Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Tips: A New Tape Measure For Measuring Success -- In Poetry

What does success taste like?

The word success immediately evokes an image in my mind of many shiny objects: a host of silver coins spiraling along a calm ocean, dazzling, against an endless blue sky.

Okay. Let’s face it, this image is somewhat cheesy and a tad embarrassing, although I also believe it to be true. I’ve created my own concept of success. One with no sign of a genius award or photo shoot with Vogue.

Instead, I imagine a calm seascape with enough silver dollars to purchase all the saltwater taffy, mary janes, and good’n’plenty I can eat. I imagine a light jacket of contentment at the end of a long summer’s day. I imagine the flash of happiness generated by the next poem I will write. And the next.

In fact, I like to play with the idea of success.

I consciously work to change the stakes as I go along. For example, instead of thinking that publishing in the New Yorker is the only measure for success, I create my own definition and work to publish poems in each state in the country. I begin with Alaska, Oklahoma, and West Virginia; each state a place I have never traveled to--- or at least not yet.

And I love that my individual poems can travel and find audiences in states I’ve yet to see. 

A few decades on, I have published poems in 47 different states and 7 countries. Now Delaware, Kansas, and North Dakota are the publication trophies I most want. Publishing in these three states is an important definition of success for me.

One writer friend told me she fell into a deep depression after her book came out. All those years of writing, revising, the sweet note of acceptance, then choosing a book cover, blurbs and finally her book launched at her favorite bookseller’s. The sales were brisk! Everyone she knew was there! But she found herself wondering a few weeks later: why is it not on the New York Times Bestseller list? Where is the nomination for her Pulitzer?

The problem is we have only so much control over what happens to our books once they are born. 

When The Alchemist’s Kitchen came out, I organized a three city West Coast – East Coast tour with readings and talks at over 7 different venues in 10 days. Now, five years later, when I look back at that expenditure of time, money and heart, I am happy with the experience. Was I nominated for the National Book Award? No. Was I discovered by a big time poetry scout? No.

I see my poetry tour as a success because I reconnected with old friends, made new ones, tasted good food, created new audiences for my work and most of all—had fun. 

Finding joy is what you must you do for your book and for yourself. I can think of no better measuring tape for life.

Certainly there’s nothing wrong with winning an award. However, my strong sense is that running after these prizes is a recipe for hurt. Perhaps you are a finalist for a big award but you don’t win; how to calibrate the happiness factor versus the disappointment?

One thing is for sure: you must not measure your books success by the number of book sales. Of course you should do readings when the book comes out and send announcements to your community. Working to promote your book is good citizenship but that is different than determining your worth by a ranking number.

Reducing yourself to a number is exactly what you don't want to do.

What I want to say is: there are 1001 different ways to feel successful. 
You choose your own adventure.

When I receive a note from a stranger to tell me they were moved by a specific poem or they are in need of a poem they heard me read years ago in a different country --- this is the biggest success. My words reached into another person’s life and took-up residence. What could be better? A trophy? A fat check? Maybe. Or maybe not. 

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