I spent a while catching up with a very dear friend--someone whose poems I greatly admire, a person of discernment, an articulate critic, a riveting performer, etc. But my very dear friend is bitter that he hasn't yet managed to parlay his stunningly good poetry into a career as a poet.
Put aside for a moment your skepticism about poetry as a career. No, really, put that aside. There are people who do make a career of poetry, and a living at it too, so why should my friend not be one of them? It's not a stupid question on his part.
So there we were under the big tent, watching the famous poets on the main stage. After each one, while the applause roared, my friend leaned to me and made some observation about the last poet's shortcomings. What about that performance could only have been accomplished in poetry? If you'd been told that it was stand-up comedy, would you have been able to tell the difference? Was anything happening in that poem, if you strip out the identity politics? Does this guy have anything going for him aside from the baritone voice? He'd have served himself better if he'd boiled it all down to, What do they got that I ain't got?
After a poet from Bangladesh read her work in a translation someone else had made from the Bengali for her, my friend leaned over to say, I'm not sure that was a poem. Did you think that was a poem? Um, no, but it's probably a poem in the original Bengali. Oh. Maybe so.
What I keep trying to say to him is... Well, matociquala was more concise making the point about genre fiction than I ever was when making it about poetry. Books don't sell because of the things they don't do wrong; they sell because of the things they do right. It's not really helpful to the writer who hasn't broken in yet to point to the flaws in a successful writer's work and say, My writing doesn't suck in that particular way, so where's my fame? Where's my money?
The thing to do is go to school on anybody who knows something you don't, even if you're not sure yet what it is. Even if it's something you revile and would never choose to do. There's no success that can't be learned from. If the other guy's published and you aren't, he probably knows something worth knowing.
My brilliant but disgruntled friend has gone on his way, too dismayed to return on Sunday for the last day of the Festival. I don't know when we'll cross paths again. No doubt, when next I see him, he will still be convinced that the only reason publishers are willing to print Diane diPrima's poetry is that she slept with Kerouac back in the heyday of the Beats. The heyday of the Beats was some time ago, and I'm pretty sure nobody has ever bought a copy of Loba on the basis of some dead guy having thought the author was hot back in the 1950s. Any publisher who can curry favor with Jack Kerouac now by publishing his ex-girlfriend... Well, that's a cosmological problem for another day, like maybe Samhain. Questions about how diPrima has kept her networking up for half a century so that she's still able to get her work to market when most of her original cohort is dead, or questions about what human need her work speaks to such that she still has devoted readers, well, those are practical questions that might help with the problem at hand.