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Bob Charles, “Why I Left the Poetry Community”

{Posted by Charles on Blogger in 2008, subsequently deleted, still available via WayBackMachine.com. SA}

Back in 1994, when I began to not just write poetry but also seek out fellow poets and communities of poets for support and socializing, I was an EMT in Denton, Texas. It was not a happy time for me, in large part because being an EMT is every bit as stressful as it is rewarding. If I and my coworkers were generally unhappy in our work, and to be honest we were, it wasn’t because we didn’t believe in the mission of our employers—as who could not find spiritually fulfilling helping fellow humans in times of desperate need. No, the real reason was that we weren’t our own bosses, we worked unreasonable hours, and we saw harrowing shit every day. Over time, the weight that’s daily placed on your shoulders when you’re an EMT increases until you can’t bear it anymore. So it’s no real surprise that many of my co-workers suffered from anxiety, depression, insomnia, night terrors. You name it, they had it. How long someone stayed an EMT was merely a function of how much first-hand observation of heartbreak and death they could stomach. I went back to school in 1994 (for an M.D. I didn’t ultimately receive) in part because I figured that working in family practice would be, if not easier schedule-wise, at least less wrenching emotionally. Sure, sometimes your patients die, but it’s usually the elderly ones, or the ones with advance warning of some sort (say a terminal diagnosis offering, if nothing else, months or even years to prepare oneself and one’s loved ones for the inevitable). It’s not usually a gunshot wound, a suicide, or a sudden cardiac arrest that you have to witnesses firsthand and feel helpless to fix.

When I showed up in Houston (Baylor med) in 1994, I found that my studies kept me away from my poetry writing and my poetry reading more than I would have liked, but I made sure to do all I could to attend local readings, meet local poets, travel to the modestly sized AWP conference annually, and communicate regularly (via email or even, once or twice back then, via letter) with poets living in faraway towns and cities. Over the next ten years the volume of this correspondence increased tenfold, social media—first through online workshops and discussion boards, then via early social media platforms—became a part of my daily life, and I developed a network of friends and acquaintances (mostly the latter) based on in-person interactions either in-state or at conferences, out-of-state readings, and so on.

Very few of the poets I met in those years were happy. In fact, most were quietly miserable.

The misery of poets was a mystery to me because being a poet seemed not to bring with it many of the stressors that had made me and my former co-workers in Denton so unhappy as EMTs. Sure, poetry didn’t pay, but poets didn’t expect it to and so I never found (or heard) that that was the reason for any poet’s unhappiness. They (we) all knew they’d (we’d) have to do something besides write and publish poetry to pay the bills. But the benefits of putting your creative energies into art rather than, say, trying to resuscitate the dead and dying seemed legion: the poets I met had no bosses overseeing their poetry, kept whatever hours they wanted to, used alcohol and recreational drugs to their obvious pleasure and even enlightenment, had audiences (however small and far-flung) for their most intimate and idiosyncratic expressions of personality and intelligence, and held a highly romanticized place in American culture, if not one many doctors or lawyers or engineers or scientists much envied. But the poets I met were still unhappy, almost to a man/woman.

That would’ve been bad enough, as obviously given my past employment I don’t like to see others suffer, but I found that the more time I spent with poets, the more unhappy I was, too.

My own increasing unhappiness, which started almost immediately to affect my med school studies, was particularly upsetting to me for two reasons: one, I’d grown up in an upper-middle class, basically intact and safe suburban family with no diagnosed history of depression or anxiety, so I had no background with these things or easy way to contextualize them; and two, I admired my poet friends and enjoyed their company so thoroughly that the thought that their presence in my social ambit might be having a deadening affect on my psyche was terrifying. These people had become like family, and felt as inextricable from my life as family. Even if my continued socializing with them was making me unhappy, and even if my goal (like anyone’s) was above all to live a happy life, I wouldn’t abandon my family under any circumstances.

So I did what any aspiring doctor would do in that situation: I tried to diagnosis the problem and come up with a course of treatment that didn’t involve any dramatic lifestyle changes.

What I found, quickly enough, when I started to write private journal entries about the poets I knew, was that their involvement in poetry communities—and I only mean the nature of their relationship with these, not the people themselves—largely fell into one of three categories:

(1) The first category of poet was one would loudly and often declaim that the poetry communities to which he belonged were the only things keeping him alive, off drugs, connected to the public sphere in America, and so on. Often this poet would be struggling with many of the same things I was struggling with back in 1998 and 1999 (anxiety and depression, some suicidal ideation) and they would be very clear with their poet friends that it was having poet friends in the first place that offered them the best chance of medicating these ailments. Obviously these poets were writing some amazing poetry, many were giving back substantially to their communities via editorships or by running reading series, and so on. Poetry literally was running on the backs of these poets, and they got precious little thanks for it. But they also were the group of poets most likely to not just forgive but experience a sort of co-dependence with some of the seediest aspects of the poetry community: rampant jealousy, cronyism taking the place of honest subjective judgment, petty vendettas over silly shit, a secret hatred of most other poets and poetry collections and poetries (always paved over in public settings as a genuine enthusiasm for all these things), and most of all the attachment of one’s ego to basically everything. If poets were publishing friends largely because doing so expanded their own sense of space and influence and ego and “presence” in the wide world, this first category of poet was all right with it. If poets were refusing to read any poetry that surprised or shocked or offended them, but also, paradoxically, were spiteful of any poetry that bored them, these poets were all right with that situation even if it seemed to be driving their and other poets’ unhappiness and even the gradual diminishing of poetry’s presence in the culture-at-large.

The reason this first category of poet felt no compunction about the unhealthy aspects of poetry communities, let alone having any inclination to help remedy the detrimental effect of these aspects, was the reason I’ve already said: poetry so measurably improved and in some cases saved these poets’ lives that to tear at the fabric of the very communities that had had this salutary effect on them would be counter-intuitive and self-destructive both. It’d be like not just biting the hand that fed you, but shooting the human who fed you in the head. In other words, being a poet was, by these poets’ own admissions, the best it was ever going to get for them. Without poetry buddies and poetry friend-groups, they would have been, again by their own admission, dead, drug-addicted, or so alienated from American life as to gradually dissolve into nothingness, a sort of spectral presence at the outskirts of human society.

(2) The second category of poets were more workmanlike about their relationship to poetry and the poetry communities they moved within and between. They were the industrious (we might say “careerist”) sort of poet who regularly wrote and published poems, attached themselves to poetry institutions, used real-world and online interactions to network, and would almost certainly say, if you asked them, that they were “generally happy” being poets and spending so much time around others of their tribe. The exceptions to this would only pop up when I starting asking friends and acquaintances of this sort about their daily practices. I’d ask questions like, “Do you read a lot of poetry yourself?” “Do you enjoy much of the poetry you read?” “How many poets are you connected to via social media or real-world networks who you don’t admire personally and wouldn’t befriend but for your interest in them as poets?” “How many emails [later, by the mid-2000s, I would start saying ‘tweets’ or ‘Facebook posts’] are you exposed to each day that annoy you for some reason or another?” “Are you jealous of other poets’ successes?” “Do you often find yourself feeling hatred, anxiety, depression, self-loathing, or increased stress when you find out that some poet you don’t really know has just gotten a university teaching job, or a selection for a national anthology, or a book deal?” “Do you avoid speaking your mind with or to certain people who you either think could help you along as a poet or, alternately, are so vindictive that they’d try to damage your reputation and emotional well-being if you ever crossed them?” 

Once I’d asked these questions, and once these poets had indicated just how much of their intersections with poetry were causing them daily unhappiness, the idea that being a poet made them “generally happy” would start to sound like madness. But then I’d realize why these fellow poets kept at it: either they loved writing poetry so much that the thought of doing anything else was a misery to them, or they simply had no appreciable sense of how happy they would be without all these negative interactions in their lives, so their general sense of wellness had no point of comparison and therefore no context. Sometimes I’d think to myself that if these fellow poets (or me, for that matter, as I was in the very same boat as they were) simply quit Facebook or even other gatherings of poets like poetry readings for six months, we’d never once wake up thereafter wondering what “happiness” could look like to us. But social media specifically, and poetry communities generally, are so insulated and insular and all-consuming that one never gets up the gumption to test out that theory.

Another thing I often heard from poets in this second group was that they considered poetry writing, poetry interpretation, and the teaching of poetry their primary skill-set, and therefore these were the things they needed to centralize in their lives. These poets wouldn’t say, as the poets in the first group often did, that without both poetry and other poets they couldn’t go on; instead, they’d say that without poetry they couldn’t go on, and therefore if that meant submitting themselves to certain indignities and unpleasantness in the American poetry community, that was the price of being “generally happy” (which they equated to having poetry in their lives in some way). In 1998 I dated a poet who basically fit this description: enormously talented, with verbal skills through the roof; the intelligence to innovate in poetry in ways that would be unthinkable to anyone else less talented and verbally astute; an unmatched dedication to poetry; and consequently an unwillingness to sideline other poets in her life, let alone do anything to rock the boat socioculturally or artistically, because the price of doing that might be losing the presence and influence of poetry in a life she couldn’t see being organized any other way. It was this sort of failure of imagination I associated with my own time as an EMT, when I was “generally happy” but actually not at all happy and felt like I couldn’t do anything about it because there wasn’t anything else I could do except what I was doing already.

(3) The third group of poets I tended to think of as the “classic MFA graduate”: a poet from a well-to-do or at least stable home; someone who considers themselves talented enough in multiple areas to get any one of a number of different jobs (including jobs having nothing to do with poetry); no significant encounters with anxiety or depression or self-loathing prior to being deeply involved in poetry communities; would be pretty quick to tell anyone they were at all close with that being a poet didn’t generally make them happy, in fact they didn’t even like poetry anymore, they were more interested in reading and writing fiction now, etc. The forms of chaos endemic to bohemian communities were not anything these MFA graduates had ever faced growing up; instead, the spread of MFA programs made getting an MFA a lot more, to these poets, like getting an M.D. or a J.D. or a Ph.D. or an engineering degree, even though they’d shortly find out while in their programs or soon thereafter that nothing could be further from the truth and getting an MFA degree didn’t put you on the fast track for a safe and stable middle-class life. So the funny thing was that these poets would be MFA types but also basically scornful (often secretly) of MFAs, even though I’d often find them clashing with poets in the first group who were reacting (if we’re being honest) not to their peers’ useless MFA credentials but their suspicion that these poets could have been doing something else besides poetry, i.e. weren’t subject to many of the right-brain infelicities that since the Romantics have been associated with being a poet, and therefore weren’t really poets at all.

There’s a shadowy fourth group I’m not mentioning here, and that’s the very small group of poets for whom everything in poetry works out just fine. They’re therefore happy with the whole kit and caboodle. These poets have mentors who get them book deals, become “it” poets for some reason or another and get invited to every reading or fellowship program or salon or summer lectureship or whatever, and they have just enough friends that every friend they have will teach any book they publish for at least two straight semesters, meaning that any book they publish is going to sell 500 copies even if no one outside their friend group is (at least voluntarily) reading it. My sense was that everyone hated these people and that no one told them so, which was honestly for the best as they’d done nothing wrong besides being just about the luckiest fuckers ever. But they didn’t deserve anyone’s ill manners for that, and fortunately they didn’t get them. But that didn’t change the fact that the presence of these people the rules didn’t quite apply to at the center of American poetry was making everybody else completely miserable more or less all the time. Every student who never had a mentor make a phone call to a publisher for them was pissed that it had happened for someone else, every person whose friends weren’t highly placed enough to get friendly reviews of their work put in the New York Times or wherever was pissed, etc. If you’re a poet, you know the story as well as I do. I never wanted to obsess about this fourth group because there was just no point in doing that, but I mention them here because the unhappiness cycle is one they’re probably at the center of in any case, however unintentionally.

Once I’d thought about all these things, I began to wonder what the course of treatment would be if even a few of these things were true. And the answer seemed simple enough: The poetry community should dramatically contract. It should contract because it was (is) a basically unhealthy system (almost like an abusive romantic relationship) for a big percentage of American poets, and since it was never going to change—because a sizable group of poets, the poets in the first group, desperately and understandably needed it not to change—it was and would ever be an ambit that only those who truly needed it should wander into and inhabit. For the poets in the second two groups, the answer to not really reading much poetry anymore, always feeling jealous and stressed, feeling a need to always be “seen” at readings or on social media or whatever, was simple enough: just walk away. Not walk away from poetry, but walk away from the way poetry communities are formed and maintained and justified to focus exclusively on writing and reading and sometimes publishing poetry. And then I thought about those few poets, like Frederick Seidel, who had found a way to do this, and it seemed like if they could do it, why couldn’t anyone? Or at least why wasn’t anyone trying? Or not trying in appreciable numbers? Even if they walked away from their online and real-time communities, poets in these second two groups could still submit blind to magazines they admired (even if they no longer had much social contact with their editors); they could still on occasion find publishers willing to look at the quality of their work and not the vitality of their social network; they could even, if they’d done enough to—removed from the social pressures that lead to artistic conformity—distinguish themselves as unique poetic voices, find a way to teach poetry to others if they were so inclined.

So this was my epiphany, which hit me like a ton of bricks in early 2008. 

What did I do with it? Nothing. 

And am I happy today? Well, you know, “generally.” But I always make sure to check Twitter and Facebook and email regularly; to attend poetry readings and conferences regularly; to pretend to still enjoy and read poetry regularly in any conversations with other poets; to criticize any poems that everyone else is criticizing, the better to stay a member of my tribe in good standing; and to do all this, and do all this so regularly, that I’ll never have to find out what other sort of happiness might have waited for me down a different road. 

So that’s poetry for me, now.

Why did I title this essay what I did? Because I treat titles, in both poetry and prose, as aspirational. I know what I should have done with my life, and dammit if I can’t still find spaces, as an imaginative writer, to inscribe that truth.

Posted 07/26/14
Reprinted with the permission of the author.
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