• Here’s the Story

    I wrote a book called The Forest for the Trees and it’s an advice book for writers. For four years, I blogged every day about the agony of writing and publishing, and the self loathing that afflicts most writers. A community of like-minded malcontents gathered and thus ensued a grand conversation. Now, the most popular posts are gathered in Greatest Hits ( a work in progress) Gluttons for punishment can scroll through the archives. If I've learned one thing about writers, it's this: we really are all alone. Love, Betsy
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The Answer Is Blowing In the Wind

Spent the weekend with my oldest friend from my MFA days. Twenty-seven years later and we still howl about the biggest assholes in our program. When you’re talking about an MFA in poetry, there’s a lot of competition. And to think, all we were doing was writing verse. Given the behaviors, you’d think we were hedge fund managers or General Managers. Why are poets so difficult? Mental illness? Small penises? Financial insecurity? The world’s indifference?

Tell us about a poet.

57 Responses

  1. On my flight home yesterday, I sat next to a poet. How did I know this? He pulled a slim volume of poems out of his bag and laid it on the seat between us, then he sneered when I laid my Vogue magazine next to it. When the flight attendant (strangely) held up the latest issue of Poets & Writers and said, “Is anybody here a poet or a writer?” he grabbed the mag and said, “I’m a poet. I’ll take it.” Then he looked right at me and said, “Not a writer. I probably won’t even open it.”

    I asked if he’d been at AWP and he said, no shit, “I was. What were you here for?” (um, how did I know about AWP??? capital-A-Asshole)

    An hour later he did help me clean up when I dumped the entire can of Sprite in my lap, so there was that.

    • Was he a poet with a definite article or an indefinite article. Wink.

      • Ha! He wasn’t “The” Poet, but he had that Franzen look. Even poets want to look like Franzen.

    • I love screwing with people like that. It’s a challenge to make them cry uncle. But you know me, I have an intellectual sadomasochist thing going, born of overexposure to academicians.

      And what’s wrong with Vogue? I love Vogue. The photos are beautiful.

  2. No one is more surprised than me that I’m a poet. I’ve always hated poetry. But then I started reading verse novels ( hello Elllen Hopkins). Then I wrote one . And sold it. Holy shit. How did that happen?

    • Hopkins doesn’t write in verse, she writes in dented.

      • I didn’t know who Ellen Hopkins was so I just googled her and it’s obvious that she also writes her own Wikipedia entry.

      • How could you tell?

        Hopkins has since written several

        verse novels exposing
        teenage struggles
        such as drug
        addiction,
        mental
        illness, and prostitution,

        including
        Burned, Impulse,
        Identical, Glass,
        Tricks, and

        F
        a
        l
        l
        o
        u
        t
        .

      • I can tell she wrote her own Wikipedia entry because I edit crappy bios all day long and I have an ear for third-person impostors. And only the author herself would cite her fifth-grade teacher as an influence on her writing style.

    • Congratulations on your sale! But does that actually make you a poet? Or someone who can make text look like stars on the page?

  3. When I was much crazier (IMO) I wrote tons of it and I thought it was great. I can’t do it anymore. Kind of sad about it. Transcribed into a lovely red book and can’t even find it.

  4. The Cafe Poet
    Scarf securely tied at the neck,
    knitted cap a size too small,
    carefully adjusting,
    stroking,
    now unbuttoning
    the wool coat bought in France
    a quarter century ago.

    Peering defiantly through
    tinted lenses,
    his battered notebook
    opened wide:
    verses of god hate,
    of self doubt,
    of Paris,
    the anguish of his
    middle life
    all neatly recorded
    in narrow columns;
    a bookkeeper’s tally
    of his poetic art,
    his pride.

    Woven in metaphor
    and alliteration,
    spoken
    assured and hard,
    his misery
    swirls around us – colder
    than the night air
    chilling my coffee-
    warning us to comment
    softly,
    causing even the waitress to pause.

  5. I married one of the writer-slash types. More stable than the purebreds.

  6. The only good poet’s a
    Fucking dead one.
    Live farce, die long,
    leave a good schtooping verse.

  7. Willy Yeats’ only son never reads poetry. Couldn’t stand his father who was so busy with himself in his little Irish tower the 2 kids had to keep quiet and stay away from him. Sad. I like most of his poems but what an oddball.

  8. My first was Bruce Dawe, Australian, studied at school. He opened that door.

  9. AFTER A WHILE by Veronica S. Shoffstall
    After a while you learn
    The subtle difference between
    Holding a hand and chaining a soul
    And you learn
    That love doesn’t mean leaning
    And company doesn’t always mean security.
    And you begin to learn
    That kisses aren’t contracts
    And presents aren’t promises
    And you begin to accept your defeats
    With the grace of a woman, not the grief of a child
    And you learn
    To build all your roads on today
    Because tomorrow’s ground is
    Too uncertain for plans
    and futures have a way of falling down
    In mid-flight.
    After a while you learn
    That even sunshine burns
    If you get too much
    So you plant your own garden
    And decorate your own soul
    Instead of waiting for someone
    To bring you flowers
    And you learn that you really can endure
    You really are strong
    You really do have worth
    And you learn
    And you learn
    With every goodbye, you learn…

    My Tuesday gift. Hope you like it.

  10. Never knew a single poet or perhaps I did and they just never admitted it. God knows my own work is hidden.

    Isn’t this the diner where Jerry and his buddies huddled for all those years?

  11. The only writing I have published is poetry, but I don’t write it anymore.

    The last poet I tangled with was long-haired, leather-jacketed, quivering with tension, appeared at my window at midnight. Then off to Iowa to study with Jorie Graham. I lost track of him.

  12. Here among the crackers and smugly conventional there are few writers, readers are scarce, poets like mermaids and skunk apes. The poets, I suspect, hide among the musicians.

  13. An affair with a poet can be a giddy intense experience, but it can never last. Not for me. Who wants to be with a man long-term who is so freaking sensitive he cries at abso-damned-lutely everything and pictures himself as the star in his own personal melodrama? No, thanks. I chose an engineer for the long haul. He wouldn’t know a good poem if it bit him in the backside, but he knows how to tune an engine. (Been married for 43 years, too.)

  14. My mother once told me that when she described my life to her friends she just said that I was a poet. When I protested that that wasn’t why I was the way I was (underemployed, smart, bisexual, dressed like a moron, looking nothing like Jonathan Franzen, living with roommates, writing), she smiled affectionately and said “I know. It’s just easier to explain.”

    • It’s also much nicer than the label I was given: “The Artistic One”: spoken in a tone of resignation, accompanied with an expression to imply that my parents had, somehow, failed.

  15. What’s blowing in the wind is juniper pollen and I am so fucking sick this morning. My lungs feel like they’ve been beaten by fists all night long.

    Okay, now that I’ve played the sympathy card, what can I tell you about poets?

    Oh, I’ve got it. There is a poet in my part of the world named Lisa Gill. She is a first-rate poet and person. She’s even had books published. The old-fashioned kind, on paper. She organizes poetry groups and poetry readings and brings people to town. She has Multiple Sclerosis but she fights it and she shines. A shout out to Lisa, y’all.

    • Echoing back that warm compliment to Lisa and sneezes instigated by the drifting pollen from pine trees and sweet olive blooms.

    • Aww, Tetman, I thought you had time on your hands yesterday because you were enjoying a little vacation. Your sympathy card worked, I’m sending some your way.

  16. Just one?

    Sometimes I read poets — say,Thomas Hood or Rupert Brooke, Claude McKay or Pam Ayres or Alan Katz—and think that if their personal circumstances and history could be changed, they would still examine their world with metaphor and wordplay and still find myriad subjects to explore, from parenting to social injustice, foreplay to rage, cultural commentary and many wacky homophones. They allow themselves to play and they’d like to to join them.

    And sometimes I read others—Thomas Hardy or Ezra Pound or Sylvia Plath and several others over the last fifty years or so—and think that if they had been granted lovely childhoods and were warm and fed and loved and sufficiently medicated and were paid and laid regularly by people (not necessarily the same people) they respected and vice versa . . . there wouldn’t be much for most of ‘em to discuss.

    This doesn’t make the latter group bad poets, at all—opaque, sometimes, but I’d argue that it isn’t their job to spoonfeed us and it doesn’t always work when they try—and it often makes them brilliant in their deconstructions,whether fierce and burning or coolly scathing or simply heartbreaking . . .

    But it doesn’t seem to allow them to relax much, privately or on the page. And it doesn’t make them comfortable, inside or out, though sometimes that’s exactly what a reader needs.

    ‘Course, I may be talking through my chapeau, but that’s never stopped me.

  17. The effort to make big pictures into small talk, writing poetry is exhausting, and poets get bitchy because nobody gives a shit how hard they worked at Look What I Made, Mom.

  18. I had a published poet as a teacher once;
    that woman could edit moles off a frog’s back and make it look like Prince William.

  19. At grad school parties, the fiction writers would strip to their long underwear and go around kissing people. The poets would crawl into closets and cry.

    The poets were better dressed, cooler, way crazier. The fiction writers were nerdy but basically functional.

    The poets never spent any time at all writing. What did they do all day? (That’s a book I want to read to my children: What Do Poets Do All Day?)

  20. Ah, Betsy, I was (for six years) Editor of Peninsula Poets, official publication of the Poetry Soiety of Michigan. I don’t have an MFA, so I allowed all kinds of poetry to darken the ink on its pages. Also, I encouraged humor and normal lives that enjoyed nature and friendships. In this brief message, I can’t do the subject justice, so I’ll send you one of my tongue-in-cheek efforts:

    O give me a poem with the deepest of feeling,
    A poem that masks sadness terribly appealing.
    A poem that still mourns the loss of a friend,
    Or loss of a true love I thought ne’er would end.
    A poem with sad lines, some short and some long,
    And to thyme them at all would be definitely wrong.
    It’s no crime to rhyme, I must hurry to say,
    It’s just poets know that rhyme doesn’t pay.

    And so it goes. . .

    Webb

  21. The only poet who knows how to read his stuff aloud is Billy Collins and I love him for that.

    I HATE that poet voice that poets use, that up-talking sing-song wifty sound of verbal evaporation, as if their written words were too fragile to be spoken, as if the poet was a “road show Camille”. Everytime I hear that sound on NPR I just want to punch a poet in the face.

  22. There’s just no rhyme or reason to their behavior. Word nazis come to mind but then again I’m simply not well-versed enough to make a succinct critique. I did come to know a poet once. She didn’t shave under her arms. A bit pretentious. But fun as hell in a twisted kinda way.

  23. The only poet I know is our Lizi, http://lizislifelines.wordpress.com/pub/, who is beautiful and courageous and always inspires me.

  24. I’ve been called one and it doesn’t offend me.

  25. the most eccentric poet i know occasionally lies about where he’s from—says he’s from NYC and I know for a fact that he lives in his mother’s basement in Lakeview, has lived in his mother’s basement in Lakeview since the lake was created by engineers in an effort to moisten this dry prairie.

    he alternates between an anxious mess at the coffee shop, clasping a sheaf of battered papers in his hands, and a sexual bravado that comes across as aggressive. he’s remarkably handsy at social events, so much so that i’m reminded of my teenaged years.

    he’s erratic. kinda like his poetry.

  26. I heard a panel at AWP with Dagoberto Gilb and Luis Rodriguez. They each read some snippets of work and then Luis Rodriguez read a poem of his from when he was 18, fresh out of jail, and sat listening to poetry while shaking from heroin withdrawal. It was raw and honest and the way he read…it blew my f’n head off.
    I felt like for the first time, I got it.

  27. I’ll give all the poets credit, it is difficult to write a poem, a really good poem. In my middle school and high school days, I carried around a diary that I actually used to jot down poems. Very juvenile stuff, but I fancied myself as being deep and creative. I may still have that journal somewhere, because I never throw anything away.

  28. A poet is every elegiac voice.

    “Whitman had set American poetry on this road a few generations earlier: the voice of “Song of Myself” belongs to a lyric essayist, contending with himself and his time, using the personal self as the representative of the national type, fusing the individual to history. And the presence of faux memoirists as narrators in American fiction—including Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby, Hemingway’s own Nick Adams, and before that the narrators of Huckleberry Finn and Moby-Dick—also betrays a preference for the first-person voice.
    The “Crack-Up” essays are a similar poetic project. Fitzgerald’s strangled cry in them makes clear that a lyric impulse links the personal essay with poetry, even though essays are a prose form and seem to pose a chronic scourge (or companion) to their apparent kin—narrative fiction. In fact, the essay inhabits an intermediate territory between story and poem. That may be its fundamental appeal. Tell a story and then think about it—all in the same work.”

    F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Essays From the Edge By Patricia Hampl, The American Scholar, Spring 2012

  29. I discovered the extraordinary work of Joy Ladin at AWP, at an amazingly energetic and wonderful panel of trans and intersex poets. I admit that I went to this simply hoping for an antidote to all the dozy-cringey panels, and this was certainly that — a delightful group of gifted poets. A really moving reading, and none of them read in poetry voice.

  30. What’s the best way to upset a poet?

    Be another poet.

  31. At almost every residency I’ve been to, there’s been a terminally degreed poet who scrunched his/her nose at my lack of education/publication and wondered aloud how I’d ended up in such rarefied company.

    But then there are people like this, so it all evens out: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JMYo8uQFRtg&feature=related

  32. I think many poets suffer “modern art syndrome”, they believe that their finished product is better than it really is. In a nutshell, if it can not be understood, it is art. A certaiin cross section of the populace buys into it………….blah blah blah.

  33. Okay, Betsy, I’m shocked. I was re-reading your book recently (because it’s fantastic and inspirational) and thought I’d look you up on the web. As I’m going down through the posts I find “Why are poets so difficult? Mental illness? Small penises?”

    Is there really a need for that? Why go after men in that way? Or at least be fair across the sexes, and come up with an equally offensive physical trait for women: “Why are poets so difficult? Mental Illness? Small Penis? Ugly or smelly vagina?” Why do you need to throw out one more dollop of hate into an already chaotic and hurtful world, Betsy?

    • Come on get a backbone, this is a tough world where sarcasm and satire feed our need for a good laugh and that’s all Betsy was doing. Really? You are offended by that? Maybe you have a small penis perhaps? Let it go; let it go….

      • I’ve been following this blog from the get-go and I have to say I’ve never been offended by anything Ms. Lerner has posted. Jazzed, inspired, saddened, irked, challenged, but never offended. Holy Cows don’t graze in this pasture.

      • Okay. :)

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