Since joining Twitter, I’ve come to realise that networking, far from being a simple process of hobnobbing, is a tactile skill all of its own. Moreover, it’s a skill I’m not entirely sure I want to possess. The term ‘networking’ – I’ve always seen it for all the self-serving ugliness it embodies. Unfortunately, most arenas, the poetry arena included, rely to some extent on networking. Certain publishers make no bones about how vital it is that you, as a poet, make connections in order to boost sales and become the lucrative figurehead they’ll desire to publish in the first place.
This leaves people such as myself in a tricky position. If I’m not prepared to hobnob and make these connections, then maybe I shouldn’t be seeking publication in the first place. But must it be as clean cut as that? What if I really do want to publish, but want my work to speak for itself and accumulate recognition on its own merit, and not because of who I know? Is that allowed in the contemporary poetry world? Or is it a complete, unfeasible fantasy?
Aside from anything else, I simply don’t understand how to network. To strike up a conversation with a total stranger, somebody whose voice you cannot hear, whose body language you cannot see, within the global limbo and unreality of the internet, seems absurd. Even if you do attempt communication, it usually yields a few surface-level comments, a pleasantry or two, before the wick burns down and the two of you fade into the obscurity from whence you attempted your online interaction.
Perhaps this relies more on the type of people available to me on Twitter; I noticed that a clutch of the poets whose work I truly love do not use any of these social websites, and that’s probably telling me something about the type of people I respect and the type of writer I want to be. I’m not really a fan of the internet in general, nor of any of the big social networking sites, or the culture these intrusions into our once peaceful lives has bred. I have no idea what I’m actually supposed to do with my Facebook account, besides endure the craze of people taking photographs of tables laid out with plates of half-consumed food. Joining Twitter was done in a fit of misplaced enthusiasm for something new and gleaming; the effect it’s really had is to make me feel as though I’m continually shouting down into a deep, dark, echoing well, from which no other voice issues back.
The other problem I have with self-driven publicity is the feverish way it ties in with the idea of achievement. There is so much emphasis on achievement now, and I think it is the outwardly-growing canker born from some in-built human terror of the ephemeral nature of life. We can’t quite be okay with the fact there is nothing we can hold onto, nothing that is solid and will stay with us. Achievement links to ideas of possession – if you achieve, you have. But what is it exactly you come to own? We almost believe achievements are solid, concrete things, like the crystals a character might acquire in a computer game. And so, writing purely for the pleasure it brings is not enough. We have to transform that simple pleasure into a life quest, an unrelenting series of small accomplishments that build and build to a pamphlet, a collection, an award maybe.
Despite everybody’s constant assertions that if you’re in poetry for money and fame, you’re in the wrong business, I don’t think people can stop themselves from dreaming. Who doesn’t imagine their poetry being talked about? Surely I’m not the only one who feels a bit sad by the fact poets are never seen in the public eye. Talk shows line up actors, musicians and comedians, but never poets. In fact, I’ve noticed it’s increasingly rare even for big name authors to appear on television these days. It creates an interesting paradox, because people often say they’re not pursuing poetry for fame or financial gain, but by the same token if that’s true (and I know myself that people really mean it when they say that; the joy, the motivational force, is purely the act of gaining pleasure from language and expressing ideas) then why not be content to simply write? What compels us to publish?
I think a shade of it is ego. It as to be, really. Think about it. You’re writing things down , looking at them, and thinking “Other people should read this!” For all modesty and insecurity, you must believe in the power and worth of your writing somewhere deep down if you are motivated enough to send it off to an editor. You also need a thick skin and toughness of heart to handle the piles of rejections. I think the ego must be quite developed, that a little arrogance must exist in a person who decides to be a published poet, rather than simply a poet.
And the other reasons? Well, I’m not sure.
But all this achievement calls to mind stark imagery of humans scuttling about and clambering over each other like beetles to get somewhere – and where are we destined to end up? Where do we all think we’re going, and what prize, what gleaming solidification of inner success do we imagine we’ll be holding when we get there? Existence has been boiled down to a series of goals we must tick off our list: do well at school, go to university, get a good job, marry, buy house, buy stuff to fill house with. We don’t even need any of this useless junk, we’re just encouraged to have it, because having is a goal in itself.
Personally, little enjoyment comes to me from success. When something I write finally finds its place in a magazine, I get a jolt that lasts a few seconds and seems very unreal, followed by relief. I feel relieved because I’ve scored another point, which will count towards some ultimate final tally. I’m looking forward, but not enjoying the moment itself. True pleasure comes from the act of writing the poems or short stories in the first place, in the tinkering stages that follow. Likewise, daily life things that bring me pleasure are infinitesimally small. Fairy lights in winter. Coffee with a sugary powdered doughnut. Walks in autumn. The feel of a nice new jumper. Sitting in a cafe. Listening to rain falling at night. (Horribly twee things, I admit, but there you go).
It seems enjoying an activity or idle domestic bit of fluff for its own sake isn’t enough anymore; we’re unable to extricate it from some bigger plan. It calls to mind the culture of gyms, and that social pressure to always be on the move and exercising so that, what, we can feel ourselves alive or somehow puff and pant our bodies out of dream and into reality, assure ourselves we’re real? We’re terrified of being idle, of simply being still.
All of this clashes, unfortunately, with the irrefutable fact that I do need to feel my work accepted, for it to be looked at by strange eyes and deemed fit to publish. The desire is just there. So how are these two reconciled, without feeling hypocritical?