Tier 3

music / / poetry / / philosophy / / -ology by Nick Courtright

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The Nature of Publication: Misreading Bidart

Yesterday I was revisiting Frank Bidart’s newest book, Watching the Spring Festival, and I came across these lines that, though he almost certainly didn’t have our discussion of submission in mind, strike me as relevant:

By exorcism / you survived. By submission, then making.

They are from the poem “Old Man at the Wheel,” and I think, if you badly interpret his assumed intentions, you could make an argument that submission always comes before making, and thus, the whole of the argument is unnecessary, because, after all, you submitted yourself before you even wrote a word.  But of course, that’s a mangling, and though quite possibly true (at a level), it’s also a bit unpleasant to carry with you through the day.


The Nature of Publication: The Morals of Submission

Note: Many of you have read my post “The Nature of Publication: Poetry in Literary Journals,” but I wanted to change gears a bit here and offer some thoughts on the act of submission itself, and whether it’s really the “right” thing to do.

A chronic moral issue I’ve debated regularly since my early days in an MFA program is whether it inherently compromises artistic integrity to proffer yourself at the feet of literary journals. There’s no doubt that to engage in the act of submission is to engage in not only a certain tedium—research a journal, develop and specialize your cover letter, conscientiously select poems that may be of interest to that journal, print those poems, label and stamp envelopes, fold SASE, fold poems and cover letter, insert in envelope, et cetera, et cetera—but also to contend with the troubling notion that the legitimacy or profitability of your blood, sweat, and tears is somehow contingent on the acceptance of others. While an argument can be made that it is just fine and dandy, as well as wise, to seek the adoration of the literary community, I haven’t been able to shake the nagging feeling that a steroided Salingerian or Dickinsonesque policy of non-sharing would ultimately result in a heightened karmic reward. But has this nagging feeling led me to discontinue the religious act of submitting? Of course not.

As someone who’s worked for literary journals, and has worked to get into them, I respect the symbiotic relationship between the two; still, I have to laugh at myself when people ask how my poems get into journals, as I always slip and use some form of the word “submit.” After all, to many people “submission” implies a sort of prostration, and it’s at least a little embarrassing to embrace that branding of the journal/writer relationship. The justification for that relationship arrangement is plain-as-day: the literary journal is a respected medium for the advancement of a writer’s career, not to mention ego, while the journal has the benefit of the needy multitudes on its side, even if those multitudes don’t often enough fill out a subscription card. All these matters of definition and clarification aside, a particular struggle arrives for the writer who so disdains the notion of self-promotion that it keeps her up at night, only she knows that in regards to eventual tenure (especially without a doctoral degree), the path of least resistance is to get as published as possible, and to do so as quickly as possible.

Writing, unfortunately, is a bear which wears on its foot the steel trap of narcissism. It seems there is little way around this, regardless of whether you claim to write for the good of yourself, for the good of the world, or for any other purpose—after all, the solitary exercise of writing is a workout, and its results are only to the untrained eye less visible than time spent in the gym. Too often the humanity of composition is forgotten, as when the act of writing or of being a writer is seen as some sort of angelic feat, and not the product of diligently sitting still.

Personally, I write because I love writing, and I can’t imagine not writing. But beyond the act of creation, how have I gotten around that little, unpleasant feeling in my gut when I submit to literary journals, that feeling that I’m in some way doing something wrong or selfish or less admirable than waiting until death for heaps of my compositions to be “discovered”? After struggling with this question for years, and suffering the occasional bout of compromise, I think I’ve come to at least a partial conclusion: firstly, to compose a poem or story with the intention of getting it into a journal is an ugly endeavor, and should be avoided—in other words, I’d offer that as long as the “submission” occurs after creation, and not before, it’s all good. Secondly—and perhaps just as importantly—it’s a good habit never, ever to submit to a journal you don’t read, respect, appreciate, and would be truly honored to have accept your work.

What do you think? Does submission take the pure joy out of your creation?  Is it foolish to write and expect appreciation without submitting to journals?  Is there any way to avoid narcissism when engaging in a creative act?  And, here’s a big one: is posthumous glory more worthwhile than earthly recognition?