Poetry and self-doubt, with footnotes

There’s this late-fall moment, every other year, when many U.S. poets feel a little dejected: once again, no NEA fellowship. This year, for reasons I don’t entirely get, I just shrugged it off. Too busy, maybe. The thought had also hit me the week before Thanksgiving–oh, wait, I bet they’ve decided already–so I felt resigned by the time the email came. It’s just one of those honors I may never earn, although I hope one of my long-term comrades in feet* picks one up, one of these years. I know a bunch of very good poets who are not stars; many of them are middle-aged women, a category that often gets the short end of the stick. Poetry fashions skew young, like fashions in everything else.

One of those fashions right now favors poetry of joy, praise, sexiness, gratitude–and I don’t say that in a disparaging way at all, because I love a lot of the work.** But while I want my writing to lean towards kindness, love, and other happy endings whenever possible, because it’s a hard world and books should help us imagine a better one, I also find myself muttering: you know, screw that. I lead this privileged life and still feel touched by so much sorrow and worry; I’m also basically a serious person from a long line of dissatisfied depressives. Performing lyric joy with my achy body and anxious brain, under the current U.S. administration and amid national conversations about racism and sexual assault, is just not authentic. You wouldn’t believe me. The trend feels linked, to me, to how social media compels so many of us to overemphasize the positive most of the time, because that’s what sells, or gets likes, or whatever.*** We’re just doing too much celebrating, dammit.

I see a therapist from time to time and we had an hour this week in which we talked mostly about self-doubt. She rightly points out that I have a pretty good resume, career-wise; my loved ones, though afflicted sometimes with crises, are basically okay; that I would do well to ease up and slow down. I do not have to be so afraid, say, of never publishing a ms or writing a great poem or getting pats on the head from the prize-dispensers again. I agree with her and we talked about ways to balance my commitments better. I also argued, however, as I argue to myself sometimes, that self-doubt is a necessary part of being a decent artist, and maybe a decent human being. If you don’t stand back and say, “hey, maybe that writing sample wasn’t really good enough to ensure a grant win,” how do you grow? Isn’t a drive to keep upping the bar a necessary pressure? Shouldn’t I keep questioning myself and my work?

Well, I’m probably rationalizing, because that’s what people do. I doubt my self-doubt. Happy December, my writer friends. Put up those twinkly lights, and don’t mind the darkness encroaching.

beach path

*That’s a stupid pun, sorry. I just thought “comrades in arms” sounded too military.

**Think of Ross Gay and Aimee Nezhukumatathil, for instance. They perform poetic joy even as they admit and face the world’s essential crappiness, somehow. But I think they may be taking vitamins that aren’t sold in this state.

***I absolutely do this–only getting on FB, for instance, when I have good news. Hey, did I mention my brilliant mathematician son is interviewing for a fancy college RIGHT NOW? Or that my class is doing a HAIKU DEATH MATCH on Monday morning at 11 in the Elrod Commons Living Room at W&L, because I’m kind of a creative and risk-taking teacher? Or that I’m now poetry editor for Shenandoahwhich is launching NEXT FRIDAY? All true! My life is so fabulous! But for once, let’s relegate fabulousness to the footnotes.

9 thoughts on “Poetry and self-doubt, with footnotes

  1. This made me laugh…not at you. Thank you for wearing your self-doubt on your sleeve. I hope some winter slowness is rejuvenating and can bury some of the doubt.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. That’s a really excellent point. Crippling self-doubt is definitely a problem. But a certain amount of writerly self-doubt does keep a person striving. It keeps a person from writing smug poems about gardens. (Non-smug, creative, interesting poems about gardens are lovely.) How many middle-aged white male poets sink into complacent rehashings of their former poems? I guess it’s not limited to middle-aged white men, but complacency is the enemy of art.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. “Performing lyric joy with my achy body and anxious brain, under the current U.S. administration and amid national conversations about racism and sexual assault, is just not authentic.” <– um, yes! Also, YES, yep, yessir, indeed.

    Total lack of self doubt kind of heads toward a certain type of narcissism we have witnessed too much of.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Heart, heart: the whole thing, but if my eyes were better right now, I would cross-stitch this:
    “One of those fashions right now favors poetry of joy, praise, sexiness, gratitude–and I don’t say that in a disparaging way at all, because I love a lot of the work.** But while I want my writing to lean towards kindness, love, and other happy endings whenever possible, because it’s a hard world and books should help us imagine a better one, I also find myself muttering: you know, screw that.”

    Liked by 1 person

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