A Poet Books Doth Not Make

Leonid Pasternak’s The Passion of Creation

Why does a poet need to write a book
if their soul cannot be tethered to a hook?
The scene is insular in its preference for paper,
so much so, they ask more of me than I can taper.
When my skull has sunk,
they will look for me in the phone book!

Why Does a Poet Need to Write a Book?, Courtenay Schembri Gray

Publishing a book of poems has become the accepted progression of a poet’s career. I want to ask why that might be. Is it because people find it too tiring to seek out individual poems that having a book of them is the epitome of convenience?

Since 2014, I have published four books of poetry, and none of them have sold well. The first two were only bought by family, and the third had no sales until two of my followers bought copies months on. The third is what I have been pushing, and we are at a measly eleven copies.

This has nothing to do with the genre itself, for poetry is booming right now. It all comes down to the tiny, shiny world of politics. I don’t mean Labour or The Green Party—I mean favouritism, connections, nepotism, and much more. Every December, I am dismayed at the various lists of books pitted to be favourites of the year.

All we promote are books of poems, as opposed to the seeds within. It would seem that the poems don’t truly exist until they are bound into a book and named as a collective. This frustrates me to no end. Even more so when I do publish them and they flop like rabbits.

After that, the poems seem to fade into the ether, and no matter of republication can save them from the black hole of obscurity. This is why, despite having a manuscript ready to go, I won’t publish another book until I am a household name—until I know the poems will be appreciated as they deserve.

This disillusionment with my career has seen me unable to read. Every time I pick up a book, I cannot help but think of how I am unable to honour who I was destined to be. My books are not on the shelves of Waterstones around the country, and outside of insular circles, my name is but confetti.

In the ‘50s, it seemed far easier to establish oneself in the canon: in places such as The Poetry Review, The Paris Review, The New Yorker etc. These are the places I am trying for as I believe in the work, but I just need an in.

What you must understand is that I have always believed there to be a disconnect between my brain and body. So, while I have the body of a twenty-six year old woman (debatable), my mind is that of a hundred-year old mage. So, when I am told, “You have plenty of time!”, it all feels hollow.

Somewhat, it feels like I am banging my head against the literary wall every single day. I quit for two months, come back expecting change, and become rather rueful when things are the same. It’s soul destroying when the dreams you had never seem to come true. While I enjoy other things, writing is all I have. It’s why I’m still here.

Lots of people believe the joy is in writing the stuff, but it’s not. It’s in the publishing and forging a career and something more out of it. I stopped writing for myself decades ago, being that is has always been my career path. No matter how many places I publish in, it’s never enough.

To borrow from Plath, the peanut-crunching crowd gawk at my poems as though they were lions in the zoo; unsure and wary of where they might go. Despite all of that tension, they bumble along to the next pane of glass with empty packets and wider eyes.

So, what am I to do? I could draw up a new business strategy, but those usually fail. I am doing everything a poet is ‘supposed’ to do. I have written fifty poems this year, and all are being sent to journal after journal. The atomic bombs of, “We regret we cannot publish this.” swirl around in my head like bad spirits.

If my skull has sunk before starlight comes, I will haunt you all for centuries and then some.

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