While on a road trip yesterday, my wife and I listened to B.J. Novak’s hilarious and touching story “J. C. Audetat, Translator of Don Quixote.” J.C. is a skilled and thoughtful poet in an age that doesn’t value poetry (that is to say, our age). He finds fame instead by translating, first Don Quixote, and then other great works, each to greater acclaim, even as his translations grow ever more absurd. I won’t say much more about the story for fear of giving away the joke—it really is a marvelous story.
Part of why I was so touched by the story was how much I recognized myself in the character of J.C. Not that I’ve ever been famous—rather, J.C.’s inner struggle with writing poetry for small literary magazines that practically no one reads called up an old personal struggle of mine.
Not long after I started college I knew I wanted to be some kind of writer, and at that time I wrote short fiction, poetry, and creative non-fiction pretty much in equal measure. Towards the end of my time at college, though, during a tough and lonely time in my life I listened to a cassette tape recording of a Robert Bly reading called “Poetry East and West,” and I decided, precipitously, that I would devote myself to poetry for the rest of my life.
I was not at that time a good poet. I became one over time, but I wrote quite a few bad poems before I wrote a single good one, and I wrote many more bad ones after that first good one. It was some years before I any knack at all for writing good ones.
What attracted me to poetry in the first place was its almost total disdain for market forces. Nobody will pay you to write a poem, and so you are free to write whatever you like, to dig down to the bedrock of existence, beneath those composting strata of life’s trivialities that we spend so much time buying and selling.
That way of writing and living still appeals to me. But it was only after years of writing poems that it dawned on me why nobody will pay you to write a poem: because nobody reads poetry much. To be a poet today is to walk away from readers and towards an absolute experience, like a monk or yogi or hermit. I could shut myself up in my cabin, in the manner of Robert Francis or Bashō or Emily Dickinson, and pour myself into work that few people would see, living a full life in conversation with an indifferent world, like a man calling down into an empty canyon or a sparrow singing for a mate in a supermarket parking lot. That would be a painful way to live, but it would be a life defined by the coolness of an uncompromised vision.
I don’t think I’m cool enough to be an artist of that type. It’s hard to imagine throwing my voice down a canyon for years like that. I want people to read my work, to ask me questions about it, to tell me how they reacted to it. This desire is not the same as the desire for fame—the idea of being famous gives me the willies. Rather, what I want is a conversation, a person who reads something I’ve written and says that was meaningful to me or I’ve been nagged by this question about your main character and I have to ask you. And to have that conversation, I need a reader.
I chose to write science fiction and fantasy because I thought they were genres I could write in, and at the time I was exploring the idea I thought fantasy and science fiction could use a more serious literary treatment than they have usually gotten in recent decades. (The fact that the world is full of literary science fiction and fantasy writers shows how dated my understanding of those genres was, as well as how many writers have been working the same hustle I hoped to, only years before it had ever occurred to me).
Someday I may hole up in the cabin and write poetry for the rest of my life. But not right now. Right now, I’m grateful to have a handful of readers. Every once in a while someone will email me about how much they got out of a story of mine, or with a question about something that didn’t make sense to them, and it’s that feedback from a few readers that keeps me writing.