Friday, January 13, 2006

Another year, no Pushcart

Do you get caught up in this nonsense, too? Another year, I say to myself as the new digit 6 flips into place, and no Pushcart, NEA, Guggenheim -- or even a spot in Poetry magazine. I'm adept at making myself crazy as I flip through the pages of Poets & Writers and their announcements of awards won. "I didn't win that one . . . or that one . . . or even that puny one . . . " I mumble as the cheerful mug shots flip by. Well, who wouldn't grin like an idiot when having your photo snapped for an award announcement?

The trouble begins far before the grant application, award opporunity or contest entry crops up. In fact, it begins in human nature itself. Why must we compare ourselves in every direction to know where we stand and what to think of ourselves? It's the antithesis to creating a work of art, that looking furtively around for what others have done and ticking off the marks of what one HAS done. It's hindsight, and not creative vision, and yet I find myself often spending precious time alloted for reading and writing poetry on measuring myself against the wall of others' achievements and find myself not too tall.

I even do it right after I HAVE achieved something. What is that about?

A recent conversation with a poet friend offered an idea for a subtler form of comparison, and one that might be creatively fruitful, instead of sending you off on a pity-binge. It's to read poems that move you and then write back. Write poetry that responds to -- even engages with and references other poems. And you don't even have to cite the other poem as an epigraph. The conversation in question was about Richard Wilbur's Collected Poems, and the subtle dialogues with other, well-known poems my poet friend found in some of Wilbur's poems. We lamented that few people read this literary historical context in today's poetry, and even fewer write into it.

A much better topic to dwell on than to ponder why in yet again another year I haven't won or been nominated for any kind of poetry award.


  1. Hi, Rachel, I've come back to this post a few times because it bothers me. It bothers me on a surface level because I recognize that many poets (myself included) have a need, on some level, for validation. In the grand scheme of things, though, and I know this sounds idealistic, only the poems matter. If you are being true to yourself -- and I believe you are -- don't beat yourself up about it. It's not a valuative thing. It's finding a connection with that one person who doles out the award. At any point in time, it could have been someone else, and the results could have been much different.



  2. Hi Steve,

    Wise words, and appreciated. I hesitated before posting this, but did so because I felt a need to transform these anti-poetry feelings of ambition and disappointment by giving them an airing. I thought others might resonate with this too. Validation is one thing -- I certainly can't complain about not getting that. Yielding to the temptation to compare one's honors and feel the lesser to someone -- anyone -- is undoubtedly pathological.

    You're right, of course, about the arbitrariness of connections. I'm not so conceited as to think I'm an undiscovered genius, but it is heartening to think of Whitman's struggles (not to mention Dickinson's) and plenty of other examples. I realize that most poets achieve hardly any recognition, and their work may not survive.

    But it's the doing that calls us back again and again to the page. The ineluctable shiver of recognition when we hit it right.

    Thanks! Your message was a real lift.


  3. I've appreciated your work for some time, Rachel. Your presence in Blue Fifth, helped shape the journal. This could be said-- acutally, should be said-- of the writers that have appeared there. Time doesn't always allow eds. to say & do all the helpful things.

    Your comment about the writing process itself... "shiver of recognition" is a great point.

    You and your words are recognized. Keep writing.

  4. Sam --

    I can't tell you how wonderful it is to read your words. Thank you for stopping by and offering them. And thank you for sustaining Blue Fifth, which is a wonderful journal. I'm proud to have had work in it (and hope to again). I was also happy to see work there from my friend Lynne Knight.

    People like you who do editorial work are a major force in shaping poetry's future. I really think the most exciting things in poetry right now are primarily represented online.

    So thanks! Doubly.