Literary Arts

A Good Run: Giving Up the Po-Biz

“I’ve had a good run.” My son and I joke about this pronouncement, now, because I’ve said it so many times before, promised to give up poetry cold turkey, only to find half a pack of menthols stashed in the writing desk drawer and start up again. But now that I’m going public, it feels more real—people will be sniffing to see if I smell like smoke. After 13 years of punching the clock, I’m stepping away from the business of poetry: the push to publish, get noticed, get invited, get read.

I’m down to 10 items in the queue at Submittable—the ubiquitous platform adopted by most poets and journals to manage submissions, these days—a few I’ve had there forever, and haven’t submitted anything new for several months. A few already-accepted pieces will trickle out over the next few months, but I figure a eulogy is in order, a pre-mortem, if you’ll indulge me; my retirement from the Poetry Business appears to be taking hold, this time. I’m not dying right away, as far as I know, and I’ll still be writing poetry, as my dozen or so regular, long-suffering Facebook readers will attest, but that will be the extent of the “published” life for any new poems. After a day or two on FB, they will gather dust in my files until the world’s great universities clamor for them after my demise.

It has been a good run. When I decided to give poetry publication an honest shot, back in 2005, I could not have imagined where it would take me. I remember very clearly sitting in the poetry room at The King’s English bookshop, Agatha the cat and a book of someone else’s poetry on my lap, when I asked myself why I had never really given poetry a go, never bothered to see if publishing a poem was something I could do. And so, with a hearty “what the hell,” I set out to find out. I was a complete innocent, by the way, a newbie to the PoBiz. I had no idea how or where to submit, knew nothing about the process editors would go through once they received my poems, nothing about my chances of success. Probably it was better that way.

I determined that I would send two packets of poems every Friday, hell or high water. Once I began to identify which were the muckety-muck magazines and which the more unassuming, I decided I would send one packet to a place where my poems had no chance of being accepted and one to a publication where they had next-to-no chance. Early on, that meant paper copies of my poems, cover letters, and SASEs in big brown envelopes that I walked down to the corner, gave a kiss to for luck, and plopped into the big blue mailbox. Such a satisfying sound.

Of course you know what came next, and had I known the parade to come, the little “thanks but no thanks” Xeroxed squares of rejection slips that would rain on me like confetti, I’m sure I would have shooed that mangy cat off my lap and gone on about my poetry-free life. But it was making the process a habit and a commitment that worked for me—two packets, every Friday, rain or shine— that propelled me through the first full year of rejections. The rejections came almost as regularly. This was back in the day when they arrived by snail mail, and I could tell just by the feel of the envelope that it was another “no.” I became very familiar with the feeling of those little daggers, little heat-seeking missiles going straight to the heart. I remember getting one just before Christmas—Christmas!—which said, simply and with unaccountable cruelty, it seemed to me, “Your poems have not found a home with us.” Gah!

Eventually, slowly, the tide turned. There were handwritten rejections, little notes of encouragement, and then the glorious word from Green Mountains Review, at last, that if I would make a few changes to two of my poems, they would deign to publish them. And of course I would have changed every word, including my name, at that point. You can imagine the ecstasy of that over-the-moon moment. In my naiveté, I believed that once a person was published, the rest of the poetry world would soon hear about it, the publication path ahead of me would be strewn with roses, and editors, Department Chairs, and selection committees would all know my name and welcome me into the fold, even give me my own parking spot at PoBiz headquarters. Yeah, no.

And, while it’s true that I’ve received nearly a thousand rejections, never made it into some of the top-tier journals, was never in demand for readings or writer-in-residences or presidential inaugurations, never caught fire as the latest “It” poet, remain mostly unknown even in my home town—still, and mostly, I’ve had many surprising, happy, satisfying moments on the ride. I would even say it’s been a successful “career” (you’re welcome to visit my website—for a look at my darling grandchildren, mostly—where there is a list of publications and awards ). So why am I quitting the biz, doing something else with my Friday-afternoon-Submittable-submitting time?

As mentioned above, I’ve asked the reverse of that question many times: why am I still sending poems out to be published? I’ve told myself that, in some way, it provided closure for the poems, it was a necessary last step in the process, this sending them out into the world to see what they could make of themselves. Because I learned pretty quickly that even the few that were published would be seen by very few readers; the world clearly did not need, and most of its citizens would never know, my poems. So I knew it was only about me. Was the act of submitting poems important to me in some way? If so, why? I had, after all, accomplished much more than I set out to do all those years ago. Could I get my poems published? Turns out I could. Also, I had noticed that the emotions around both acceptances and rejections were becoming more muted, which seemed telling. What’s more, I had gone about as far as I could go, evidently—my poems and I were not cutting edge or political or good enough to draw wider attention. And I have grown tired of the cutthroat competition for a primo spot on the poetry stage; it’s not Survivor Island, but it does feel like a battle sometimes. What exactly was I getting out of it, then, bottom line? So a poem gets published? Then what? A few likes on Facebook, some extra whip on my mocha latte to celebrate? Even when I was lucky enough to get a manuscript of poems published, it only meant a few extra readings (which I have been surprised to find that I enjoy) and just enough in royalties to afford a few more mocha lattes—unless one’s book is the one in a thousand to catch fire or one has a particularly large family, selling a hundred copies is considered a success.

This was the justification I once gave Rattle magazine for continuing to publish:

Over the past year or so, I have several times decided to be done submitting poems, maybe even to be done writing poems. And it’s not because I’m bitter or discouraged or convinced that poetry can do nothing to improve the world (although I am convinced of this). I think it’s because I sometimes can’t answer the big questions: why are you doing this? what do you hope the outcome will be? so what? and then what? But then I read a poem by someone else that opens up my chest cavity and applies the defibrillator paddles directly to my flat-lining heart, and so I decide I should keep writing, for another month or two, at least, just on the off chance that I can discover how such a thing is done.

And that continues to be one of the reasons I will continue to write, at least for now. Plus, I still enjoy the writing; it has never involved suffering, for me. Maybe the poetry would be better if I suffered more, but whenever I have free time, messing about with words is still what I want to be doing. I hope that never changes. So, a big thanks to those of you who have come along for the ride, willingly or un-, to those who have encouraged me (among many others, may I just mention Lisa Bickmore here, a wonderful poet and human being who mentored me, opened many doors, and did her best to shoehorn me into those tight poetry circles?) and praised my work—often more than it deserved—to editors who gave my poems a home, and to the poetic life which, with any luck, I’ll continue to live for a long while yet.



A recent, unpublished poem:

Bibliotheca Hippocampus

The silverfish, lepisma saccharina, have circled through

all nine levels of the Inferno. They have risen and then

fallen with each volume of Gibbon’s Empire, moved west

to east through Steinbeck’s Eden, showed no compassion

whatsoever while consuming those pages on which Anna

flings herself under the train. They have wriggled like . . .

fishes through each slim volume of Billy Collins poetry,

though eating around the egg salad stains in the margin.

They have swiss-cheesed The Troubled Man until that

titular man no longer lies in bed staring up at a patch

of damp ceiling. Just now, they have paused midway

through the Dulce Domum chapter, queued with the mice

on Mole’s doorstep, prepared to break into song while,

inside, two old friends make the best of what’s left.


Links to a couple of published poems:

C. Wade Bentley is father to four and grandfather to six amazing humans. He can be found most weekends walking the Wasatch Mountains. He teaches and writes in Salt Lake City. His poems have been published or are forthcoming in many journals, including Cimarron Review, Best New Poets, Rattle, American Literary Review, Southern Poetry Review, Poetry Daily, The American Journal of Poetry, and Poetry Northwest. A full-length collection of his poems, What Is Mine, was published by Aldrich Press in January of 2015.

Categories: Literary Arts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *