After A Long Hibernation

On The Social Nature Of Writing

Hello friend,

Some years ago, I read an observation that “peak newsletter” had been reached, and I think that is probably true, yet here I am, writing to you. Last year, as many of you know, I wrote a poem a day for the entire year and posted them to Substack, a commitment that, in spite of myself, I managed to keep, and ever since the project completed I have been thinking and rethinking about my relationship to the professional poetry world, my place (or lack of place) in it, and my understanding of who I am as a poet.

Most of us have probably had the experience of reading an obscure author, or stumbling onto a musical act that is not blessed with stardom, or seeing, yet again, an obviously immensely talented actor in another bit part after a long career of small roles. If you’re like me, you marvel that the rest of the world hasn’t caught on, that this clearly gifted person has not been widely recognized for what they have to offer the world.

I read, in Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography, that he used to have that feeling about himself. Before his band was signed, when they were playing tiny nightclubs, he’d listen to the radio and think “I’m every bit as good as this person. Why aren’t my songs on the radio?”

But then I also think about William Blake and Vincent Van Gough, both of whom died paupers, their work unrecognized in their lifetimes.

And I have been thinking about “recognition” itself: why do we (and by we, of course, I really mean I) value it? After all, I spent most of history up til now not yet born, and I’m going to spend most of history after this dead; what’s more, so will everyone I know and everyone meaningfully related or connected to me. We tend to read only one of two examples of literature from any given century except our own and the 1 or 2 before ours, which means that in 200 years the odds of anyone reading my poems, or the poems of anyone I know, with the possible exception that one of us might be the poet chosen by future scholars to represent 21st century poetry in English, if English literature is even chosen as the representative language of this century. All of this is to say that posterity and longevity are illusions, even more illusory than recognition in one’s moment.

I know all of this, and have known it for years, but yet I still feel a strange mixture of loneliness and frustration when I am reminded, over and over, that my poems are not, for the most part, considered worth the attention of the people I consider to be my peers. I know this is, in part, because my poems are, at the moment, unfashionable, and they may never become fashionable. Blake would tell me this is all for the best, that worldly glory holds no candle to spiritual glory. In this he is echoing Jesus Christ, who once instructed his followers to be so secretive about their good works that their left hand wouldn’t know what their right hand was doing because God, who sees what is done in secret, will reward them.

My instinct, were I the one reading this instead of writing it, would be to reply that writing the poems should be reward enough but this is, of course, obviously untrue and impossible. Blake, after all, would not have spent the entire free time of his life making his poems and engravings if he were the only person on earth. We write, make music, make art because we want to connect with other human beings.

With poetry, the opportunities for that connection become greater in the (very unhealthy and largely exploitative) systems of journal publication, book contests, conferences and readings. One doesn’t get invited to many readings if one has no publications, for example. Art-making is a conversation millennia-old and I think there is nothing untoward or selfish or ugly about wanting to be in conversation with my peers about this peculiar way of attending to words that I love so much.

The poem-a-day project was revealing because it demonstrated there are other ways of organizing such conversations, and a reminder that the professional poetry world is often incredibly insular. This is something I already knew, but which I clearly needed to be reminded of. At the same time, the list of subscribers, that is, of people volunteering to read my poems every day for a year, tripled over the course of the year. So there are definitely people out there for whom my writing has meaning; they just don’t work for poetry journals.

This has all led me to the activity of newsletter-making. After spending the past six months reflecting on the experience of writing daily and being accountable in the way I was (to post a poem, written that day, to a newsletter, every day) I had committed to be, and on my own feelings and goals about myself as a poet, I’ve decided to once again attempt taking up a regular newsletter.

Each entry will probably have a musing like this one (though, hopefully, more “snack-sized” as my friend Ariane Conrad calls her succinct weekly letters, which I recommend), a poem or two by me, and some links to other reading or listening or sundry cultural activity I recommend for the week. I am still toying with the idea of doing something podcast-ish, but I have some resistance to that, namely that I myself don’t care for podcasts because I much prefer listening to music, and also because rmaking a listenable, decent recording of oneself takes a considerable amount of effort and I do not want to bite off more than I can chew. I do, however, recognize that people seem to like hearing me read my own work, so I may in the future, add an audio element to all of this.

To that end, I have merged my two distinct mailing lists; the one to which most of you have subscribed which has over the years sent out very infrequent updates about my various projects, and the list of those of you who were regular readers of my daily poem postings.

Thank you all for reading, or at least opening this letter, and as always, one of my favorite things is to get replies to these, so please do reply, either in the comments or just by emailing me back, and letting me know what’s going on with you.


This poem, written a few weeks ago in response to a writing prompt by my friend Victoria McCoy, seems appropriate to today’s musings above, and also feels like it’s a little in conversation with Ariane Conrad’s most recent newsletter (see below):

A Certain Silence

Walking the esplanade

beneath the long reach of the lindens & elms

I remember I am thick

with poems like a forest

with so many voices

& scatterings & calls. In certain seasons

a little shift in wind & they skitter

right out of me into the rippling grass

& in others, night is longer

& many residents hibernate or migrate

no leaves rattle in wind, no bees

hum their tiny bass lines

but this isn’t a death

or if it is,

it’s the kind the gods

taught us when they invented seeds,

who, after burial sleep until some strength

fidgets in them & they break

open & something in them wants

& wants to push upward

& upward until they’ve become

a creature that makes the bees

once again sing.



Since I mentioned her newsletter already, I will here link to the Substack of my friend Ariane Conrad, who examines different ideas of “freedom” in her life, and who, this week, is also musing about why she is writing her newsletter, which definitely got me thinking about mine.

I continue to be fascinated and delighted by the writing of Justin E. H. Smith, whose excellent “The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is,” I recently finished and highly recommend. His most recent Substack tackles the question of whether it is possible for humans to create an artificial intelligence that is both conscious and sentient, and his observations, as always, are unique and thought-provoking.

The musician Nick Cave periodically replies to fan mail in a newsletter called “The Red Hand Files” (named after one of my favorite tunes of his). His replies are often wise and compassionate and the most recent entry is no exception.

I think John McWhorter is right on the money here about “speaking well and speaking right.”

I absolutely love this poem about stubbornness as a virtue by Monica Sok in the latest issue of Poetry Magazine.

L. M. Sacasas examines the important difference between loneliness and solitude in his latest Substack.


I am late to the game in the first three cases, but I have been listening to a lot this week to:

LIFE ON EARTH by Hurray For The Riff Raff - angular but organic indie pop with bluesy singing and sharp, witty, poetic lyrics examining survival and precarity and healing.

Ignorance, an album reckoning with the emotional and spiritual, as well as the political and pragmatic effects of climate change, by The Weather Stations is a jazz-tinged, lush masterpiece.

…And His Mother Called Him Bill is Duke Ellington’s 1968 tribute to his longtime cowriter Billy Strayhorn (who wrote or co-wrote many of Eillington’s most famous works) in the year following his death. Ellington has hundreds of albums, and this one is now among my favorites.

I am still regularly listening to CRAWLER by British post-punk band Idles, an album which finds the band coming into their own, exploring new musical territory, and, without abandoning their political commitments, examines in heartbreaking honesty, singer and lyricist Joe Talbot’s recovery from alcoholism. It is great and wonderfully loud rock music.


If you live in or near New York City, I highly recommend the play “Queen,” by Madhuri Sheker at The National Asian American Theatre Company. The play follows a mathemetician and a scientist trying to navigate the politicized and capitalism-infected world of scientific research as they attempt to bring their findings about the cause of colony collapse disorder to the public in a way that will make meaningful change. Sheker’s writing is dynamic and witty and her characters have a depth I don’t often see in plays, and the cast is brilliant and delightful. It shows through July 1.

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