Darren C. Demaree’s new book Not for Art nor Prayer by 8th House Publishing is due out this month. Demaree is a Grist contributor from Issue #6 with “Emily as a Leveling of Ground.”
You can access Demaree’s website here.
Darren C. Demaree’s new book Not for Art nor Prayer by 8th House Publishing is due out this month. Demaree is a Grist contributor from Issue #6 with “Emily as a Leveling of Ground.”
You can access Demaree’s website here.
Congratulations to all the writers who were published by Best American Essays 2015 and to all the notable essays! It was a great pleasure to see two of our own contributors listed among the notables for Grist‘s issue 7:
Allegra Hyde for “Banjo in the Backpack”
LaTanya McQueen for “Violin Dreams”
Congratulations to you both. We’re stoked for you!
I have friends who are true beasts of business, inciting much wonder from me for years. Some of these friends went to school with me, and some are former-teachers-turned-friends. I have learned from various publications about the necessity of making the time to submit work, apply to residencies and conferences, solicit readings, write reviews, and shape an online presence, but nearly everything of value I have learned is from friends.
I used to work at an art college, and I couldn’t help but notice that all students must take a professional practices class. They write statements, artist résumés, cover letters; and research galleries, representation, magazines, and internships. We writers, in contrast, chase after professors in parking lots with our manuscripts (Is the sequencing right this time?) and take over question-and-answer sessions after a great reading. Until we have a class dedicated to the business of writing in B.F.A., M.F.A., and Ph.D. programs, where faculty and visiting writers dispense advice, share blogs, point out what they learned from other writers, and hand out Poets and Writers articles, we will remain in a haze, spinning from poor or absent counsel.
My poet friends rarely bring up business matters unless I do, lest it seem garish. When they do, however, they can list a dozen editors, journal aesthetics, and the changing politics of mastheads in less than a minute. If I am lucky, they have their own algorithm for me and can point to a few journals that may give me the time of day. That doesn’t happen unless a writer submits with great care and builds relationships. That doesn’t happen unless a writer puts in chair-time. Most of my poet friends fumble around like I do and prefer and love best to talk about new projects or books that have changed our lives, so when one of them talks about business, I pay attention.
Poets are already mighty busy. I spend most of my lectures defending poetry, healing past traumas from gruff high school teachers, and arguing for the relevance of our work. Add to this the mysticism and magic of being a poet. If Randall Jarrell says we are getting struck by lightning when we write, we are “the music / While the music lasts” (T.S. Eliot); we feel the Presence of other great poets with Theodore Roethke, strive for redefinition (Evie Shockley), create “word paintings” like Yusef Komunyakaa, and make a mess of everything with our incessant conjuring. Perhaps the business part of our lives can seem too much. Maybe our sensitivities work against us in this way.
I think of the business part of poetry like clerical conditioning. We can’t very well just show up for the game and expect to be our best selves. Judge me if you want, but I depend on my own reward system. I make playlists for when it’s poetry business time, and I use every kind of motivational trick I can. Sometimes I buy a new record that I’ll play on repeat till I’m done with a day’s deadlines. I am just like everyone else who thinks the business part of what we do is boring. Inspired by my brother who is a painter, I used to get up at 4:30 in the morning for years. It was truly horrible to get out of bed, and that did not get easier for me over time, but there was something about starting the day for me—doing research for grants, residencies, conferences taught by poets I admire, contests, and theme issues. I also didn’t have any of the I-should-be-doing-this-and-that-blues for the rest of day. Now I pick one Drudgery Day per week. I also travel to see friends and reward myself with supper and libation after a long day of business. I remember hanging out at Diesel Cafe in Somerville, Massachusetts, with a fiction-writing friend: we sat at this small table and did submissions for hours, and I looked up to see the laptop glow on his face, knowing we were taking care of each other by being there. We were demonstrating our investment in the other.
I had to decide when I thought I was ready for the business of poetry. I had been advised that the worst thing for a poet is ambition; the poem must always trump the ambition. This elicited numerous questions: Why and where did I want to publish? Was I letting others decide what I should do? What did I really want? As a poet, I never feel wise enough or good enough, but I had to decide when I was decent enough that I wouldn’t cringe a few years later after a poem was published. I had a flute teacher tell me once: “The saying’s wrong. Practice doesn’t make perfect; perfect practice makes perfect.” My writing has improved because I am immersed in the greatness of others: I constantly read poetry that’s better than my own, and I choose my friends and teachers for the strengths they have that I lack. But I wasn’t ready for the business side of poetry, frankly. I started asking my publishing-successful friends what they were doing. I studied how they spent their hours. The ones who have a good publishing history all make the time for business. Note I didn’t say successful. There are many successful poets out there who don’t submit. They are happy writing better poems every year. Publishing doesn’t equal success for everyone. That’s important to distinguish.
I’ve noticed that after we get a collection of poems published, we have the book launch, post elated pics of ourselves with towering boxes of new-book-smell glee for a month or two, but then we often don’t hustle the book. In Memphis, where I’m from, nearly everyone is a musician. I know what they have to do to make it because I’ve seen it my whole life. They do not make a record, have a release party, and then move on to the next project. Some poets are lucky to have book tours and guest poet gigs set up for them. We must take the time to set up readings in book stores, especially independent ones, reach out to book clubs, and ask for reviews. We can sleep in guest rooms and visit with loved ones in their cities and ask them to host readings and parties for us just like musicians do. You know that’s a good time. We’d come back rejuvenated and glad-hearted. This helps poetry overall because it brings more poetry to the people, as June Jordan advocated, and it keeps it read aloud, which our kind has always done superbly. It’s more fun than promoting this and that online. Also, isn’t it the best feeling when a poem isn’t just yours anymore, when someone else needs it more now?
Another part of the business is helping other poets. We have to take time to help poets sell their books by buying them for gifts. We must also write reviews. There are so many important books out there not being read because poets don’t have agents, and we are the worst about promoting ourselves and what we love. We are sensitive, and we aren’t pushy. We hate to ask folks to do anything because we don’t want to be a bother. Lastly, we have to stop giving our books away. Recently, a poet tried to sell me his book for his discounted price. He had driven to Memphis from Fayetteville with his family. I had a teacher friend tell me, “People know that quality is worth the money.” Think about all those degrees, all those dreams, all those books you bought, ink, envelopes, printers, AWP costs—you know this list all too well. We don’t even charge for drinks at readings. We leave a bowl out. A church or school would never survive that way. Money is one way to thank someone.
Recently, I talked to the College Scholars program at the University of Tennessee. I was trying to pull them over to our side. I laid it on thick, explaining how they didn’t need to be an English major to need poetry. I shared poems by mathematicians, geologists, historians, and medical doctors. I also told them about Clare Morgan’s What Poetry Brings to Business, a book of studies showing that poetry readers further developed enhanced “self-monitoring” strategies, which bettered the “efficacy of their thinking processes.” She argues that the capabilities we gain from reading poetry are powerful, so much so that we can “help executives keep their organizations entrepreneurial, draw imaginative solutions, and navigate disruptive environments where data alone are insufficient to make progress.” Let’s help ourselves by applying these skills to the business side of poetry.
Heather Dobbins’s poems and poetry reviews have appeared in Beloit Poetry Review, CutBank, Raleigh Review, The Southern Poetry Anthology (Tennessee), The Rumpus, and TriQuarterly Review, among others. She has been awarded scholarships and fellowships to Squaw Valley Community of Writers, Vermont Studio Center, and the Virginia Center for Creative Arts’ workshop in Auvillar, France. Dobbins graduated from the College Scholars program at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. After several years of earning graduate degrees in California and Vermont, she returned to her hometown of Memphis. Her debut, In the Low Houses, was published in 2014. For more information, visit heatherdobbins.com
Lately I’ve developed a new social mutation, a kind of internal timing reflex when it comes to the low art of hanging out. It’s a close cousin to the one-Mississippi, two-Mississippi count I used in college to time how long it took at a party for someone to ask “What’s your major?”, or the one that kicked in a few years later for how long it took coworkers to ask, in the months following my wedding, “So: how’s married life?” But these days the setting and the people have changed. I’m at a bar, or a dinner, or having a smoke, and the players aren’t extras in my daily life anymore. They’re close friends, people I’ve known for sometimes decades, and what I catch myself gauging now isn’t how long it takes for them to ask about my status, but instead about the status—or the profile photo, or the link, or the comment, or the “like”—of real humans we know in common, and how those humans filter their distant lives through a crude, blue web portal.
“Thing is, A.’s just preaching to the choir with the liberal outrage links…”
“Did you read that thing B. posted? Oh, you shared it? Oh then that’s how I saw it…”
“Yesterday C. liked a page for ‘Sluts.’ Right under D.’s kids’ birthday party pics in my feed, I just see C. likes Sluts—”
And so on.
It used to be that this sort of conversational turn would come paired with a doomed complicity, a reluctant break from the standard regimen of TV / work / books / movies / that last time we hung out / work. But it lasted only as long as it took for someone to point out “we’re talking about fucking Facebook,” after which the topics thankfully snapped back to the real-world order. I don’t know when it happened (2010? 2011?) but the shift was heavy and insidious, and now it seems like “talking about fucking Facebook” has become the new conversational order. Depending on the context and how well we know each other, my time spent with friends now goes from zero to full-tilt-Facebook in less than ten minutes. And once the topic’s breached, there’s talk of little else. It’s as boundaryless as it is genderless—male friends, female friends, all of us in the vicinity of our thirties, all of us locked into some indignant semi-gossip about who’s got the funniest statuses, the best pics, the cutest kids. Whose updates are obnoxious, or whose seem sad and dire in their insistent joy. Whose posts make us feel useless, whose make us feel better, and, most importantly, whose we’ve unsubscribed to entirely.
“We should really stop talking about Facebook,” someone will say now.
“I know, I know,” someone else will say.
Then, as a group, we proceed to do no such thing.
But what, exactly, are we talking about when we talk about how people “are” on Facebook? A decade into its existence, its seems that those of us Zuckerberg originally built the thing for—mid-aught undergrads and twentysomethings—still seem at a crossroads in our acceptance of not just the medium and its pull over us, but also the power of Facebook as a sly innovator of the social more. Relationship statuses, birthday wishes, check-ins, the utterly useless “poke”— as early adopters, we gave over to it all jaggedly, and with no shortage of guilt and shame. (I didn’t relent until 2008, at age 30, after everyone I knew had stopped apologizing for enjoying it.) Probably because we still remember a time where we got along without Facebook, the residue of that shame still haunts our activity there, even while the reach and etiquette of Facebookery continues to evolve into something formidable. The web is clogged now with listicles and SEO clickbait featuring tips and no-no’s: how to post, how not to, who to fear becoming, how to comment, when to “like”, etc. — all of it swirling into a stew of nebulous, Fanny Burney-type decorum logic. To a generation who came to Facebook with little beyond an itch to spy on the evolution of people we once saw naked in high school, its not hard to see how that shift in language—and that’s what Facebook interplay has become now, a language—might provoke a response not unlike the one we had when Ice Cube started headlining family comedies: Oh, so this is like, a real thing then?
Which could explain why, to us, Facebook still feels like less of a given and more like a social experiment. Only for this one, we’re both the experimental group and the moderator, responding to our surroundings while at the same time gauging that response, providing real-time commentary on it. To one another. A lot. Yet of all the Facebook conversations I’ve had, none are more thorough than the ones I have with other writers, like me—people attuned to the reflexivity of experience, the power of mannerisms to create character and, above all, story. The talks are exhausting, and can last for hours (I’m not discounting myself here), but the bulk of it is less gossip and more in the spirit of Aristotelian detective work, searching for the holes in the stories of Facebook characters and how they apply to their real-life counterparts—what doesn’t add up. And once we get past the general status-and-photo talk, we arrive always at some version of the same question, one that’s plagued every Facebook conversation I’ve been a part of in the last year or so: How can X be such a nice person in real life, yet such an asshole on Facebook?
It’s a question that’s usually answered with heaps of praise for the real-life person in question; how they’re “really just an awesome person, so nice, seriously, but fuck: if I see another post about how lucky X feels to be married to the amazing Y, or how Z fought the indignities of a grocery line to triumph in their unstoppable quest to be their own biggest fan—and it goes on like this, devolving into some armchair, semiotic no-man’s land where none of us can tell which of the two—the person or the profile—advertises the “real them” more effectively.
Which points to the core problem with Facebook’s goal to be the most lifelike avatar of our true selves. With every effort Big Blue makes to deepen its humanity with photos and videos and widgets and timelines that stretch back to the very moment of our births, it greater exposes an unsettling schism in its depiction of us. Facebook captures everything about us but our essence, in effect creating an uncanny valley of human personality, where the tiny ways in which our profile fails to fully broadcast the “soul” of our being nullify the ways in which it succeeds. We exist in on Facebook only as flat characters, robbed of any arc, converging in a themeless, expressive limbo. Unlike with Twitter, which is somehow empowered by its ephemeral break from anything resembling a true identity (See: @nottildaswinton, @mayoremanuel, @drunkhulk, etc.), Facebook has become handcuffed, as its evolved, by its commitment to the opposite.
As such, an expression of id-like emotion on Facebook—So very happy for Jenny Decker and Scott Raner!—lacks, to the real-life person reading it, any of the drive, psychic tension, or context that led to that emotion. Like with all flat characters, in the storyline of Facebook there are no hurdles or denouement for any of us. And worse: there’s no way to concoct a moment that’s truly shared, which, given the goal of Facebook, can lead to an acute, dissonant kind of irony.
More than once I’ve heard friends confess to spells of deep loneliness and alienation as a result of steady Facebook exposure, that ticker stream of cleverness, cluelessness and self-promo scratching at something nameless and aggravated in each of them. And while I’m sure that’s no doubt triggered by something at least a little FOMO-related, it’s just as possible that the Facebook brand of loneliness could also be a result of inching that close to versions of people you care for, then realizing you’re helpless to tap in to the layers of intangible depth that brought you so close to those people—your friends—in the first place.
The whole predicament creates a distance fuzzy and subtle enough to be immeasurable, but that doesn’t stop me and my friends from huddling in perplexed circles, talking it out as if we’re psychotherapists. But I can’t tell if what we’re doing in these conversations is trying to measure that fuzzy distance, or if we’re mourning the loss of our perceptions of someone’s personality, or if, instead, what we’re really doing when we talk about Facebook is nothing more than plain and simple longing—missing our friends, wishing they could crawl their real, 3D selves through our gleaming little phone screens, have a seat, order a drink, and settle the issue for us once and for all.
Mike Scalise’s work has appeared in Agni, The Paris Review, Post Road, The Wall Street Journal, Indiewire, and a bunch of other places. He’s received fellowships and scholarships from Bread Loaf, Yaddo, Ucross, and was the Philip Roth Writer in Residence at Bucknell University a while back.
On the last night of September—the weather cool, the hills yellow-green, early autumn coming to Appalachia—the poet Edward Hirsch gave a reading in our university library. In introductory remarks that echoed Levinas and Martin Buber, he called our attention as critics and writers to the intimate relationship between self and other, between author and reader.
This relation is difficult to define or quantify. We teach our freshmen English classes the legs of the rhetorical triangle. We trace the line between Author and Audience. There is much talk of efficacy, little of intimacy. Even in the graduate seminar room or on the conference panel, it is easier to practice a shallow hermeneutical skepticism, to assume bad faith, to approach ready for polemos rather than eros. This is not all the time, mind you. Piercing light can still shock me from cynical routine.
This kind of light breaks through the New England forests of 18th century poet Philip Freneau’s “The Indian Burying Ground”:
By midnight moons, o’er moistening dews;
In habit for the chase arrayed,
The hunter still the deer pursues,
The hunter and the deer, a shade!
This quatrain calls me, each time I read it, into intimate relation with
Freneau. Not only do I imagine the ghostly deer he depicts, I imagine Freneau himself in a real Northeastern forest coming upon a real deer, its movements even in life as fluid and delicate as a ghost’s. This is a man who has seen a deer move, who has known or imagined the breathless exhiliration of the hunt, and who through his craft transfers that experience into something strange and striking. Like the deer and hunter which repeat their chase after death, the dead Freneau also repeats his experience to us over and over, through the ages, per saecula saeculorum.
Of course as a reader for a literary journal, I cannot spend all day appreciating an intimate connection with authors through their submitted work. One must eventually judge the quality of their expression. I am keenly aware as I read through my pile of non-fiction submissions that I am not a creative writer. Or rather, I am aware (as I assume many of my literary-critical colleagues are) of my status as a failed creative writer. How many graduate students in literature have the same file on their computers—hidden in a folder within a folder –containing secret creative attempts. My own contains love poems: some effusive, some fragile and affected. I showed them once to a close and particularly candid friend, who told me:“Reading your poems is like dancing with a woman at a seventeenth-century ball. We move formally, exchange expected pleasantries, and leave knowing little about one another.” So much for intimacy.
I am keenly aware as well that many of the pieces I mark for rejection I could not produce myself. Making such judgments requires that I adopt an attitude of great humility.
Often I’ll send a submission to the genre editor with a note explaining my disinclination to give the piece the standard “1-to-5” rating we use to rank contenders for publication. Typically I make this decision because the piece confesses—in graphic detail—abuse, shame, abjection, all manner of degradation. Who can raise the critical pen to dismiss trauma testimony as lacking in polish or sophistication? I am by no means over-sensitive. I have forwarded my share of snarky, biting editorial notes, but there is a limit to cool distance. There is a point where the writer of creative non-fiction is no longer a writer, but a human person trying (well or poorly) to confess some tangled, painful mystery.
Reading these creative submissions reminds me as a student of 19th-century literature that the authors who line my bookshelves were not only once anxious amateurs sending off their work to editors. It reminds me—most fundamentally—that they are women and men who confronted the same tangled mysteries that many of us confront today. They are real. They are individuals. They hold out their experiences as invitations to intimate relation.
As I work through my inbox on the Submittable server, these authors on my bookshelves surround me: a cloud of witnesses, a literary communion of saints. I imagine some strange high priest, his arms raised orans before a bookshelf-altar, reciting their litany: Chopin and Cather, Verlaine and Dostoyevsky, Mann and Mauriac.
To his litany I would add other names—the submitters’ names that glow on my computer screen. They too call us to share in their experiences. They too invite us to traverse—albeit in small, provisional ways—the divide between author and reader, between self and other.
Matthew P. Smith studies 19th-century American literature as a Ph.D. student at the University of Tennessee. This is his second year as a non-fiction submission reader for Grist.