Sunday, February 28, 2010

Writer's Ambition: The roots of "sin" and "sanctity" are intertwined.

The Pushcart Prize. Even typing it now, I get goose pimples. The two dozen poems and forty to fifty-something combined stories and essays (technically creative non-fiction pieces) in the annual anthology are selected from over six thousand candidates, representing the best writing from each of more than one thousand small presses and journals each year in the opinions of their editors. Just being nominated is an honor worthy of inclusion on one's curriculum vitae. And no matter what one's aesthetic sensibilities, there is no doubt that the winners are among the most substantive literary works published during the previous year.

The issue of recognition of the work of art as separate from recognition of the artist is dealt with in two of the winning essays in the 2010 Pushcart Prize Anthology: "How To Succeed In Po Biz" by Kim Addonizio, and "God's Truth Is Life" by Christian Wiman. Both should be required reading for anyone writing anything other than a shopping list or the occasional birthday message inside a blank card for Brownie points gained from your lover or your mother.

"I once believed in some notion of a pure ambition, which I defined as an ambition for the work rather than for oneself," writes Wiman, "but I'm not sure I believe in that anymore." "If a poet's ambition were truly for the work and nothing else," Wiman continues, "he would write under a pseudonym, which would not only preserve that pure space of making, but free him from the distractions of trying to forge a name for himself in the world. No, all ambition has the reek of disease about it, the relentless smell of the self..."

If casting doubt on the possibility of pure altruism were the only rubric of faith that Wiman could muster, he would come off as simplistic, and his piece as another whining essay from the sidelines of fine art. But through vignettes of his and other poets' experiences, intertwined with personal reflection about the relationship between art and life, Wiman succeeds in creating parables that elucidate our journey into our own practice of writing as a spiritual (not religious) path:

"Still, there is something that any artist is in pursuit of, and is answerable to, some nexus of one's being, one's material, and Being itself. The work that emerges from this crisis of consciousness may be judged a failure or a success by the world, and that judgment will still sting or flatter your vanity. Bit it cannot speak to this crisis in which, for which, and of which the work was made. For any artist alert to his own soul, this crisis is the only call that matters. I know no name for it besides God, but people have other names, or no names."

While Wiman is busy dissecting the pickled corpse of ambition in the laboratory, splitting hairs with a precision linguistic scalpel, slicing his way through the flesh to reveal its heart, Kim Addonizio, oiled down with satire, has been dirty dancing with the body poetic, seducing the serpent in the garden, wrestling with the angel in order to receive the blessing of the paid poetry reading she deserves that will launch her career. Now, wearing a sheer Machiavellian nightgown, she joins us for an interview, offering step-by-step advice, in the midst of her mounting insecurities:

"Once a bona fide, i.e., paying invitation has been extended, try to obtain as high a fee as possible. Tell yourself you are worth every penny, but secretly feel the way you did when you were on food stamps--other people need and deserve this more than you. Feel anxious about the upcoming trip because you hate to travel. Feel anxious because you are basically a private person and can't live up to the persona that is floating out there in the world acting tougher and braver than you. You are a writer, after all, and prefer to be alone in your own house with your cat. You don't really like your fellow humans, except for your lover, whose stories and mannerisms can be usefully stolen and put into your writing. When he traveled with a carnival as a young man, he learned to eat fire and to put a nail up his nose. Sensibly, he left the carnival to work in sales, while you suspect that you have become a sideshow act, a fake mermaid shriveling in her tank, uselessly flipper her plastic scales."

After stressing out over the highly implausible (yet actual) events of the presenters not having obtained any of her books for sale, missing her ride from the airport and ending up lost, trying to climb into the window of a private citizen's apartment she has mistaken for the university residence, being cursed at by the father of two teenage girls who come to the window to ask for cigarettes thinking she is a prostitute, and scores more of similar stories, Addonizio tells us:

"Go ahead and have a little more vodka with lemonade, and get slightly drunk by dusk. Try to write a few good lines and then give up in despair. Tell yourself you are foolish, feeling terrible when you have actually been asked to share your work with other people. It is the work that you love, and sometimes you even get paid for it. Tell yourself you are lucky, that people envy you. Tell yourself this is what you toiled and sweated your whole life to be able to do, and now you are doing it, and above all, don't be such a god-damned little baby."

The message is not that we are forced to chose between Christian Wiman and Kim Addonizio--though disparate in style, they are consonant in message. Wiman himself explains the difference in his concluding remark: "It is not that imperfections in the life somehow taint or invalidate perfections of the work. It is, rather, that these things--art and life, or thought and life--are utterly, fatally, and sometimes savingly entwined, and we can know no [person's] work until we know how, whom, and to what end he [or she] did or did not love."

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