Monday, March 18, 2013

"I have wasted my life"

It's one of those lines that echo in my mind, even if I have to resort to Google to make sure that I remember its source – James Wright's "Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota," a poem about which I remember nothing else. (I rather prefer Lorine Niedecker's "I've spent my life on nothing," from a poem which begins "What horror to awake at night.")

It's a feeling I get around this time every year, after I've turned in what Our Fair University calls the "Annual Report," in which I gather up all the things I've done over the previous year – the theses directed & served on, the classes taught along with their student evaluations, the committees reluctantly served on, and – most ominously – the things published. I always do just fine on these things: a few poems here and there (last year was a banner year – two collections of poems published, but that won't happen for another decade), a book review, a couple of essays.

But what does it add up to? I'll admit to being unhealthily obsessed with looking over the bibliographies of scholars-critics-poets, counting how many things they'd published by the time they were my age, calculating their rate of production – mostly of books. And boy mine doesn't look very impressing next to Terry E., or Marjorie P., or Norman F., or any number of others.

Over the last few, I find, my (prose) energies have gone in three directions (this is leaving aside all the work that went into The Poem of a Life, which I realize [gulp] was published a full SIX years ago): book reviews and short pieces that usually began as conference papers; large-scale literary-historical articles for Cambridge Companions and suchlike volumes; and rangy multiple-book-topic review essays for Parnassus: Poetry in Review. Now things in the first category obviously are publications, but they aren't publications that add up to much. Things in the second category, as useful as they may be – and some of the things I've done for such volumes are to my mind quite good indeed – can't really be reused for my own books because of copyright restraints: Cambridge, Oxford, Blackwell, etc. make you sign away your reprint rights.

Then there's the Parnassus pieces. I'm terrifically proud of them: I've written on everyone from Guy Davenport to Anne Carson to Ron Johnson and Rae Armantrout, and in every case Herb Leibowitz and Ben Downing's ferocious line-editing has pulled my prose to levels of smartness and readability that I didn't know I could attain. The problem is that the resulting pieces are rather in-betwixt-and-between: they're all on fairly hipster poets, but they're written for a "general audience," whoever that might be – not a scholarly readership, or a band of ferocious partisans. Clearly, this probably isn't a book that an academic press is going to snap up. But on the other hand, the very obscurity of most of the folks I write about (when have you ever seen anything about Ted Enslin in a journal of more than 750 copies circulation?) is likely to make this collection a losing proposition for an independent.

So I've got 95,000 words of essays, reviews, and essay-reviews on my hands (mind you, that's only about half of what I culled thru), a title, and the beginnings of a lively introduction. All I need (sigh, and that's what we all need) is a publisher.

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