Poet Tory Adkisson blogs about how to write dangerously.
Even as a sophomore college student with one workshop under my belt, I was ambitious and felt a certain desperation to “prove” myself as a poet. Never mind I had only been writing poetry seriously for less than a year, and I had no idea what I was writing or what subjects interested me. I had always been led to believe I was precocious—I was, after all, the only Freshman in my first college-level workshop (and admission to the creative writing workshops at UCLA were by application only, meaning it was competitive, meaning I must have obviously been better than other people, or so my meritocratic brain wanted to believe)—and so, thinking I must be the most special of snowflakes. Getting something published seemed to make sense as part of my progression.
The only problem with that logic (well, not the only problem) is that, with rare exception (Keats immediately comes to mind) there are no prodigies in poetry, or really in art in general. Sure, one might be able to acquire technical skill at an accelerated rate, but that acquisition doesn’t afford one the material, the fuel, what the French call ardor, that produces real art, art that stirs the brain in concert with the heart. So each rejection I received crushed me, delicate and proud flower that I was, because I had to face the incontrovertible truth: I just wasn’t that special. If The New Yorker didn’t recognize me, I thought, what sort of a writer am I?
I know now that I was a young writer who thought he had arrived. Being a poet is like being on a long journey to an unknown destination—you pack your bags and, at ever step along the route to your destination, you acquire more luggage, pack more things into them. Perhaps the destination is the final disembarking on death’s docks? I can’t say for sure because I’m not even sure I’ve boarded the ship, let alone left the harbor. All this figuration may be distracting from the point that poetry awards those who take the time to be infused by its presence and by the permeating stain of life.
There’s another simile I’ve been thinking of recently, that being a poet is like being a vessel for liquid—there’s a certain way in which you have to give in to the passivity of being a container, of never knowing when the liquid might pour into you, or how much of it. The liquid (experience? life?) comes in fits and starts, and the liquid changes your shape. Maybe we all start out as cups and end up as jugs or carafes, and the writing we do is what happens when you tip the vessel over. It’s not a perfect metaphor, but the most valuable metaphors are not perfect—that’s something I’ve learned over time, the value of flaws, of cracks in the vessel, of a little leaking.
My teacher, Henri Cole, has often spoken to me about his disdain for tepid poetry, poetry with no ambition, with no desire to reach toward the sublime. I share this antipathy, and find that much of the work I dislike that appears in magazines suffers from this problem. I think that it’s a symptom of publishing work too early. If I have any practical advice beyond all this impressionistic musing, it’s that publishing should never be a consideration when you write something and that publishing should never be tied to your own vanity. Both lead to producing tepid work.
It’s also very important to read whatever magazines you intend to submit to. How can you know what the editors like if you don’t read what they’re publishing? Remember, publishing work means you are entering a conversation with other artists. If you’re going to enter that conversation, no one’s going to listen if you don’t have something valuable to contribute. It’s taken me a long time of sending out work, oftentimes long before it was anywhere near ready for public exhibition, to get my poems published. To quote W.S. Merwin, quoting John Berryman, “paper [your] wall with rejection slips,” and know that rejection is a necessary part of your development; your bones may break, but they will heal and be stronger for it. Know that there’s always another journal out there to discover, another editor out there to discover you, and that the work only gets better so long as you push yourself beyond what’s easy. The best thing you can do is write dangerously.
Tory Adkisson edits poetry for The Journal and will receive his MFA from The Ohio State University this spring. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in West Branch Wired, Pebble Lake Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Salamander, Cave Wall, Cream City Review, Third Coast, and many other fine journals.