Writing poems isn’t easy. Getting them published is ridiculous. You look for places that publish poetry, send them out, remembering to include a self-addressed, stamped envelope, even if you don’t want them back, and then wait. Sometimes you wait six months to find out their fate, because poetry editors are swamped. I wouldn’t want that job.
You know you’ve been rejected when the return envelope is fat, stuffed with the pages you so hopefully sent out. If by some miracle you’ve been accepted, then it will be a thin one, containing only one page declaring the journal’s intention of publishing your poems, or, more likely, just one of them. In that case, a celebration is in order: dinner out, flowers sent to your day job, emails trumpeting the news to your vast distribution list of friends. You might as well hold your own parade, since you’ll be lucky to be paid five bucks for a poem. Most often, your “pay” will consist of a couple of copies of the journal in which it appears, or maybe a year’s subscription, if the editor is feeling really generous.
In the past few weeks, I hit the jackpot. First, goaded on by a friend, I sent four poems to the medical journal Headache, even though from what I could see, they never publish poetry. Imagine my shock when their web editor said that he’d love to put my poems on their web page, and that the editor-in-chief liked them so much, he was going to make room to publish them in the April issue of the print journal, too. They even talked of doing a podcast with me for their web page. Good grief.
Thus emboldened, I sent an older poem to another medical journal — Chest, the journal of the American College of Chest Physicians, which, I learned in Poet’s Market, publishes poems in every issue. I sent two, and they accepted one. This one was called “Autopsy,” about the death of my first (ex) husband. My goodness.
Hoping for the trifecta, I also flung one out to JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association, whose walls I’ve been trying to breach for years, but no such luck. My poet friend Jennifer has suggested I add “M.D.” to my name and see if that doesn’t do the trick, but I’m not that desperate – yet.
At any rate, I now find myself in the odd position of suddenly being a poet who publishes in medical journals. This makes some sense, since I work as a medical librarian, both subscribing to and doing research in a great number of medical journals every weekday. And, let’s face it, a lot of my poems are, shall we say, health-related, though I hasten to point out that I do write about things other than migraines and needles and dementia and ICUs and kids in hospitals. Why, I’ve written entire poems about flowers! Office daffodils with crushes on the UPS man! Tulips toppling in the first frost! Peonies turning themselves inside out! I have; they’ve just never been published.
But I’m drawn, even in other people’s poetry or memoirs, to tales of bodily woe. Tell me Lucia Perillo is a fabulous poet, and I’ll give her a look. Mention she has M.S., and I’ll buy her entire oeuvre, especially if you refer to her wicked sense of humor. (The name of her sly book of essays about her illness is “I’ve Heard the Vultures Singing,” a witty take-off on Virginia Woolf’s “I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing.”) One essay’s title is so shockingly hilarious, I can’t quote it for you; it’s that naughty. Thank God for her.
Why do I love writers like her so much? I think it comes down to this: they speak the truth. Hand me a book of “Chicken Soup for the Soul” and I’ll most likely throw it across the room. Offer me instead a book like Donald Hall’s “The Best Day The Worst Day,” in which he recounts, with searing honesty, the experience of his wife and fellow poet Jane Kenyon’s ultimately futile attempt to survive cancer – an unputdownable combination of hair-raising poetry and prose – and, well, I can’t put it down.
It’s not that I like to view the world through slate-colored glasses. But you can keep your rosy ones. As the Buddha himself noted, life is full of suffering. He didn’t say life was only suffering, mind you, but he did emphasize we must acknowledge that we’re all going to have our share of grief – and some of us will receive what seems like a wholly unfair extra scoop. So we might as well talk about it, get it out there, and let others know they’re not alone. If everything is perfect in your life, hey, great, good for you, but pardon me if I’m not overly interested in continuing the conversation.
If, on the other hand, you write an entire book, as did Mary Jo Bang, about your grown son’s harrowing suicide, I’ll line up at the book store to buy it. And it will win the 2007 National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry, because it’s written with such grace and dark precision. Just looking at my poetry bookcase on the wall across from where I’m writing, I notice how many books are about death, illness, war. The human condition.
But also joy. Chaim Potok put this wise conversation in his novel “My Name is Asher Lev.” One character says, “Millions of people can draw. Art is whether or not there is a scream in him wanting to get out in special way.” His companion replies thoughtfully, “Or a laugh. Picasso laughs, too.”