Maybe It’s OK to Be Small Fry: Reflections of a Wallflower Narcissist

I.

An uncomfortable and even taboo topic but I will proceed nonetheless. This post is like a share at a 12-step meeting in that it is more for the speaker than for listeners, although a few might relate…

I found out yesterday by chance that a SoCal wheeler-dealer was the primary mover behind a big new coronavirus anthology. Many years ago I had tried to get into that person’s good books by having him read at my poetry series and saying a few absurdly laudatory words about his work by way of introduction. Alas, it didn’t work, and I later went on to delete my fatuous words about him on my series website. I am known to this person and he is known to me. We’re strangers to each other.

I have often asked myself what went wrong (in regard to this anthology and in general)? Is it because my work (either prose or poetry) isn’t of the first water? Is it because I’m not a people person and not particularly popular? Is it intelligence (my SAT scores were average)? Is it because (as Bob Foster used to say about me) I’m not a particularly good hustler? Is it now (now in 2020 at a very crucial time) because I’m old and not just gay but the not-decently-married-respectable kind of gay that people find acceptable? All of the above, I suspect. Absence of good interpersonal skills; heavy introversion; combined with a lack of interest in and Too Much interest in what others think. And: I am deeply uncomfortable being the center of attention, anywhere. (WTF).

A long time ago at a writers’ conference, the poet David Daniel said to me, in response to my question about the value of networking, that the very highest level of writer/artist etc (he cited the example of Robert Frost) can get away with just doing the work and not actively trying to promote him- or herself; but the rest of us, he said, who fall into that great middle–below the greats–can’t just sit back; it’s our job to work to actively promote ourselves, rub elbows, etc. So if one falls into the category of “talented but no Robert Frost” and just writes but doesn’t do one’s “social-climbing homework,” one is screwed. (David Daniel, editor of Ploughshares, also mentioned his lifelong dream of being published in the New Yorker. He continued to receive very nice personalized notes from the editor there…)

My grandiose mistake, from age 15 until my 50s was to imagine I was in the “Robert Frost” or “Nathaniel Hawthorne” category and just needed to write without doing any of the boring stuff. (Though even they might’ve had to do some boring stuff!). Now it is firmly established that I am not in that league but rather in the vast and modestly talented middle, and I still resist doing the glad-handing and other legwork. Sometimes I wonder: since I’m not in the highest rank that will be remembered and since my work falls in the vast middle that will be washed away like sand castles anyway, why not just enjoy the process of writing for me and my desk drawer and a few friends?

II.

Okay, and so how to deal with this, how to go on, assuming one has put aside or is incapable of any thought of suicide, and continue living and even being creative?

Ever since my conversion last year I have listened to a lot of sermons and I finally figured out their purpose: in general people may claim to be, and may indeed be, Christians, but they are not doing quite enough to lead truly Christian lives; in other words, they’re falling short. Well, may preachers continue to preach and may the words of (for example) the great Andrew Murray still find resonance in our lives, because I am one of those people who continues to fall short. A long time ago, in Sexual Compulsives Anonymous, I used to listen to men and women share about how they avoided “acting out” sexually: making outreach calls, getting on the treadmill, attending meetings, getting on their knees and praying. At this point in life (age 59) things have quieted down in that department, but when I heard I was to be excluded once again, my reaction was not good. Why continue to write if I can’t be popular? Why continue if I don’t even enjoy the process of trying to be a better hustler? (I know some may take exception to that term so let’s say “go-getter.”) These thoughts don’t leave me. As an old mentor of mine once said, “It’s hard, being a writer.” We all know there are very few readers. When I saw that Mary Trump has now millions in line to read her book about her uncle I said to myself, “Every poet’s dream, for sure.”

So like my old fellow addicts in Sexual Compulsives Anonymous, I must metaphorically get on that treadmill and do the work of healing from my rage that people won’t do exactly what I want them to do. I will not be in the COVID anthology. My work will reach very few. I will have to find peace with this. As I’ve said on this blog before, the primary reason to write—I belatedly discovered—is and has always been the process itself.

“Grant that I may die to all worldly things, and for Thy sake love to be despised and unknown in this world.”   —Thomas a Kempis

III.

Should all this go into creative work? As much as I would like to write a poem called “On Hearing I’m to Be Excluded Again From a SoCal Anthology” I find that I cannot. Why? Simply put, if I were to write such a poem, it would be banal and prosy; the topic is better suited to a blog post. If I have ideas about something, I write prose. If I want primarily to do something interesting with language, I write poetry. I see this as my limitation; others, many others, might very well be able to write such a poem. Currently I’m reading Everywoman Her Own Theology, essays on the work of Alicia Ostriker. Her skill, her genius, is to be able to write very “plain”-appearing poems and still have them be poems, not prose with line breaks. I’m not there yet. This is especially the case since, in early 2019, I discovered a method of recycling newspaper articles, poems from the past and present including my own, passages from books, etc, by putting them through the whirlpool/cement-mixer of both Google Translate and Spell Backwards. Thus a passage from William Blake mixed with a New York Times article plus an old poem of my own, translated into Urdu, Amharic, Yiddish, Hawaiian, Polish and myriads of other tongues, then back to English and put through the second machine of Spell Backwards yields thirty single-spaced pages of “nonsense,” where I discover my poem. The allegiance here is to words and images, not what happened to me today or how I feel. Moreover, the results can be somewhat Frankenstein’s-Monsterish. Here is a recent example, somewhat related thematically, it turns out, to the topic of this post:

People Who Are Asleep or in Love Do Not Know
Whether a Child With a Match Is Watching
 
I caught a little bird and glued it to a rock
and painted the bird and the rock
the color of my hand-painted house.
I started and knew I would never stop.
My new windshield is splattered with eyelids.
If my wind moves north, my rock moves west.
They call me a compassionless hoodlum
because I can’t let go of the game.
My shoes are wooden boxes or purple carrots.
Automobiles groan when I pass by.
When I bump into a fig tree in the air
it’ll run alongside me for hours begging pardon.
I’m made of bone power, this is development hell,
no one can play my music.
 
On the school bus I’m busy getting pregnant.
School is too small for small boys like me.
Crime is anger that can’t go to sleep.
There was an old man and he was upset
by the light from his husband’s light in their room
so I inserted my knife into both of them.
Now both men carry their love’s light clean
into the great light of the Throne Room.
I wear the skirt I was born with.
 
When I wake up, Mommy says I go a-trumpeting,
she says I follow a puppy god.
I wake up but my mouse gut is well asleep.
Time for SFUSD.
The principal has proclaimed this Despair Week.
Once at a Giants game I yanked Mayor Alioto’s hand
and asked him to ask me how I loved my Giannini school.
It’s hell I said and the riots began.
 

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2 thoughts on “Maybe It’s OK to Be Small Fry: Reflections of a Wallflower Narcissist

  1. Pingback: New Blog Post from Poet Alex Frankel - Poetry Super Highway

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