Jeffrey Skinner's The 6.5 Practices of Moderately Successful Poets is, in a word, a HOOT. I picked it up at midnight on a Monday night and had to force myself to put it down at ... 2:30 am. Finished it on the train the next morning. What made this book nearly impossible to put down? Skinner is funny; Skinner is wise. Skinner quotes James Baldwin on talent:
Talent is insignificant. I know a lot of talented ruins. Beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck, but most of all, endurance.
Lucky the poet who lands on this quotation (and Skinner's book) early in his or her poetry career.
Also, how about this for good advice:
But I have said no to committees, opportunities, parties, dinners, friends, etc., in order to say Yes to poems. --David Baker
AND (from Jeffrey himself):
"Get rid of all your notions of how and when poems are to be written. Discard all superstitions."
"Nothing in life is certain; it is less certain as a poet. You have to commit to the uncertainty...You have to get lost."
"You can move yourself closer to the angel, but you can't make her sit down and whisper in your ear."
"When you write well, reward yourself."
"Use all electronics as rarely as possible."
All invaluable pieces of advice.
Skinner shares how when he was undressed and paddy-wacked in a big way by the likes of Philip Levine, his response was NOT to curl up in a ball but to make him see how wrong he was. Skinner preaches toughness and defiance against those who will inevitably tell us we have no talent, no chance in becoming a poet. He makes good on Baldwin's quote, but he takes it a step further. In the end he thanks Levine for teaching him that writing poetry "depends more about character than talent or luck." He also shares the essential thing Levine taught him: be who you are.
He also praises poems that grapple with big subjects like science, praising the poet who conducts research while writing poems. Hurrah!
Using the poets Susan Howe and Kathleen Ossip as examples, he drives home the following equation:
Fact + mystery = reality or truth
In other words, "open your poems to a wider landscape."
Lastly, Skinner renews my faith that it's enough to write and publish good poems. You don't have to all smarty-tarty with your Phd and your erudition. Thanks, Jeffrey, for reminding us that writing is more important than, say, teaching and editing.
Being rich helps too, but hopefully he's tongue and cheek on that one.
On second thought, likely he is not being tongue and cheek.
Skinner's recipe for success: two cups of defiance, three cups perseverance, a heaping tablespoon of deep pockets, two dashes of "to thine own self be true," plus a dash of "whatever you do, don't give up." Bake in a pan lined with "fuck talent."
Your neighbor may not understand contemporary poet, but you can at least try to write something she can make sense of.
Poets are misunderstood, often lonely, and die young. The guy sitting next to you on the subway will not understand how an AWP conference can be a great load of fun, but then again most poets feel the same way about a Nascar convention.
Skinner has written a bomb of a book. I am definitely making it required reading the next time I teach poetry writing. You should, too.
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