After a long hiatus I’m back to submitting poems to journals and peddling a new book-length collection to publishers. The process is ugly, not just because it’s tedious or because it involves rejection (hell, I eat rejection for breakfast!), but because the more I read and re-read my own work the worse it looks.
Many years back, in an interview with Kathleen Cain, the great Irish writer Benedict Kiely remarked that he’d just mailed off the manuscript of his latest novel; how did it feel to finally drop it in the mailbox? Kathleen asked: “Ah, ’twas like spittin’ poison outta me system,” said Kiely.
So the same must hold true for prose writers: The longer one spends looking at one’s work, the more toxic it becomes. Every poem is a failure, every book a litany of failure.
And yet we persist, most of us, if at times sporadically. Toward what end?
Well, the best description of what I think we’re all after has been put forward by Clayton Eshleman in the preface to his new collection of essays, An Alchemist With One Eye On Fire, as quoted in an interview with John Olson: Poetry, Eshleman writes, “is about the extending of human consciousness, making conscious the unconscious, creating a symbolic consciousness that in its finest moments overcomes all the dualities in which the human world is cruelly and eternally, it seems, enmeshed.”
Certainly there is arrogance in thinking that one can actually achieve one of those “finest moments,” but I find that the attempt also inspires humility—lots of humility….