Saturday, February 08, 2014

Ask a Poet: 2/2-8/14

So, this week I had a few interesting questions from writers and poets from as far away as Kenya to around the corner. I thought it might be interesting to share a few of them with you, and a brief version of my responses, to spare all of you the more long-winded version the original questioner endured.

One thought that I've particularly been mulling over was the realization: I'm not as concerned about a poet's verse following the rules as I am about their verse following their souls.

But on to the questions:

I've been sending my work out, but I'm getting so many rejection letters, it's depressing. Do you ever get those? How do you handle it?

I've gotten them. I still get them. In fact, I got a very snippy rejection this week, from a journal who shall remain nameless. But you develop a thick skin about this sort of thing. You often should bear in mind that the poem may not be the problem, it's whether it fits with the journal in question.

Over the long-term I always expected that a poet's career naturally includes getting enough rejections to wallpaper a room. Or what kind of poet are you?  The Michael Jordan quote applies here: "I've missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I've been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed."

 I'd feel suspicious if I always got accepted, because that would tell me I'm not taking any risks. Of course, I'd also feel suspicious if I ALWAYS got rejected because there may be something I need to look at about that poem or my process, because even for the worst poets, CONSTANT rejection is pretty rare. I don't want to suggest there's a journal for EVERY poem, but there are homes for a great many of them. One's job as a poet is to find a good home for as many good poems as you can.

Do they appreciate poetry in your country? In mine, it's seen at best as a hobby, certainly not a profession.

Well, in the old days in Laos, poets were considered "The Eyes of the City." Lately, in communities around the world, it can certainly feel like we're keeping a lot of them shut.

But for me, I don't see poetry as either a hobby or a profession, but a state of being.

The self is such an onion. Peel away all of these layers we have. At my core, if you take away my language, age, name, nationality, so many different markers of being, and I'm fairly certain, poet would be one of the last things that's left.

You've been published around the world. When did you first feel you were ready to be published abroad?

I often tell emerging writers, don't be afraid to seek an international readership. For me, it actually came up because I was having so many difficulties being printed in the US, even by journals that were supposedly seeking poems and writing from Asian Americans or from local residents. I got fed up, and decided to send some poems to several journals abroad and got accepted there.

London Ghetto Poets, Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, and Poetry Niederngasse in Switzerland were among the first foreign journals to print my work, and I think that's an even more validating experience than publication in many US journals, because your work has touched someone whose cultural frame is potentially so much more different than yours.

So I say: Submit to journals abroad. You learn a lot that can improve your writing back home. There's some people who think you have to build up your writing domestically first, and that has worked for some writers. But I don't believe in that approach, myself.

And finally, a Lovecraftian question:
Why are so many people attracted to H.P. Lovecraft's stories where humans are a tiny, insignificant mistake?

I find that these stories resonate most with Americans as a really mind-blowing proposition. It's a very big contrast to their literary traditions that position them as the center of the Universe. Others suggest that Lovecraft was a nihilist. But for me, I've found the work interesting because it dovetails with a more realistic assessment of humanity's place within the great chain of being. This is a mindset that you can also often find within certain philosophies and artistic movements in Asia. Although some believe we're apex entities compared to some forms of grass, bacteria, and now, apparently, immortal jellyfish, well, when the stars are right, you tend to see things in perspective.

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