Monday, September 20, 2010

What I Mean By "B-Grade Poet": Reinvent the Ruler and Sit Your Ass Down to Write

1. Shadow on the Things We Know

Bill Mallonee is a singer/songwriter/guitarist who travels the United States performing in churches, art galleries, living rooms--any small venue where he is invited. I signed up on his email list a couple of years ago after seeing him and his pianist wife Muriah Rose put on a terrific show in Pittsburgh. He's a musician who puts his whole heart into his song lyrics and his show. And like a lot of artists, who have stuck with their deepest calling all these years, he has hit a wall. About a month ago, Mallonee sent his mailing list a very dejected note. I am excerpting some of his email here, because I want to talk about the hazards of measuring an artist's life by the measuring rulers of the rest of society. Here's some of what Bill had to say:

... to tell the truth, I'm having a massive crisis of confidence; It's gone on for over 10 years now. I have relied FAR TOO MUCH on the goodwill and graciousness of you all here on this list;

But it's deeper than a lack of shows. It's about feeling ignored for years now, and kinda feeling cast off. I haven't been able to get inside the "real world" of the industry for quite awhile... I can't seem to make a bare bones living by writing, singing and performing the kinda songs I write. I'm sad and tired.

I knew the risks" involved with the life of being a songwriter. But even when records didn't go that well in the marketplace (I've always gotten "good ink" with 4 and 5 star reviews on my work) I always figured:

"Hey, I'll make a new album, a new set of songs, a new tour...surely SOMETHING will "hit." It was a sort of a "rinse & repeat" formula. But, after 25 albums, 8 EPs and countless songs, I see it's all appearing to be a "fool's errand." The light does seem to shine on other's careers...I can't figure out why it's been so hard for me. 

I never wanted fame or fortune. Just the ability to pay some of my bills... It's all i've done and given my heart to for a long time. I'm proud of all the work and the legacy, especially since the resources have been so meager as of late.

So, today...I awoke feeling stupid for ever having played music in the first place. Self-loathing and feeling irrelevant have always dogged me. So, I'm thinking of just selling almost everything...
~Bill Mallonee

Most artists can relate to this sense of crashing against their own private wall of expectations for where their work should be at any given moment. By middle-age, I think the internalized Greek chorus (Zeus! It's so noisy!) of "why aren't you further along, more well known, have more books (or even a book)/more albums/paintings/fame??" can become deafening. In fact, as you can read in Mallonee's email, it can shut an artist down. Break your spirit. (Mallonee ends this dispiriting email with a list and description of many of his guitars and equipment all up for sale. Nothing worse than an artist selling their "tools.")

Poet on the Lip of the Ledge
I have long been fascinated with the artists who plug away at their craft without much recognition or "reward" (by society's standards and sometimes by their own standards.) I would imagine that being a Pulitzer-Prize-winning poet, or simply a poet with a few books to her name would be ample "support" from the larger world to keep on going, to push on past the "noisy world" that pays little attention to such labor. It is the poets, who continue writing and writing well--even when they've not yet published a book, even when they can't even think to compete for teaching jobs with the "real"(as in those with two books or more) poets, even when the larger society that pays any attention to poetry at all (and that is a small slice of the population) wouldn't bat an eye if they decided to never write a word again--it is these artists who most fascinate me. And it is not simply because I am one of them ;-) though that does help me to understand some things.

It is something about the tenacity of spirit. The depth of the "calling" (a word I've carried over from my Catholic education, though they only applied this word to those "called" to be nuns or priests...), which demands that they keep on putting words to the page. There is something about this need to narrate the world or construct the inner life with carefully chosen words that is intrinsically beautiful to me, whether it is recognized or not. Something satisfying about being able to "make order" to the chaotic world that is intrinsically beautiful. These poets are, in a way, the "working class" layer of poets (or you could transfer this into painters, musicians, etc.), who get up every day and give themselves reasons to labor at it, despite the drawers full of literary magazine rejections, the readings that keep being booked without you, and on and on...

But, it ain't all romance here: Bills pile up on the dining room table. You watch some amazing people get published (and cheer) and some mediocre people get published because their old teacher at so and so college selected their manuscript in a national contest. (you still cheer after first grumbling. After all, there's room in the world for a million voices, right?) The jobs that have to be taken to make the money often drain a soul of any decent images in her head. the readings you used to constantly do in graduate school have all dried up. You're a writer who wants to be read AND a performer who loves to read her work out loud to the audience, but the 22 year old editors at the magazines can't relate to your style of writing anymore and the 18 year old fresh faces running the readings are asking all their friends to come do their unedited spoken word tomes at the cofffeehouses. But, this is just whining, right? These are the manageable concerns in the bigger picture.

But the thoughts that haunt you in the dead of night, in the hot hazy swampiness of a summer day are what can paralyze you. It's the unspoken , ominpresent fear muttering: You're simply not good enough, otherwise you'd have a book by now. No one wants to read your silly poems--your life is simply not interesting enough/marginal enough/ dysfunctional enough to rate anyone's attention. OR aren't you getting a bit old for this silly dream of book publication? OR the poetry scene has passed you by...or any variation on this theme. Then FEAR takes your computer and puts up your Facebook page so you can wallow in silly status updates and hours of looking at stranger's photographs. FEAR drives you from that chair that Mary Oliver swears you have to sit in each day to "be there" when inspiration strikes. It seduces you, promising that washing dishes or buying a bike rack at Target or throwing the tennis ball for your dog is really a profoundly more important use of time than writing a poem that no one will read anyway.

About the title: Confessions of a B-Grade PoetSo, here's the complicated part: I still DO believe I am a good writer, even better than good when I work at it, even downright inspiring at times, when I really focus and apply myself. I think my work should be in a book and that (as an excellent reader and performer), I should be getting invited to read all over the place. This is not grandiose thinking. Or an over-romanticized view of my poetry life. I think some of my work could have impact if it could get out there. I have been told this at the readings I give: "that poem really made me think/feel/laugh/cry." I have been told this about my chapbook. I have been told by a poet who's won the National Book award and a poet who's won the Pulitizer Prize, and by the wonderful poet Tim Siebles, who I had the pleasure of reading with once in Pittsburgh that I "should have a book. It's crazy you don't have a book yet." And I'm still pursuing this dream. And still have no guarantees that I will get there, wherever "there" may be.

I call this blog "Confessions of a B-Grade Poet," to call attention to this notion of "rulers," those rigid and unforgiving wooden sticks that dictate there is a "here" you should get to (see the solid black line of it?) and shows you how far off you are and continue to be from that designated mark. I named the blog this to call attention to our grading systems and hierarchies, which seem to define this gnawing need of humans to feel "better than" or "superior to" or "one up" from one another. (And how, worst of all, I bought into it--thus feel "one down" when I have not reached the mark.)

I am aware that dear writer friends have written me, with affection and concern, about my "self-deprecating" blog title, some saying lovely supportive things like "You are just an A-grade poet waiting to be discovered" --which of course is lovely to hear, but it doesn't change the reality of it-- or, on the other hand, some viewing the title as a "need to get attention by denigrating my writing."

What I was thinking of with the title was actually the "B-Grade" movies of the 40's, when the movie studios ruled Hollywood and the film industry. And about the film stars we love and will ALWAYS remember because they reached that STAR level-- Katherine Hepburn, James Stewart, Gregory Peck, Bette Davis, Audrey Hepburn--both because they WERE talented and compelling at their art and because they were lucky, in the right place at the right time, stars aligned to make them stars.

More importantly, I'm thinking of all the thousands of actors and actresses, who were also talented and good looking and tenacious and hard working, and despite trying their hardest (see Bill Mallonee's message again, above) who never became household names. Yet they acted their whole lives, as character actors or the bit players who were integral to the "reality" being constructed on the screen--secretaries to the lawyers, cab drivers with a few lines to say, detectives who had to populate the scenes but whose names we would never remember even if we were on a game show and big money was riding on our answer. In essence, the supporting players who worked at their art/craft all of their lives and made the STARS able to be stars.

And I love those artists, all the artists who, historically, immersed themselves in this act of creating something new from whatever chosen materials and who did not become names that we will remember. I love them for their passion and energy charging into the world, for their dark nights of yearning for the "big break" that never quite comes. I love them for how they teach the rest of us, as generations proceed to LOVE that part of ourselves which is creative and vital and pays close attention to this crazy world.

The B-Grade Poets don't really need to grade themselves at all. Perhaps they need to make their poetry its own "measure"--a measure as one in music--with its ordered rhythm and timing and notes that beg to sing out into the dark fields. A section of the larger theme, the larger composition. The so-called "B-Grade" poets who, like me, are going to keep on writing no matter what happens because, frankly, my life is fuller and richer and more deeply vital when I write. I am so lucky. So damn rich. I get to approach the world as a poet. I get to make myself crazy with paying such close attention to the deer's dark eye in my winter yard or the icicles lined up in such a lyrical way that I want to strum them like the steel strings on my guitar. This is a lucky thing. I get to love the messy world with all of my heart, even when I get hung up on wanting to "get there," even when I am lost in the thicket of my discouragement.

And for Bill Mallonee, I am sending you love, too, and hoping that your email was just a "dark night of the soul" and that you are right now chugging down a lit highway, heading to a packed art gallery in Spokane, Washington or toward someone's living room full of folding chairs in Madison, Wisconsin, your guitars secure and tuned taut in their dark cases, your fingers itching to be upon the strings again.


  1. as always your words make me think and then smile because I can see you face when you write them. The love and concern you have for those who are having a hard time shines through...What makes you "special" is your heart...and that my sweet dear friend is never 'B Grade'

  2. love this Sharon--I am going to share this on Facebook and hope all my B-grade writer-poet, musician, artist friends read it.

  3. I love you Sharon. You are one of my favorite thinkers of all time. Thank you for sharing this wonderful, wonderful salve - just when my creative wounds were, again, stinging from the assault of self judgment.

  4. Thanks so much for all the wonderful, positive love and feedback you've given me here! It's my pleasure to be able to share with such readers and to hear from you all! xo Sharon

  5. Sharon, I find your statement that artists sometimes "crash against their own private wall of expectations" very interesting. I don't consider myself an artist, at least in the traditional sense, but I do find that I often berate myself with criticisms of self worth and accomplishment. I wonder why artists feel it worse than others. I feel the difference lies in that true artists listen better to both the outside and the INSIDE world. In that sense, those critical voices seem louder to you than me. Your thought on this? (And regardless, your art is worth more than a B in my gradebook.)

  6. Sam, what a thoughtful response--thanks a lot! I do often work with generalizations about artists--and I'm sure there's many exceptions to any "rules." I also think there are sensitive, self-reflective, self-critical people in all walks of life, true? But, you do bring up and interesting point about how deeply interior artists can be. I think, especially for writers, that goes with the territory because the work of writers is to take internal journeys of discovery. Of course, going "deep" within would have its downside--as looking too closely at many things would. Someone once explained to me that I seemed not to have any "armor," that I was more a "sponge" than a lobster was the analogy. But, i'm not sure that comes from being an artist, or if it's simply one of my own personality characteristics, no matter what I would have done in my life? As Yeats once asked (I'm paraphrasing) "how can you tell the dancer from the dance?" Thanks so much for your support, always!!