There are likely endeavors as maddening as trying to get a manuscript of your own writing published, but I don’t know of them. I can guess that swimming the English Channel, climbing Mt. Everest, or scoring above bronze in the Olympics presents challenges and mental (not to mention physical) strain, but I wonder if those feats of athleticism are ever impeded by anything like the trends and whims of the publishing world.
I speculate above knowing that my analogy is bogus. But I’m feeling at the moment that I don’t give a mad ass fuck. It’s my analogy, and I’m sticking to it.
Permit me to humble brag.
I’m a published writer, but I never think of myself as belonging to the Writer Club because: 1. I was raised Catholic, which instills one with a sense of unworthiness; 2. my books are small in comparison to the avalanche of books from peers published by Big Five presses; and 3. my books are not poetry collections and I’ve long said that poetry is my calling.
I’ve published two books with a small press, Blue Heron Book Works. Its owner, who I’ll go ahead and name because I have no beef with her, Bathsheba Monk, has been good to me in many ways, not the least being that my wayward stabs at literary nonfiction have been made flesh (er, paper). And apparently that’s big. It felt big when the first book, the memoir, was picked up. I had submitted the manuscript to a few local agents, a couple of nonfiction contests, none of it getting me anywhere. And then the Blue Heron flew into my life. After a bit of a back-n-forth emailing, the book was accepted. Oh, happy day!
The process of getting that book, called Like a Dog (not the original title. . . my publisher and I wrestled over that), from my laptop to the bookshelves was not as long as it should’ve been. I’d shopped it around, as I stated, but not as much as most writers shop around their manuscripts. I was arguably blasé about the whole thing, having a poetry manuscript in the works that I’d dedicated far more time to. You see, I studied poetry in graduate school under the tutelage of some damn fine professors. I’d mixed with aspiring poets, read books on what poetry means, what it is, what the traditions are and how people are breaking those traditions. I’m a fan of jazz, avant-garde soundscapes, punk rock, and Japanese noise— poetry seemed akin to those playful arts. Know the rules, break the rules; respect the rules, flout the rules. There seemed so much possibility in poetry. Even the rigid adherence to forms held the promise of excitement. What can anyone do with a sonnet that hasn’t already been done? Can’t wait to find out!
This is not to say that prose is dull or uninventive, or that everything that can be done in a novel or essay has been done. Not by a long shot. Fuck the anxiety of influence. But yeah, I was supposed to be a poetry writer. And there I was publishing a memoir.
(Side note: I have never called myself a poet because to do so would be revoltingly cocky. It’s the highest compliment someone can give, in my estimation, but to self-apply that term is an act of egoism. I know a lot of poetry writers. A few call themselves “poets.” A few of those few have earned the right. Many have not. If poetry is a religious calling, as I’ve said it is, then I feel that only someone else can bequeath the honor of poet onto you. Just my view, but I’m sticking to it.)
I like my memoir, but I’m a wee bit more passionate about the poems I’ve been tinkering with since grad school. Of the things I wrote in those years, only two or three poems remain. But the tools I’d acquired (thinking about forms, rhymes, chiming, making the language do something other than its barest essential duty) are with me. I don’t know that I employed them when writing Like a Dog, and I’m certain that that book would be very different were I to write it today. In fact, I only wrote it as a break from trying to write poetry. The freedom. . . the joy of not caring if a line was slightly clunky or didn’t have a similar structure as the preceding line— the joy of not thinking in lines but in paragraphs! Ah, that break from consulting a thesaurus, of just letting my voice be its shaggy, sloppy, rambling self. I had a story to tell, and I told it quickly. Unconsciously still wedded to the dictates of poetry, I grounded the book with a few simple rules: it would be organized in three sections with an intro; it would governed by the (false) theme of bad jobs; the individual sections would focus on specific eras, places, and people; the book would be a true memoir inasmuch as it would be “equal parts truth and bullshit.” And voilà! I had a working manuscript.
It’s easier to say you don’t care about one project as much as another. The project that gets the attention is the one you can dismiss, building the hype around project 2, and deflecting any unfavorable attention garnered by project 1. “Yes, I’m proud of my memoir, but my real passion is for poetry, which I’m working on, which will be out someday, which will be truly remarkable.” I’ve said to people that I’d not feel success as a writer until I published a book of poems. Oh, what a lovely safety net. So when Like a Dog got a few bad reviews— one on Goodreads, which I could easily laugh at, and one on Amazon that cut me to the bone— I was able to wrap myself in some protective coating. After all, this was not my passion project. It was my tossed-off distraction from poetry.
But why write it at all? If Like a Dog was merely some exercise in genre switching, why publish the fucking thing? If I truly didn’t care, it would’ve been abandoned in the dark of an old flash drive along with scores of failed poems and half-starts.
After the rush of publishing a book, followed by the fast come-down of indifference and next-to-no-sales, I decided to dedicate myself to poetry again. Poetry is not supposed to sell. It’s rare that a poet acquires a literary agent, as most poets find small presses to publish their work. People (at least in this country) don’t really buy poetry collections unless they’re written by dead people named Sylvia Plath or Maya Angelou, Rupi Kaur notwithstanding. I never counted on making any money writing poems (though I’ve actually made a good chunk of dollars by winning a contest, more money that my memoir netted me). Maybe it was time to recommit to the poems.
The next eight months I wrote, edited, revised, tore up and rewrote, re-edited, re-revised poems. I read only poetry: C. K. Williams, Louis MacNeice, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, Leontia Flynn, Elizabeth Bishop, Kenneth Koch, Thom Gunn, John Berryman, Simon Armitage, Lucia Perillo. Jo Shapcott. . . I read anthologies of sonnets, anthologies of short poems, of odes, of ghazals. I thought little of prose. I saw fat novels and read the praise surrounding them and thought, eh. . . it’s not important to me at the moment. Maybe next year.
By the end of this immersion, I had a revised manuscript of poems, some old, some new, all of them viewed through the lens of my recommitment. The next book would be a poetry collection, a book I would labor over and stand behind. A triumph.
But, of course, I was straying the whole time. I wrote essays, long sad-bastard thoughts on all the shit that was plaguing me in the year 2016. Somewhere in that time I decided that maybe that collection of misery resurrected in prose could stand as a book. The lure of publishing another nonfiction manuscript was there, along with the insulation that a book of not-poetry offers. But this time I decided that I would be proud of this book, I would fight for it, give it attention and ask others to do likewise. I would not hide behind the idea that I was supposed to be writing poetry. I may not like to call myself a poet, but I’m comfortable using the term “writer.” And a writer writes. Poetry, essays, stories, novels, plays. . . no matter. It’s all writing.
After a few dozen revisions, The Soft Lunacy was on its goofy feet. Bathsheba agreed to take it on, telling me she enjoyed the book a great deal. I was worried that no one would like the book as much as I do. It’s a book about books, about book collecting, about my relationship with books in comparison to my relationships with people. It goes from memoirish to absurdist vignette to think-piece and back, not obeying the conventions of a standard nonfiction book. It’s a mash-up, maybe the most Vince book I can write inasmuch as it is my obsessions on paper for anyone to see, should they give a fuck. Jim Jarmusch once said that he didn’t have it within him to make a normal film. I don’t think I have it within me to write a normal book. And I don’t know that I care.
So yeah, I like The Soft Lunacy. It’s not a book of poems, but it’s starting to become clear that maybe I’m not meant to publish a book of poems. Faulkner and Bolaño, two of my heroes, were basically failed poets who wrote strange novels. Maybe that’s my fate.
I state this about my fate because just yesterday the bottom of what was my solid poetry ground fell out. I’ve lived the last few months with the joy of knowing that my poetry manuscript has finally found a taker. A local press, who I won’t mention by name, had shown some interest in my poems last year. They needed to send it to their team of readers, but the first two editors to peruse the manuscript were very taken with it. So many of the poems are about Chicago, so it made sense to shop it locally. All my efforts— and there have been many in the last decade— to gather interest in my poetry have gotten me nothing. Until lately. I waited through an agonizing number of days, weeks, months for another response, one that would assure me that— indeed!— my manuscript was what they were looking for. I’d nearly given up when I got an email asking if I was still interested in having my work published by their press. Still interested? Are you kidding?!
At last, after two books of prose, after countless rejections, after hours of doubt, I would have a book of poems, a physical representation of my efforts. I was no longer claiming that this was the one thing that would validate me, but there was nevertheless a residue of that need, that illusory badge of honor. I would finally feel worthy of induction to the Writer Club.
I signed a contract, polished the manuscript once more, sent it off to the publisher, and hosted a launch for The Soft Lunacy where I announced that a book of poems would follow next March. My god! Two books in one year! Fresh off the thrill of publishing my essay collection I would share my poems with the world. I concocted a five book plan: a memoir (check), an essay collection (check again), a book of poems (a check to come), then a book of stories (I’ve already got a dozen in the works) and then, I guess, a novel (why not?). Then drop the mic. I would be a true writer, bouncing from genre to genre with more than ease: with fucking grace.
Yesterday I received an email informing me that the poetry book will not be published. Here’s the story quickly: My contact at the press— let’s call him Guy— was in the process of acquiring the organization from its first owner— who I’ll call Dude. Dude had left town for work and could no longer keep the publishing thing going, so the acquisition was seemingly peaceful. Guy signed me up; I was to be the first writer he published as full owner of the press. And all seemed rosy until Guy’s email. Apparently, Dude skipped town without paying off a lot of debts accumulated by his years running (mismanaging?) the press. And Dude failed to disclose those debts to Guy. Guy was being hounded by those to whom Dude owned money. Not able to cover the debts, Guy was dissolving the press. No more books to come from this local indie. That alone is sad, but that my book was now a dead project. . . that hurt like a motherfucker. I’m used to rejection, but not to having the prize taken away three paces from the finish line.
To borrow a line from the band X: “This is the game that moves as you play.”
I spent a few hours thinking of how to reply to the email, even though I’m sure Guy did not want any reply— surely he wanted to send the email and be done with the matter. My first thought was to ask if he’d considered starting a crowdfunding project to get the money to cover the debts. The amount owned does not seem too big to me. Hell, I might be able to cover some of it, if that would maybe mean I could be hired on as a board member or vice-president (vice-editor?) or something. We could appeal to the literary community, ask for help, hold a fund-raising event, apply for a grant. Then I scrapped those ideas— I figure if I’ve considered these options, so has Guy. And he’s decided it’s not a fight worth fighting. Which means he knows more about this than I do. Maybe the press is riddled with more problems that he need not go into. Maybe his original commitment was earnest, but the realities of running a small press, often a losing venture, became too real in the last weeks. Maybe this was the proverbial straw on his camel’s back. Anyway, if he was throwing in the towel, as correct a move as that may be, why would I want to be involved with his press? Would they have gone under anyway, resulting in a small run of my poems followed by rights reverting back my way and no one in the future having any tangible means of obtaining a copy of my opus? Maybe I dodged a bullet.
All of these possibilities have been running through my head since yesterday. And they may all have merit. In the end, I emailed Guy and told him how sorry I am (truly) that the press is kaput. I wrote that I’m tempted to ask him to start a new press on his own, free from the shackles of Dude’s debts, and that I’d volunteer to help, but I know that’s not happening. I’m just desperate to get my poems in print and looking for life rafts where there is only the vast expanse of frigid ocean water. If my poems are going to be published, they’ll have to find another fucking press. Which means I’m back to the dispiriting work of carpet-bombing Submittable.
(I’m teaching a class for StoryStudio Chicago called The Complete Writer. It’s funny— I now have a new aspect of the writing life to share with my students: The Perils of Working With a Small Press, AKA: Don’t Count Those Chickens Until You Know When.)
So what now? My first thought is that the poems are not going to ever be published, that the old goal of seeing them collected in a book is simply not possible. Considering the weight I give poetry, maybe it’s best that I never publish mine in book form. I’m going to have to admit to being a failed poet like Faulkner and Bolaño. And hey, that’s some pretty great company. And while there’s no way I could ever compare myself to those writers, I can at least take some pride in my accomplishments. Two books. Dozens of poems in small journals. A few stories out there. A few essays. Some book reviews. All in all, not a bad body of work. And there’s more where that came from. So I guess I keep going? Keep fighting? I’ve long called myself an absurdist who, like Camus’s example of Sisyphus, sees the futility of his task and goes about it with a smile, happy as he sets about pushing the boulder uphill. It’s another fight, another struggle, but one I will continue because what’s the option? There’s an old saw here about those who give up not really being serious to begin with. We don’t write because we want to so much as we have to. If that’s true, giving up means I was never a writer, that even if my book of poems had come out on Guy’s press, I would’ve been pretending because, in a parallel world, it would not have come out and I would’ve quit.
No one likes a quitter.
I’m likely going to keep writing (I mean, lookie here: 3,000 words just this morning) because I apparently have no choice. Whether or not that writing amounts to another book remains to be seen. And while I’d be a fucking liar if I claimed that I’m in this only for the joy of writing and not interested in publishing, I can definitively state that, regardless of future publications or lack thereof, I will not quit. Because I cannot. Come what may. I can’t state that failure is not an option, because it is. In fact, it’s a probability. But here I am back in front of a screen arranging words. That’s my fate, and I’m sticking to it.