I’ve always thought I was a reasonably good loser, but more and more lately I’ve not been, and I’m trying to work out what that’s all about.
I have never entered a slam not intending to win it and I always feel painfully disappointed if I don’t, but usually I’d like to think I hide it well and get over it quickly. There have been a couple of times when I’ve been a bit arsey (well, actually, one of them, fuelled by far too much alcohol, I was very arsey, which I’m still mortified about two years later), but on the whole I am Not That Guy. Either the judges wouldn’t know good poetry if it slapped them in the face, in which case their decisions are no reflection on my skills and thus not worth getting upset about, or they do know good poetry when they see it, in which case the sensible response is analysing what the higher-scoring poets did better than me and doing it next time, not throwing a tantrum and sulking. Usually, if I leave a slam angry and upset, it’s at myself for fucking up, not at anyone else.
Similarly with journal submissions: yes, rejection is never pleasant and we’ve probably all regressed to toddlerhood and grumbled, “Well, I wouldn’t want to be in their stupid magazine, anyway! The stuff they publish is shit” at least once in our lives, even though that is a patently illogical, sour grapes response: if they really do publish shit, why did you submit to them in the first place? And if it’s a prestigious magazine and the poetry in it seems rubbish, the chances are there’s something about it you’re missing, so it’s either so stylistically removed from you that you and they will never be a good fit, or you’re not as good as you think you are and don’t even understand what the properties of quality page poetry are.
But thinking uncharitable thoughts is one thing – actually contacting the magazine and telling them that you wouldn’t want to be in their stupid magazine, anyway, as they publish shit, is putting on the T-shirt with the “I Am An Arsehole” logo emblazoned across it and, thankfully, I have never done it. Yet.
Then there’s gigs I’m turned down for, lukewarm reviews, lukewarm audiences….
I used to think that the more I got used to the poetry scene, the less failure would hurt and the more mature I would be about it, but, actually, the reverse is the case. When I started out, I expected to fail. Failing is what beginners are supposed to do. I expected it to take a few years to get to the stage when I was Good Enough and had earned the right to success, so there was absolutely no shame in failing right at the beginning. Now, though, failure at things I was failing at three or four years ago feels like lack of progress, especially when I see people who took up poetry later than me succeeding at them. It feels like it’s not just lack of experience and the need to work a little bit harder – it raises that possibility that I don’t want to think about: that I might not, actually, be that good.
Increasingly, I find myself taking longer to get over disappointments, feeling childishly jealous of my colleagues and friends (and then I feel the double pain of both the jealousy AND the guilt of being resentful and disloyal to people I genuinely love and admire, as well), whining to my friends about it all, being uncharitable and sour grapesy. I think it’s a response to fear that I’ve plateaued, that I’ve reached my ceiling, that this is as good as it gets, that actually I’m a good amateur, rather than a nascent professional, that I’m an also-ran. “It’s not fair! Why has he/she got that, when I haven’t? They’re not as good as me!” is more ego-protecting response than, “I’m scared. I’m not asgood as them and that means I might not be good enough.”
But then I look around at friends and it’s the ones who don’t give into these kinds of feelings who are succeeding, often against the odds. Friends who remain resolutely chipper (at least, in public) in the face of setbacks, who use them as educational exercises showing them where they need to improve or as helpful career pointers of the kind of poetry that’s not for them, who try not to compare themselves to others, but just concentrate on ploughing their own furrow, are the ones who are making career progress.
I’m feeling frustrated about a couple of goals in poetry that I keep missing and don’t appear to have moved substantially closer to succeeding at over the last year or two. I know that there are only two mature ways forward with them: either keep going and work even harder to hit them or accept that that area of poetry is not one of my strengths and give up, to concentrate more on areas that are.