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What We Don't Get

What We Don’t Get


            My fantasy goes something like this: I enter a poetry contest and win first prize. The famous Duke professor/ poet or the North Carolina Poet Laureate phones me personally to inform me of the good news. He says I wish I had written it myself! I call every person I have ever known, receive a check for a thousand dollars, and my poem appears in a prestigious North Carolina literary journal. It then gets selected by the editor of Best American Poetry 2009 and is nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

            A ceremony is held at a local independent bookstore, hundreds of friends and strangers show up to hear me read. My photo is in the local paper, men and women, and children stop me on the street to ask Aren’t you that famous poet?

            The reality is this: The telephone rings. I hear a woman on the other end say You have won…poetry contest. I am so excited to have won something, I don’t hear all the details.  I ask her what have I won, and am told the prize is a water bottle. I didn’t win the main prize, I didn’t win the second or third place prize, but I did win honorable mention.

            Still hopeful that thousands of readers will have some grand epiphany after reading my poem, I ask when it will be published in the paper. There is silence on the other end, then an awkward uh, well. It turns out honorable mentions don’t get published, but I do get a water bottle. And, she adds, the water bottle is given out at the reading. So, in order to win the $2.00 plastic prize, I have to drive to the bookstore that is thirty minutes away, and read my poem.

            Don’t get me wrong – I am thrilled to be chosen. But, after thirty years of writing this is the long list of what I have to show for my hard work: $7.00 (which I spent on Happy Meals for my kids. What else can one buy with seven dollars?), a pink T-shirt with a Hemingway quotation on the front, and now – a water bottle.

            I know what you’re thinking ­– we don’t do it for the money. But the rewards for our work are nearly insulting at times. It seems that in our country poets receive so little respect. When I meet a new person and am asked what I do, I tell her I write. At first, she seems very excited. Then the next question is What do you write? I drop the word into the air, it falls like a large, stinky elephant – poetry-- and she doesn’t quite know what to say next. An uncomfortable look appears on her face, she nods, and tries as quickly as possible to change the subject, or end the conversation.

            Lately I have been trying to write fiction. It seems our society has more respect for fiction writers than for poets.  New fantasies are forming. I see my book (that I will write while waiting to pick up my kids in the carpool lane) on the New York Times bestseller list. I am up on stage at a literary festival with a famous fiction writer whose books I read and studied in college.

Even though fantasy rarely matches reality, the thought of what could happen keeps me going. Maybe when I am taking a long walk, wearing my pink T-shirt, sipping juice from my plastic water bottle, inspiring words will find me. Maybe the prize is not what sustains me- an empty bottle- but what I fill the container with. Perhaps I don’t need prizes to tell me I am good enough; what is important is the desire to write.

Perhaps the fantasy is what keeps me going, the image I carry in my dreams: visualizing my name printed in Best American Poetry, or seeing the famous poet personally delivering the prize check. But, ultimately, what makes a writer is the actual journey: the late night poems, the crumpled and tossed rough drafts, the early morning revisions, the perseverance and the love of language. What seems vital is what is learned while on this long creative journey.

The other day I heard the sweet voice of a nine-year-old girl call my name. I was on my way to teach poetry to fifth graders at the local elementary school. She stopped me and enthusiastically asked When are you going to teach in my class? A large smile spread across my face, bigger than the smile I had when told by the female judge I won honorable mention in the writing contest. Maybe the call I am waiting for arrives in different forms. Perhaps I have to pay attention to the small voices, to the bits of encouragement that come my way and propel me forward.

I might never win a big contest, or meet the famous Poet Laureate. Somewhere inside me I know that even if I don’t win, I will keep writing. I believe what I have to say matters. It is not the money, the fame, the water bottle or t-shirt that sustain me. The words are what sustain me.

 (This originally appeared in ALEHOUSE REVIEW) 



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Well, fantasies keep us

Well, fantasies keep us going! Several years ago, my husband did win first place in a prestigious contest, received $ 1000, but it took nearly every bit of it to get us there to receive the honor and the prize money. While he is very proud of this honor (and well, he should be), he'd rather be known for his novels.