Notes on creativity and community

Today, I had the honor of serving as a guest lecturer in my friend D’Arcy Randall’s poetry class at the University of Texas. D’Arcy asked me to address my editorial work, my efforts at Borderlands, and my own writing. When I thought about how I balance those, and how each feeds my creative life in different ways, the following essay came forth. Many thanks to D’Arcy for letting me be part of her class!

How many of you work on your poetry every day?

How many of you struggle to balance your creative practice with the rest of your life?

How many of you feel guilty if you don’t work on your poetry every day?

How many of you narrow definition of what it means to work on your poetry??

How many of you have a number of shoulds around your creative practice, such as, I should write X number of lines per day, or I should have published a book by now?

Where did those beliefs come from? Where did you learn them? Where did you hear about them?

What convinced you to believe them?

I’ve wrestled with questions like these for much of my adult life. I wrote reams of poetry in middle and high school (with maybe one poem a year worth remembering), but when I got to college, the demands of academic life changed my relationship to my work. At Kenyon College, you couldn’t just sign up for creative writing courses; every semester, you had to submit a writing sample and be selected for workshops. Workshop sections only had 10 slots, and as you’ve probably guessed, there were way more applicants than available seats. By the time I was a junior, I in the midst of my first bout of creative burnout from the stress of having my ability to earn a creative writing concentration determined by constant auditions. I focused on literature instead, and as I moved toward honors courses, poetry became something I worked on in the summers, if at all.

What I didn’t realize then, what I wouldn’t learn until years later, was that the narrow way I defined my creative life—through publishing credits, through the approval of professors, through comparing myself to my peers—was a self-limiting way to go about creative practice. That believing the only way I could call myself a poet was through generating fresh, publishable work on a regular basis was causing more anxiety than inspiration. That being hyper-focused on my own work was cutting me off from the benefits of immersing deeply within a literary community.

When I was 26, I challenged myself to write a new poem every day for a year. I managed this not just for one year, but three. Part of the reason I kept going was because I was so inspired by poet Nathan Brown, who has been writing a new poem every day for well over a decade. However, there came a point where I gave the practice up not because it was too hard, but because it was no longer helping me create the work I wanted. Focusing on creating a brand-new poem every single day didn’t give me the space for revision. Nathan’s practice serves him, but just because it works for someone else doesn’t mean it has to work for you. You do not need to be a slave to the writing.

Don’t worry if your writing practice changes over time. Some people will find one practice that works for them through their whole lives. For most everyone else, our practices will evolve as we evolve. I think most of us will actually benefit from being adaptable in our writing lives. Try letting creative practice fit around your life, rather than trying to adapt your whole life around creative practice. Changing doesn’t mean that you’re lazy, or that you’re not committed. It means you’re willing to meet yourself where you’re at, and adjust so that you can be creative in the midst of life’s inevitable fluctuations.

Don’t worry if you go through a phase of life where you don’t seem to attend to poetry at all. I think the idea that we must engage with our craft the same way every single day is unhealthy for most poets. Yes, there will always be a small number of people in the world who do that, and good for them. That’s not the reality for all of us, nor should it be. There are times when we need to step away from our work completely in order to recharge.

Times when I went through long stretches without writing poetry: the second half of college; my first graduate program; my first full-time job, in which I worked over 60 hours a week; after I got hit by a car and had a brain injury; after one of my closest friends died of cancer at 36; after finishing my MFA in poetry.

You don’t have to stop writing in response to difficult life situations. But sometimes, you will want and need to push the pause button. And there are other times when you will want, in fact you will need, to write through stressful situations. Poetry was my lifeline during the months when I was going through a divorce. That was one of the most productive times of my poetic life.

If you get an MFA, there’s a good chance that you will want a long break once you’re done. It happened to me, though I went into my program believing that it couldn’t. After three years, though, I was creatively exhausted, and needed to turn my attention to any and everything else. It took me about a year to recover. Some people need even longer.  

Not that you only need to take a break after an MFA. There may simply be times in your life when poetry doesn’t speak to you. That doesn’t mean you’re no longer a poet. That doesn’t mean you’re not a failure. The whole world is full of ebb and flow. If the soil in the Midwest didn’t freeze every winter, farmers would have a tough growing season the next year. The Earth needs to freeze. On the surface, you see a field lying fallow, covered in ice and snow, nothing growing. Beneath the surface, however, as the soil rests, there’s a flurry of microbial activity that we cannot perceive. During the time of freeze and rest, the soil regenerates and restores itself, preparing for the spring and the next planting season. Sometimes, our creative lives are like that. Sometimes, we need those fallow periods, and it doesn’t do us any good to compare ourselves to someone else’s publication record, writing practice, or success.

While I’m back to writing new work and submitting a manuscript, these days, makes up a small portion of my creative life. While I was ostensibly avoiding poetry, I became administrative director of Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review. Most of my duties entail nitpicking over budget spreadsheets and applying for grants. I don’t even work on the manuscript until it comes time to do the final proof. If you want to help others share their work, know that it’s both immensely rewarding, and that there’s a lot of unglamorous tasks. Both of those things can be true. It’s not either/or. The work I do for Borderlands still feeds my creative spirit and my literary life. It kept me connected to poetry when I could write.

I’ve co-edited the Texas Poetry Calendar four times now. The work of an editor is quite different from that of an administrator, and has been a wonderful educational experience. Being on the editorial side of things made me more patient with myself as a writer. Each calendar has room for approximately 100 poems. We usually get at least 300 submissions, so roughly three times as many poets as we can even include. Poets can send up to three poems. While some poets just send one or two, most poets send three. My rough estimate is that we end up reading around 800 total poems. So we can only take an eighth of what we receive. I say this not to leave you feeling either overwhelmed at the thought of reading, or demoralized at your chances of getting published. As an editor, I’ve learned just how simultaneously difficult and rewarding it is to read through hundreds of poems and narrow it down to a small selection. The frustration of having to turn down a lovely poem because you’ve just gotten too many focused on hurricanes, birds, or Emily Dickinson (these were the three themes Zoë Fay-Stindt and I found overrepresented as we edited the 2020 calendar). Some thematic confluences are easy to predict: as Gulf Coast hurricanes get more frequent and severe, we find more Texas poets working through their fears and traumas in their poems. But not all of the manifestations of collective consciousness are easy to explain, such as the plethora of poems invoking Dickinson.

After spending so much time on the editorial side, I’ve learned that sometimes good poems get turned down because you can only have so much work about one theme in any given issue. Those of us who still work in print are bound by the limits of how big the journal can be—and some of that consideration involves people on the management side thinking about how much the print run is going to cost. Robert Graves said, “There is no money in poetry,” and it’s true that most of us don’t make a living at it. That being said, when you’re producing a volume, you are forced to reckon with ostensibly unpoetic things such as finances. Being aware of those limitations, experiencing them firsthand, has helped me take the submission process less personally. I still get disappointed when I receive a rejection, but I’m also aware of just how many factors went into making that editorial decision, so I can handle that decline notification with more grace than I have in the past.

Side note: my biggest piece of publishing advice is to read the guidelines, and then read them again, and then read them at least one more time before you prepare your submission. Double- and triple-check to make sure your work meets all the guidelines. Yes, sometimes some editors will give you a pass. But if you’re editing for a publication and can only take 1/8th of the poems you have to read, you’re probably going to be a stickler. I know that I am. You increase your chances of success by being fastidious about following directions. I’ve actually found this to be true in most areas of life.

Yes, things like having a day job or doing errands take time out of your day that you cannot necessarily devote to poetry. Yet I don’t think it’s always helpful to think of these things as hindrances to poetry. Of course, there are some really soul-sucking day jobs that leave you feeling mentally and creatively bereft. I’ve had a few of those, and I still remember what it felt like to put in an 8- or 10-hour day and then come home too worn out to even think about my own work. Once I got out of those jobs, though, I began to see the ways in which my day job, though it takes up a large portion of my day, really frees me up to write poetry. Not all of us want to be a starving artist. I found that my creativity flourished when I was financially secure, and dried up when I was living through periods of unemployment, underemployment, or general financial scarcity. Having a steady job that allowed me to meet my basic needs actually facilitates my creativity, because I feel relaxed. I’m not worried about making rent, and I have the income to go to festivals or afford workshops. Yes, that’s 8, 10, or sometimes even 12 hours a day I don’t have available for writing. It’s also a way to give me the stability I need to write well.

Wallace Stevens sold insurance. William Carlos Williams was a doctor. Art is not a zero-sum game. Yes, you can go too far in either direction. If you get too busy and deplete yourself, you won’t write. But once you find a balance (which admittedly can take a few years), your rich external life can inform your poetry in ways you never imagined. Wendy Barker’s collection One Blackbird at a Time is a book that draws inspiration from her years of teaching. As an educator myself, I love this book, because I feel seen and understood by a fellow educator. Phillip Levine wrote stunning work about his blue-collar jobs. Austin poet Cindy Huyser has a chapbook of poems all about her time as a power plant operator. If life itself is the source of poetry, than many of us are made better poets by going out into the world and working for a living every day.

Early in my poetry education, I somehow got sold the idea that a poet was someone who spent most of their time in isolation, the proverbial starving artist against the world, all alone. Ultimately, the idea of an almost monastic creative existence ran so counter to my personality that I spent most of my college years wondering whether I should try to be a poet at all. Yes, all artists do need their solitude. Impressionist painter Mary Cassatt said, “I can live alone and I love to work,” and I agree that poets, like painters, need to be comfortable with long bouts of solitude. I also believe that the life of poetry is found within community.

You can be deeply immersed in your poetic life without having to produce a new piece of writing. Former Texas Poet Laureate Karla K. Morton wrote that she spends three to five hours every day working on poetry, but that doesn’t always entail writing new work. She says, “If I have nothing new in my head to work on, I pull out previous work and begin editing. I devote some time to reading other poets’ work. Or I work on deadlines for sending poetry out or on upcoming poetry projects. The administrative side of poetry takes more time than we would like, but for those who want to be published, it must be done.” I love Morton’s broad, all-encompassing approach to working on her art. We need to make time for revision and for those administrative tasks. We need to leave time to get inspired from other peoples’ poetry. I find also great value in going to readings, and otherwise involving yourself in the larger creative community. I believe that a creative life is best lived when a poet is able to take a well-rounded approach: balancing their own writing with appreciating the work of others, and balancing a focus on individual artistry with an engagement with the rest of the world.

Nor does all community interaction have to take place in a physical location. Emily Dickinson is famously regarded as a recluse, and yet she had a rich life of written correspondence. As someone who remembers life both before and after home internet, I can say that while I prefer face-to-face interaction, I also have made some of my closest friends and had some of my best collaborations as the result of online interaction. Whether corresponding on paper or through a computer, your community does not have to be defined just by your neighborhood, school, or city.

Of course, there’s no one-size-fits all approach to creative practice, so take the parts of this lecture that resonate with you, and leave the rest. Just remember that much of the writing advice you’ve heard works for some people but not for others, you can change your writing practice whenever you need to, and that your poetry does not have to have an adversarial relationship with the rest of your life.

I believe the best gift you can give your creative life is to find a way to be part of your literary community. How that works into your life is up to you. Whether it’s in-person or online, whether it makes up the bulk of your writing activities or just a tiny portion, you get to decide what role you’re going to play, and how much energy you’re going to contribute. I’ll conclude with a few suggestions that I’ve found useful in my own life.

Ways to Live in Literary Community

  1. Attend open mics and read your work, even if you are afraid.
  2. Attend open mics and just be an audience member.
  3. Challenge yourself to attend one reading or open mic a week for a year. If that’s too intimidating, try it for six or three months.
  4. Go out for dinner or coffee with poets after an event. Or share a potluck together beforehand.
  5. Be sure to tell people what you love about their work.
  6. Promote the work you love.
  7. When people compliment your work, accept their praise with grace.
  8. Give fellow poets who don’t have cars rides to and from events, especially those that take place out of town, when they can’t rely as easily on transportation.
  9. If you have a spare room or couch, offer to host out-of-town poets visiting for events.
  10. Try new things to keep inspiration fresh. Attend readings or talks outside your area of interest. Try a new art form. Get out of your creative comfort zone.

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