I would occasionally run across the name of a former classmate in a literary journal or on a website somewhere, and I'd feel that inevitable twinge of jealousy. More, I would reflect on my life thus far, and fall into a funk about my seeming lack of success that must have resembled depression from the perspective of my friends.

Of course, I knew, even in the midst of the wallowing, that such sour grapes were pointless. Brooding about the success of others will not help you revise a poem or bang out the first few pages of a short story. Instead, the best you can hope for is that such thoughts don't make you question your resolve—that you don't look at the success of others as some sort of tacit indictment of your own career.

Imagine, for example, that you're in a workshop and preparing to discuss a poem from one of your peers. You launch into your critique, full of bravado, and certain that you can help her make the poem far better. Now, imagine that after the final critique has been offered, while the class prepares to move on, your peer informs you that the poem has just been accepted for publication in The American Poetry Review.

How would you react?

Personally, I don't imagine that I reacted that well. But why? After all, she had the initiative and courage to submit her poetry widely. I, on the other hand, was concentrating on my studies and aiming to make each poem as perfect as it possibly could be. In other words, I wasn't prepared to have my work out in the public, being evaluated. So, why, should I have been jealous? She was, after all, only seizing an opportunity.

Personally, I've been more adept at letting opportunities slip away, at least until recently. Now, I think I understand a bit more about how to make those opportunities.

Thursday, August 03, 2006


Yesterday, I took the day off. Aside from a few requisite emails inquiring about the status of a little freelance work, I did not write a single sentence. More, I did not read a single paragraph that was not associated with one of my primary obsessions: the NFL.

I'm waiting on baited breath for the football season to start and am even excited to see the first football game of the preseason this weekend. I admit it's a problem, but what a wonderful problem to have. I've spent the morning in what seems a dallying mood—despite a few important emails and a fair amount of time spent tidying the house as though I were a housewife from the 50s. In fact, while waiting for work that seems less and less likely to arrive today, I've been hanging out in the kitchen, watching daytime TV.

Aside from the soap operas, daytime television is populated with talk shows and a shocking variety of "real-life" court shows. There is a deep and abiding sadness that seems always near the surface when you watch daytime television. Former friends sue each other. Former drug addicts tell their stories before a studio audience. But the commercials are worse, far worse. Infomercials tout supposedly secret ways to make more money than you can imagine buying and selling real estate, but you have to buy a course. Technical schools for automotive repair, business administration, and medical administration offer shortcuts out of working class poverty. And every other commercial, of course, details how to keep you floors glistening or skin soft as silk. I suppose, in some ways, those hours while most of the world is meant to be working reveals much about what's important in our culture.


Lately, when I think about poetry, my mind wanders toward terms like marketability. I contemplate whether or not this poem or that poem can find a readership. I think about how to make Ward 6 an attractive destination to readers who might not otherwise spend much time perusing poetry.

As much as I hate to admit this, such thoughts aren't completely out of character for me. Working late one night at the computer clusters in college, I ran into a fellow English major and stepped outside for a smoke. At the time, I was working on poem about—of all things—the cruelty of some criticism. Alas, the poem was far from perfect in its execution, but that didn't stop me from showing it to my friend during that smoke break. Indeed, if I remember correctly, I somehow went from his comments on the poem into what must have been some sort of manic riff about my intention to be a famous poet who was unafraid to sell out.

This daydream plan, alas, has proven far more difficult to execute than I imagined. Perhaps there's still time.


When I first started sending poems out to various literary magazines, I simply let the poems speak for themselves. I never included the simplest cover letter, thinking that no editor could fail to see my poetic genius. Within a few months, I reasoned, my poems would be gracing the pages of The New Yorker, New Letters, and The Paris Review.

No such luck. Now, imagine for a moment that I actually was the budding literary genius that all young poets must occasionally imagine themselves to be. Would my chances of acceptance have improved?

Sure. But, to my mind, with all due respect to the above-mentioned magazines, my chances would not have improved by a great deal. You see, for all its noble aspirations, poetry remains a business. In a lot of ways, of course, it isn't exactly a viable business, but an editor must consider details like circulation, and for now, a name like John Tate or John Ashbery, is certainly more likely to sell a magazine here or there than my name—regardless of the quality of the poems. More, I doubt very strongly that those poems stood out from the rest of the slush pile. There was no glitz, no glamour, no high-budget special effects to interrupt the monotony of one of the assistant's days. Of course, given the format, no literary magazine genuinely has time to give a poem the kind of reading it deserves.


When I turned 30, fear of time prompted me to send out a massive flurry of submissions. That process, however, was entirely different. I included cover letters.

Now, most books on writing or poetry provide copious examples and details about how precisely to construct a cover letter. And they are, I suppose, functional, adequate, and most importantly, professional.

But, what if, your most professional letter says, in essence, I went to school, but I'm still sort of new at this whole poetry thing, and please publish me, so I can have some semblance of the career I aspire to?

Yeah. Good luck.

A cover letter is more than an extra sheet of paper to make you sweat your postage. A cover letter is an opportunity to open a dialog with whoever happens to be reading it. More, a cover letter is an opportunity to showcase those mad writing skills you've been honing.

Seize that opportunity. For me, I took a slightly off-kilter, vaguely manic approach to those letters with the primary intent of making whichever reader happened across one of them smile. And, I think it worked. Of course, it's vaguely possible that my letter is posted on bulletin board at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and Hilda Raz, has scrawled across the bottom something like, "never publish this guy in Prairie Schooner."

But I'm comfortable with that risk. You see I had a blast writing those letters. They reminded me, for the briefest of moments, why I started writing and that, frankly, I'm not bad.

So, next time you submit, try it. Try crafting a cover letter that is a minor work of art in itself. Oh, don't agonize over it in the way that you would carefully consider each and every syllable of a poem, but use your voice and take advantage of your style. I suspect, that it might go a little way toward establishing the "brand name" of you.

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?