Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Sinking In

The full impact of winning the Dorset Prize is still making itself felt upon me. Thanks to everyone, by the way, who has written with their congratulations and best wishes. To receive such dramatic and sudden validation for a manuscript, Severance Songs, that I've been working on and believing in (and sometimes failing to believe in) for so long has really turned my head around, and the implications are still sinking in.

One question still to be resolved is, whither Burned-over District? I still like that title a lot, but I now think I came up with it because I needed to find some way to turn a corner, to achieve a fresh perspective on a book that I was in danger of losing in some essential way. Which is a strange way to think, because the book was always the book--it was fine, the poems were fine, maybe better than fine. But you need, or I need, to keep a project like that alive and vital in the mind while it's making the rounds, and it's hard to resist the urge to interpret, to find tea leaves, in the innumerable rejections the manuscript received before that shocking final yes.

I'm sure many poets, and artists in general, struggle with this. What do, what can all those noes mean? From a purely rational perspective, they may mean nothing other than that you simply never can tell what will appeal to a given editor or judge, and of course also that there are always many more high quality manuscripts out there than can be published in a given year. But it's hard not to assume that years of no--or years of coming close, which is almost worse--mean something, and that if you just made the right magical change then you'd somehow persuade the next reader to take a chance on your work. This is mostly unhealthy, and if I've persevered this long as a poet, it's largely because of the habit I've cultivated of sending stuff out, and then when it comes back, simply sending it out again.

But Severance Songs wasn't like that, because I've always had a special feeling for it: a belief that it expresses more consistently and compellingly whatever it is I've got in me to express, while at the same time working with and from and to a live language (a live wire). The right balance, in other words, of construction and expression. And so, as it was rejected year in and year out, I began to despair that it would ever find its readership, except in the piecemeal form it already has.

The Odyssey rewrite, which is the one that Tupelo received, was my latest attempt to open a manuscript that risks hermeticism if only in its quasi-sonnet form; I wanted to make it, yes, more accessible to readers. And perhaps I've succeeded in that and that version will stand. Or maybe the poems themselves were enough--have always been enough--and the lesson I should take from this is the simplest and hardest one to learn: have faith. I'd certainly encourage any younger poets reading this to try and absorb that lesson from my experience. (But also I'd advise them not to put all their publishing eggs in the contest basket. Poets under thirty, go start your own presses right now!)

Not to get mystical, but maybe this manuscript has been waiting for its time. It was written in the Bush years and bears those stains, and for a while I felt almost frantic at the thought that history was passing it by. But maybe only now, in a new and unformed era, can I and others hope to reckon with what it was to feel so fundamentally cut off from one's own decency and hopefulness, and at the same time to be so fully alive with desire.

Thanks again, readers, for the support you've shown me over the years.

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