When I was a young fellow, I had a consuming passion for a young woman who lived in Chicago—let’s simply called her JM. & so, off & on for a couple of years, I found myself in that great city paying her visits. Truth be told, she was one of those very distinct faces in the front row of my poetic audience—so distinct, in fact, that perhaps she was almost the only face I focused on for a few years.
This is all to indicate that I placed extraordinary importance on her opinion of me & my poetic gifts. During one of my visits to Chicago, I met her at an ad agency where she worked, downtown on Michigan Ave in one of the landmark skyscrapers. During the visit, I met her boss—an urbane & older man. When JM introduced me to him as a poet, his first question was, “What have you published?”
This was 1981, & I’d published nothing at that time. I can still remember my chagrin! I told myself that I was going to remedy this just as soon as possible, & once I was back in Vermont, I started sending out poems with a will.
& whaddya know? I got published! I was published in a few literary mags & was feeling pretty good about myself. I was then accepted into a good MFA program at the University of Virginia. Most people who knew me, peers & professors alike, believed my life’s course was clear ahead: a career in academia as a successful poet.
But something happened in Charlottesville. While I did well in school & gained respect from my teachers (Charles Wright & Greg Orr), I also started to question the career path I’d seen so clearly only a brief year or two before. I found myself not wanting to write the sort of poetry that was getting published in the mid 80s—I experimented rather a lot with form, but for various reasons, my poems also didn’t fit very well with the “new formalism” that was current then—this was the period when one of my peers characterized my writing as “beat formalist,” which may have meant that in editors’ eyes it was “neither fish nor fowl.”
& in fact, as it got more difficult to publish what I was writing, I tended to become more, rather than less, contrarian, & more determined to write what I pleased. It was also true that a good number of my peers liked what I was doing, & some of them started literary mags, so my publications continued, tho now outside the circle of journals & contests that one was (is?) compelled to write for in order to foster an academic writing career.
One event regarding publishing really stuck with me during that time. A peer in the MFA program won one of the more prestigious young writer contests, the prize being a book publication. & I remember seeing that same book, less than a year later, in the remainder bins of the Charlottesville bookstores. On the other hand, & in fairness to this “process,” this poet does have an academic career.
But I found myself in the position of rebel, but without the wherewithal to carry this all the way thru—because I realize in retrospect that had I carried this stance to a logical conclusion, I also might have achieved a sort of “success.” But in fact, my poetry began a long residence in a sort of limbo—respected & liked by a fair number of peers, including folks who were achieving success in “poebiz,” but gaining absolutely no traction in that “poebiz” world. As time went by, I sought publication less—for one thing, I saw its main purpose (at least in terms of mainstream lit magazine publication) as providing stepping-stones toward the academic career I’d rejected. & speaking of rejected—my poetry still didn’t seem to match what any of the mainstream mags were looking for. Also, by this time I’d moved to San Francisco, where I developed a presence as a café reader. My readings were popular, & to a great extent, I found them more satisfying than publication—I’ve always had a “performer” streak.
Now I’ve written all this & still not addressed the self-publication question! Next time, I promise!