From the first poetry class I took as an undergrad in 1999 to the day I resigned as poetry and translations editor of The Los Angeles Review this past fall, identifying myself as a poet also felt such a solitary act. As if declaring oneself an aspiring or professional poet were akin to claiming noble stature, my response to the simple question, what do you do?, was almost always met with a peculiar stare.
In the first year of my MFA program, there was only one other student in the genre; the next year, we grew to four. As an emerging voice, I was paralyzed by the fast-moving crowds of AWP bookfairs and glossy publications that seemed painfully out of reach. Certainly among my non-writing friends, family, and colleagues, my endeavors as a poet seemed not only fruitless and obscure, but even downright bizarre to some. Eventually, I learned to secret away my love of reading and crafting verse like some shameful, illegitimate child. Even among writing circles, is there not still an essence of the underdog—the neglected and underfed runt of the litter—attached to the poets who are satisfied with the crumbs of literary success?
Perhaps other poets experience things differently, perhaps some felt or feel as I often did, that is, until recently. I’ve spent the last six months editing a poetry anthology for charity, and it spun upside down the way I think about the world of poetry and its creators. The writing process can be a lonely one, and revision is generally a slog; research, promotion and marketing, submissions—all rests on the shoulders of the writer. But at the end of the day, only other writers can empathize with the ache in those shoulders, and understand the drive to get up and do it all over again the next day. And only poets know the specific hardships attached to this seductive, challenging genre of ours.
Today marks the official start of the annual AWP conference, hosted in my fair city of Seattle, Washington. Not only am I pleased as pie to skip the transcontinental flights, and to be able to sleep in my own bed this week, but I’m also delighted to welcome roughly 11,000 of my literary homies into this beautiful part of the country. What makes this whole week even more fantastic is that I’ll have the opportunity to spend some time with many of the contributors to my forthcoming poetry collection, putting faces to names and poems, while connecting over the heartache, experiences, and verse we’ve shared in the last few months.
Looking back on my very first trip to an AWP conference six years ago, I remember trying to remind myself of the old advice about not comparing your journey’s beginning to another’s middle, daunted as I was by so much seemingly easy success all around me. Maybe it was some of that young poet’s loneliness that, in part, drove me to publish in other genres, like my memoir, A Real Emotional Girl.
Attending this year’s AWP conference on my home turf—both in the geographic sense as well as that of genre—has allowed me to embrace my love for the craft and this project for which I care so passionately. In the process, I’ve forged relationships with my talented contributors that have fulfilled me as an editor and—most importantly—as a reader, in ways I never could have dreamed. With an anthology like this at my side, I don’t imagine I’ll ever feel the winds of loneliness again.
For more information on A Real Emotional Girl and The Burden of Light: Poems on Illness and Loss, visit www.tanyachernov.com