Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Writerly Identities

Yesterday, I went to this blog post, thinking I'd simply be reading an editor's insight into how poems get chosen for the Best American Poetry anthology.  Little did I know that I'd be reading about a "scandal" that would get more poetry attention in one day than just about anything that I remember, short of deaths of famous poets.

The whole essay is fascinating, for the reasons I thought it would be.  How does one person take all those poems and choose the best 75 of them?

Yes, as we all suspected, it's a highly personal and sometimes political process.  For the poets, it's a matter of luck.  If I had published more last year, perhaps Alexie would have chosen my poem.  But that might only work if I had happened to write and publish something that appeals to his aesthetic.

Would it have helped if I had created an alternate identity, say one that made me seem an ethnic minority?  Would it have helped if I had chosen a name that made me sound male?  Christopher Berkey, my male counterpart!

I did not succumb to the outrage that many might feel.  My brain did not immediately go to issues of colonialization and appropriation.  No, I thought of an article I read a few weeks ago, where a female author submitted under a clearly male name (George) and got many more positive responses than she did when she submitted the exact same pages under her own name--the exact same pages.


For those of us who want to throw up our hands and walk away from our writing, I'd offer this wonderful post by Jeannine Hall Gailey.  Let's not forget what makes us happy about writing.

The publication rewards for poets are so small that I'm surprised that anyone pays any attention to that side of the poetry business at all.  I can say this, of course, because my job does not rely on a tenure track that means I have to publish books.  I'd argue that few of us have those jobs.

In fact, going back to the blog post by Alexie, I was fascinated by this finding:  "Approximately 99% of the poets are professors."

I wonder how he defines "professor."  He may not mean the term the way that I do; he's likely using it as a loose term for college teacher.

I think further back, to my earliest days of full-time teaching at a community college, when it was first becoming clear to me that literary success--by which I meant I could quit my teaching job--might be a longer time coming than I originally thought.  I looked at my writing projects, and I said, "So, Kristin, would you still be doing this writing if you knew it would never be published?"

The answer then was yes.  The answer today is still yes.

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