on writing

in case I miss the century’s whitman

For three months now, this question has been haunting me:

Should Prof read this?

  1. Yes
  2. No
  3. I don’t know.
  4. Let a second reader decide.

I may have mentioned this before, but along with studying literature, I work as a grad assistant. That means Mondays, I go to practicums about teaching; Tuesdays, I attend night class on teaching writing; Wednesdays, I attend class also on teaching writing (there’s a lot to it, trust me); Thursdays, I breathe and bike; and Fridays, I tutor in the Writing Center. When I’m not doing all that, I read poetry manuscripts for the campus publishing house. That’s my main job.

My office is a dark cave beneath the earth of Cherry Hall, so I use the mailroom as my second office. Most days, the giant wooden cubby labeled with my name looks like a person who’s had his mouth open too long at the dentist. Manuscripts sag out like crusty tongues, overflowing, crowned toothily with poetry books that need shipping. Sometimes, there’s a note: Ship today! or Attend the Fall Colloquium.

It’s better for the eyes and anxiety levels, so I leave the lights off. But hunt-and-kill faculty on a routine mail prowl will often flip the lights on and jump when they see me behind the poetry-and-paper wall, listening to Dr. Dog or disco. Some say hello. Others ignore me. The rare few stick their heads in to see if there’s mail big enough worth going all the way inside for. One asked, “What’s that song?” He wanted to play it for his class. (It was “September” by Earth, Wind, & Fire.)

Most days, my job is type-A work. Little digital cubicles house the authors’ names, addresses, and submission titles in an Excel document that keeps a tally of how many poets have submitted: as of today, roundabouts 100. Since August, I’ve been in the habit of taking home a stack of manuscripts every week or so, to read and decide: yay or nay…  But today, as I lingered over the cart, realizing it was laden with not just paper but with snowy mounds of lyricism and dreams and people’s bleeding minds, staunched by the page… I started breathing heavily like I had just dragged a dead body up Evil Campus Hill.  There was no music. The windows tinted the room blue. The temperature began to drop, and only then did I catch myself several thoughts out of my own head, having jumped aboard a train spiraling into what looked and felt like an existential crisis.

{Should Prof read this manuscript? Should a second reader decide? Am I competent enough to make this decision? Who’s to say what good poetry is? Why no clearer criteria? Should I read the cover letter and feel emotionally biased about the author? Why do we read poetry? What’s the point…?}

Fortunately, class was due to start in twenty minutes, so I shook myself out and finished addressing the envelopes.

a59p163{How many lives is my handwriting intersecting? Will they be moved by the Muse to proem-or-pose about my loops and curls and unreadable Arabic? What dangers am I bringing upon myself, spiritually and mail-physically crossing the paths of so many poets? ….}

I stumbled into class, spongy contacts burning under the fluorescent lights, and I tried to keep my mind penned within the four walls of the classrooms. But that thought’s enough to send a soul reeling: I, a 22-year-old, literarily-starved former psychology major, am determining the publication value of a 30-, 40-, 50-, 60- some poet with immense life experience. Like war. And marriage. And taxes.

Here in part lies the trauma of this realization: I cherish so many of my own dreams to write. How many submissions do the journals I look at receive? Hundreds. Thousands. Who knows. How many sneezed-up manuscripts on the slush piles in publishing houses? Hundreds. Thousands. Millions.

Who knows.

But it seems to me, as I sit here typing away, thinking I should be sleepingI’m up because… I just love to write. Just as the potentially-published poets I read every day do. They love to write.

They are just as bound up in words as a book, and if you took the words, the art, away, they’d unravel into senseless heaps of dry ash and shredded wood.

Perhaps this is a little naive and fate-dependent of me, but if these men and women from all over the country love to write, keep writing, and grow to be truly good at it, don’t you suppose they’ll make it someday? Even if I stink and bypass the next Emily Dickinson, the next Walt Whitman, the next “poet of the century”? Even if “Prof” doesn’t read? And “second reader” never gets a glance?

I gotta have that hope.

So from this GA/aspiring-writer to a world of poets, novelists, lyricists–keepers of our humanity–out there…. please keep writing. It may be years in coming until someone else appreciates it (an ugly, necessary thought to look hard in the face). Yet really, in the end, isn’t it the writing—not the appreciating—that really matters?


6 thoughts on “in case I miss the century’s whitman

      • Yes, working diligently to get published. I doubt I’m qualified to revise your work, but I’ve found getting feedback always helps. Either way I’m interested to see what you’ve written. I like your drawings too, there’s some genius going on in there.

        I know you read more than your share, but I would love to hear your perspective on a chapter or two sometime.


      • Dorian says:

        Ah! I am glad to hear you are looking to get published. The posts I read on your blog site were enjoyable and insightful. I should like to know what a longer work of yours would look like.

        Finding people with a critical eye and an understanding of “good writing” can be the difficult part of what we aspire to do. Because we want to improve. We do! But you either have the cheerleaders in your life, thinking everything you write is great…or you have the Eeyores of Writing Society dissing everything. And then there’s the impersonal rejection email (or five hundred).

        Certainly, I would look over a chapter or two sometime. Thanks for the kind words about the doodling… I cherish the dream of writing and illustrating a children’s book one day!


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