Cattiness, and the Dog-Eat-Dog World of Poetry
No, I don't think the poetry world is exceptionally nasty, yet the animal metaphor serves well as an entry into the subject of competition. Following the concepts that writing is a way of thinking and that the nature of the blogosphere is one of immediacy, I don't have this all figured out but I'm working on it as I go along.
Here in San Francisco, on Highway 1, on bluffs overlooking the Pacific, there's a dog and dog-walker's paradise called Fort Funston. Despite the posted warnings that it is a leash-only area, thousands of dogs a weekend come and go along the paths and shrubs and dunes unleashed, following (loosely) their masters, running after balls and other toys, and sniffing each other's butts in friendly greeting, as dogs will do. Many of these same creatures, walking leashed down the sidewalk with their masters, will snarl, bare their teeth, even attack another dog. (My dog only picks on the ones who are smaller than she is, heh heh.) I think the reason behind this is an animal's territorial nature, its need to guard itself and its master from encroachment or perceived danger on the sidewalk. However, free to run from threat and surrounded by miles of space, mastiffs mingle with mutts, pit bulls are rarely pugnacious, and wagging tails are the rule.
What does this have to do with the world of Poetry? Bear with me. As many of us have experienced, success in the business world is as often a matter of who you know and connections, in general, and being in the right place at the right time, as how hard you work and how good you are at doing your job. The smaller and more competitive the world--the high tech situation today, for instance, compared with that of the late 90s--the more those things factor in. Believe me: I am in an enviable job situation while people I know who are far more talented than I have been out of work for years, including people who interviewed me for my job.( Yet no one sends me hate mail.)
In Poetry, where many of the big rewards (I'm not talkiing personal satisfaction now; that is another thing entirely) come in $35/page increments--or two free copies--where, as others in the blogosphere have noted, no one, in the world at large is going to know you even if you win a Macarthur or Pullitzer, and where you will have a hard time all your life explaining to your own family what you do, let alone why you do it, we're all mountain goats, struggling for a foothold on the hill. And we don't want to admit the Facts of Life and Luck here. We don't want to allow that sometimes luck or who you know, or simply knowing how to play by the rules can help or hinder an individual poet's case. And I'm not even talking about sleeping with the contest judge! Let's exaggerate the situation: Suppose you wrote exquisite poetry, were master of both form and content, could assimilate tradition and yet be avant the rest of the garde--and yet you wrote in pencil, in longhand, on onion skin erasable paper and never included an SASE. Believe me, you'd have a better chance of winning the lottery than getting anyone to publish you. Yet when someone wins a competition, even one we did not enter, how easy it is to forget that aside from being a good writer, that person played by the rules. In the latter case, they actually entered. Is that so terrible? Yet sites like Foetry play up tenuous connections, as if all of us should have been born, instead of from the sex act, of immaculate conception and a virgin birth. What I'm trying to say is that the contest mentality, or the intense competition in general for the small (worldly) rewards of poetry is, in my mind, why this happens. If there were room for more of us--or, actually, if there were the perception that there is room for all of us ( because really, my "success" doesn't diminish the chances of your success, does it?) would we be all wagging our tails happily?
Speaking of perception, the ease of connection and communication is, I think, also a factor increasing our sense of competition. I personally think that the Internet is a good thing--because in the past, a nobody like me wouldn't have stood the chance of publishing in the same magazine as T.S. Eliot, let alone maybe communicating with him (if he were alive, that is) or even studying with him. In the past, poets expected to commune only with their typewriters and communicate by mail--and sometimes it worked, but there were many fewer places at the table then. So now, if my right hand and your left hand conflict for space, we can at least be thankful that we are there to sup.
This post is not meant as an excuse for nastiness, not at all. Neither is it a thought-out theory of what we should write or whether poetry matters. We should write our poems. And it does.