I am writing another essay in the form of a blog. Who is it for? Well, myself, I suppose, and anyone else who shares my obsessions or interests, i.e., I would probably write this even if no one was going to read it except myself. This explains my notebooks, which are not really for anyone but myself, at least at this time. When I am gone, someone might have an interest in my notebooks, but certainly not in my lifetime. I can barely get anyone to read a poem much less an essay or a short story, a novel or a memoir. This is the world we live in, where 140 characters is about all anyone can handle. So I like to think of Henry Adams and what he said; he only had around five hundred readers, he claimed. But they were the best five hundred readers in the world!
My writing isn’t shaped by prizes and awards either. I don’t really care if the committee at some foundation or other doesn’t like what I do or if what I write makes them uncomfortable. If my writing makes anyone uncomfortable, then I am doing my job. When I used to teach, I often began the semester by telling the students that I was not there to verify their prejudices; I was there to challenge their assumptions. This is probably even truer when I write. But saying that, I need quickly add that my writing is not there to insult or degrade minorities, other genders from my own, different age groups, ethnic persons, or anyone else who might be deemed “the other.” If my writing doesn’t offend the established orders, then I have failed as a writer, just as that same writing should give some comfort to the outcast and forgotten in our world. It is a tall order, and maybe just an ideal that can’t be implemented, but it is from those ideals that one puts pen to paper and lets the linear progression begin.
Though I am by nationality both American and Irish, very few people mistake me for being Irish, including most Irish people. I am often thought of as the other. In Ireland I sound American; in America people bizarrely think I’m English. In England, I am thought of as a Yank. By now, after more than fourteen years of living in London, I have what is called in linguistic circles a Midlantic accent, something that is a cross between a British and an American accent, but in fact is neither one. There are exceptions to what I’m saying. When I run into my Irish relatives in London, they certainly don’t question my Irishness, although they do think I have a rather unusual accent. Why don’t I speak with a brogue? they sometimes ask. Well, that’s simple enough to answer; I don’t speak with a brogue because, although I am Irish by nationality, I have spent very little time in Ireland.
I mention all this because I think it has a lot to do with how I write and even what I write about and who I write for and why I write at all. How I write has a lot to do with my two nationalities. I have American cadences in my writing, but my sensibility has been shaped by Irish literature, the biggest influence on me of any other national literature. In fact, I am most Irish when I write, and am almost never Irish in my own life. I don’t sound Irish in my life or my writing, but that is because I often try to thwart the lyrical in my prose, believing that being lyrical is almost too easy to do if you are Irish, is almost a national curse, if you will. Some of Ireland’s greatest writers tamped down this urge to create the great prose and poetry they did produce. Samuel Beckett is just such an Irish writer; his prose came into its own when he abandoned any of the old lyrical strategies that were found in his early works, such as Murphy, Watt, and More Pricks than Kicks. It was with the commencement of his trilogy (Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable) that Beckett came into his own as one of the great Irish prose writers. He went from being a typically lyrical Irish writer to being a spare, unadorned French one. C’etait parfait.
Who I write for has something to do with how I write and what I write about, and it might also explain why I write. I have always identified myself as a Catholic anarchist, having done this since my early twenties when I first met Dorothy Day by chance on East 1st Street in the East Village of downtown Manhattan in the 1960s. Ms. Day was the essence of a Catholic anarchist, leftist in her thinking, politically and socially engaged, antiwar, a great believer in helping the downtrodden, and a bit of a rebel too. It was only with the advent of Pope Francis’ pontificate that people have begun to understand what being a Catholic anarchist means. Francis has said that he too is a Catholic anarchist, and when he spoke to the U.S. Congress, he alluded to two people who are the American saints of Catholic anarchy—Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton.
I write because it is the best thing I do as a human being. I was a fairly good basketball player as a kid, but I was never a great player, even with a really good jump shot that rarely missed when I shot the ball. I also boxed, but again my boxing was good enough to get me seriously hurt. I once taught, but teaching was not my gift, writing was. I wrote as a journalist, but invariably I got in trouble for taking liberties that nowadays are totally accepted. But back then when I got into trouble with an editor or copy editor, I was kicked out of there precipitately. I liked baking, but again I was not a baker, just someone who baked once in a while. I liked painting, but there were others far more colorful, more expressive; and my love of music, which is considerable, was not enough to make me a musician. Writing was it.
Today writing often involves really superficial markers that determine how well known a writer will become. Where did she go to school? Who did she study with? Where is his work published? Who has given him blurbs? These questions evolve into other ones, such as, where does he or she teach and where has that person gotten grants. I have been fortunate, at least when younger, to teach in some of the best writing programs. Likewise I have degrees from some really great places. I have ten letters after my name! Though I grew up in great poverty, I have more than made up for my lack of finances to become an incredibly well educated person. Where I taught reflected that education too.
When I was younger, I was awarded some grants, though never the big ones, the National Endowment ones or the Guggenheim; these awards have passed me by, although I still occasionally apply for them. I made an application for a Guggenheim this year, and have gotten to the second and third rounds. I’m going to be seventy years old in a few months, so the likelihood of ever getting such a grant becomes slimmer and slimmer. But there are still literary awards to be won, although most prizes nowadays require fees to enter them. One of the highest paying awards in the US is the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, given by Claremont Graduate University in California. I think it is around one hundred thousand dollars, and it is one of the few prizes whose winners are poets I have read, heard of, and even know, making it somewhat unusual. Past winners have included Chase Twichell, whom I taught with at Princeton University back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and Afaa Michael Weaver, whom I taught with at New York University (NYU) back in the 1990s. Both are very good poets.
I hadn’t published a book of poems in many years, not since the Nineties; but earlier this year I published a book of short poems entitled Occam’s Razor (2015). I published the book myself, under the First Person Books imprint. Self-publishing is a time-honored way of publishing poetry, and I am a fairly seasoned writer, having published my first book with E. P. Dutton in New York more than forty years ago when I was in my mid-twenties. I’ve also published a memoir with Random House, and books of essays with good university presses (Southern Illinois and Georgia), one of which won the AWP award in creative nonfiction. My fiction and poetry have been published by good small presses from Dalkey Archive to Hanging Loose Press, and I’ve published a memoir with Hazelden in Minnesota because it was a book about recovery and the family. I have an advanced degree in writing from Yale University, where my thesis advisor was a Nobel Prize winner for his poetry, and I graduated in the top of my class in writing; I also have a doctorate on poetry from a British university. I had published eighteen books before this one appeared. I am not a beginner writer certainly. My previous books had been praised by writers as diverse as Seamus Heaney and Frank McCourt, Paul Auster and Russell Banks, Hettie Jones and Maureen Howard, Hubert Selby, Jr. and Richard Gilman.
When I sent off my book of poetry to the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, I didn’t so much think I could win this award so much as they would at least take me a little bit seriously. Maybe I could make a few cuts, as I sometimes do with grants and awards, and then be jettisoned towards the end. Not long after I sent off the eight copies of the book which were required to enter the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, I received a letter from Claremont, along with the return of my books. Here is what the letter said:
Thank you for submitting Occam’s Razor for the 2016 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award. However, because only full-length volumes (a full-length volume of poetry is generally understood to be 48+ pages in length) are eligible for the award I am returning your submission. When you publish a full-length title, we hope that you will consider submitting it to the Tufts Poetry Awards.
I have deposited this letter under a file labeled Irony. I had purposely designed my book to resemble little books from the alternate press I remembered from my youth on the Lower East Side in the 1960s. And I didn’t number the pages either. All the poems were quite short, most just a few lines long. They are poems that had been published in good little magazines, including Gargoyle, Exquisite Corpse, Qarrtsiluni, and the South Boston Literary Gazette, among others. One poem about President Obama was published online in the Chicago Tribune, in fact, it was the lead poem to honor the President upon his first election.
Occam’s Razor consists of 137 poems, and the book is actually 60 pages long. That is 12 pages longer than what the Tufts award committee generally understands to be a full-length volume of poetry. Someone at the Kingsley Tufts award decided that my book didn’t look like a full-length book, so they rejected it without actually checking to see how many poems there were and how many pages comprised the book. It is what happens to the majority of poetry books which are submitted to awards or grant-giving organizations. It is what happens when your work is deemed to be not on the inside looking out, but peering into the dance hall from an outside window. It is not fair, and yet no one ever said that poetry awards were fair. It is just how these things are done. It is also called the same old same old or business as usual. Am I crazy to think that poetry should have a higher standard?
M. G. Stephens is the author of eighteen books, including the novel The Brooklyn Book of the Dead (“a great, great book,” says Roddy Doyle), and the essay collection Green Dreams, which Joyce Carol Oates picked as one of the notable nonfiction books of the 20th century in Best American Essays of the Century.