AS AN OUTSIDER
I always thought I would get my PhD
so I could write. But I ended up writing because I didn't. I had
skipped so many years in school, I thought I would be 20 when I
got it: I had all A's, had finished the course work, passed all
the language exams and had written 100 pages of a suitably academic
topic: a comparison of the translation of the psalms by Wyatt and
Sidney. Mysteriously, these 100 pages disappeared from my office.
My PhD experience seemed to be going
well until the final oral exam. But there were a few clues to what
was ahead. I got a note suggesting I dress in a way that was more
professional and dignified and always wear my hair up. This phrase
ended up in a poem, one of my most anthologized poems. Once, intent
on fitting into the mold, I sprayed my upswept hair with bug spray.
When I applied for an instructorship,
I was told no, that "as a woman,"
I didn't have a family to support.
The day of my oral exam I dressed
in particularly conservative mud colored suits, my hair up. The
college had gone from a teacher's college to an instant university.
( it was so new they had planted the wrong trees that in months
were hitting the ceiling and bending over.) Their prize "catch"
a man who had written The Milton Dictionary and Last Words of Famous
Dying Men looked at me and asked what I thought of adultery and
bed bugs. It was downhill after that. The exam embarrassed
everyone. I was the first candidate for their new PHD program- they
even had asked me how long the exam should go on! They decided to
give me a written exam a month later, on November 15. I was to identify
and correct 75 misquotes from 17th century poetry, say why the original
was better. The second half of the poem was simply to explicate
a part of Herbert's THE TEMPLE. I loved 17th century
poetry and had fun with that part. And explication didn't seem like
a big deal. I left there to celebrate. The I got a phone call: Yes,
I had identified all the quotes but in the second part I was told
that being Jewish, I didn't have enough sympathy with English Anglicanism
to work in that period. Couldn't I just have a baby?
The best revenge after divorce some
ad says is living well. I thought the best revenge for being booted
out of where I thought I would spend my life, was writing and publishing
well. I had no idea where to start and felt I had to catch up. I
had never taken a writing course, had spent so many years in graduate
school where I read nothing contemporary. All this time a very encouraging
note on a poem of mine from Robert Frost, plus the invitation to
show him more (which I didn't have) gave me confidence that sometime
I would write. Turning away from everything academic I began
ordering sample magazines from the International Dust Directory,
at that time a small, stapled edition where I learned about magazines
I'd never seen, including one called The Caller from a funeral parlor
that only published poems about death! I was immediately intrigued
by the Outsider, a beautifully printed magazine published by Jon
and Lou Webb. Five dollars for a Bukowski edition seemed outrageously
high but I bought it. Now it probably is valued at over 500 dollars.
I was drawn to magazines with names like Lung Socket Review, Open
Skull, Outcast, Vagabond, Earth Rose, Marijuana Quarterly, Wormwood,
Goodly Co, Apple, Entrails, Hearse. It was from a large submission
to the last issue of Lung Socket that my first book, WHY IS THE
I still had had no contact with other
writers. When I read about a Boulder Writer's Conference I applied.
I didn't realize I needed to be recommended by a creative writing
teacher. Forgot about it but then, found a scholarship offer in
the mail! That summer I won the poetry award there. Still I was
completely on the outside. In one later interview I said "I was
living like a nun but writing like a hippie." I never considered
having a magazine of my own, or needing to network in any way. I
probably felt isolated but I thought all writers were. This was
in the early 70's and within a few years I had published widely
enough to be included in two well known anthologies of women poets:
PSYCHE; THE FEMININE POETIC CONSCIOUSNESS. There are 20 poets starting
with Emily Dickinson, Elinor Wylie, Marianne Moore, Gwendolyn Brooks,
May Swenson, Denise Levertov and ending with Plath, Sexton, Marge
Piercy and me. That same year I was included in Rising Tides which
starts with Marianne Moore and Edna St Vincent Millay and as the
back cover says, goes to lesser known poets such as Nikki Giovanni,
Adrienne Rich and Lyn Lifshin.
In the 70's and 80's I did many readings
around the country, was the subject of a documentary film that was
shown at film festivals, in Hawaii, got several awards, was in many
anthologies. It seemed, then, there was funding for everyone. I
sold my papers to archives, was offered several poet in residence
positions. Though I was publishing chapbooks and books, and these
were usually reviewed in places like Library Journal, Choice, New
York Times Book Review, more people saw my work in the many magazines
I published in. MS
Magazine and Rolling Stone were great
places to publish since their distribution was so wide. In the early
70's The New York Times Book did a front page article about the
small independent press scene with a display of lively, off beat,
quirky often mimeographed magazines. Rolling Stone did an issue
of 100 up and coming poets, an incredible variety.
When I moved to the DC area in the
early 90's I was astonished that poets, outside of some establishment
settings, ( universities, Shakespeare Folger, Library of Congress
etc) were not paid to read. From my first reading at a small college,
I never read in New York or anywhere across the country without
pay! Often very good pay! Poets and Writers is wonderful. But I
was paid everywhere. I was shocked at the fragmented, cliquish scene.
I had two books published in 94 and 95, strong beautifully printed
books: Blue Tattoo, on The Holocaust, the other on Marilyn Monroe
but they were hardly reviewed. In my new book I have a poem about
the humiliation of trying to place those books in one of the bigger
independent bookstores in DC. Around that time I heard about
a panel called "Ethical Smoozing" and thought it was a joke. But
I began to wonder. Publishing and promoting work seemed to be becoming
more competitive, difficult. About 20 years after I first approached
Black Sparrow Press, after a manuscript in the Houghton Mifflin
award contest was one of two finalists but not the winner, and Black
Sparrow had said they liked the poems but were over-booked, I wrote
I was thrilled when they published
COLD COMFORT in Oct 1997 just after the Washington Post did a magazine
feature on me, centering on how I lived as a poet who was really
outside any and every group.
In the last two and a half years I
have not been submitting to magazines as I had for almost 30 years.
I am sure news of the publication of COLD COMFORT was spread effectively
though bio notes in those magazines and I hope news of my latest
Black Sparrow book, BEFORE IT'S LIGHT doesn't suffer from my no
longer publishing everywhere.
For me Black Sparrow seems for me
the best of two worlds: staying an outsider but having a press that
is well known, established, well distributed and I hope will be
around (unlike many of the small presses who did other books and
before I could get more copies, disappeared) a long time.
Have I gotten the best revenge by
writing well? I've gotten snide comments like "How many poems did
you write today?" and the head of a famous writing conference sneered
that I wrote too much, I ought "to make each man, each poem seem
like the last one." (As if writing a publishing a lot was like sleeping
around) (Of course he wanted to be one of them) I've been
nominated for the Push Cart prize probably 700 timesâ€ďand
never won. I think I'm the Susan Lucci of the Pushcart. But
I don't think I could have done it any other way.