by Linda Rodriguez
I’m a hyphenate writer. Poet-mystery novelist. One foot stands in the airy-fairy literary world of poetry, where I’ve published two books, many individual poems, and won some national awards, while the other is planted firmly in the down-to-earth storytelling of mysteries and thrillers where all the loose ends have to be tied up or explained and where I’ve been very fortunate also. Although I love both worlds and have wonderful friends in both, as well as people who have mentored and helped me, I’ve come to realize there’s a real difference—and this past week brought that home with a sting.
The poetry world—or “po-biz” as we poets tend to refer to it to mark the difference between writing the poems and building the career by publishing, winning awards, getting tenure, booking readings, etc.—is very competitive. At least, the establishment academic poetry world is highly competitive. The side niches where you will find most of the African American, Asian American, Latino, or Native American poets are highly cooperative and collaborative, real communities, and their members usually don’t get the plum positions or lucrative honors.
The world of mysteries, where there is more money and a vastly larger number of readers at stake, is surprisingly not cutthroat competitive, but much more of a cooperative and collaborative community, even though it would be considered by the po-biz folks to be pretty establishment. From the beginning, I was blown away by how generous and helpful major writers were toward the beginner I was, and as I’ve spent more and more time among the mystery writers, I’ve seen firsthand how super-collaborative they all are.
I still write and publish poetry. In fact, I have another full-length book manuscript I’ll be sending out for publication in the near future—to join my other two published collections, I hope. I negotiate the two worlds with a shake of my head at the differences, and that’s about all. Until something like last week happens that really brings home to me the absolute difference in cultures.
I was thrilled to learn that a dear friend and fellow poet, Richard Blanco, had been selected as the inaugural poet for President Obama’s second inauguration. I’ve studied and critiqued manuscripts with Richard, and I know what a gifted poet he is. He has won some of the po-biz’s major awards, equivalent to the Edgar or Rita, and continues to study and work hard to constantly challenge himself and improve his art. Plus he’s a genuinely nice guy, funny and smart and generous—and Latino and immigrant (at four months of age) and openly gay. Those last qualifiers guarantee that he’s spent a lot of time in those side-niche poetry communities I mentioned earlier where there’s much more community and cooperation.
Before the inauguration even took place, there were rumblings from certain corners of po-biz about his selection. Award-winner or not, Richard is not one of the usual recipients of this kind of honor. These kinds of things, like the poet-laureate position of the U.S., are usually reserved for a handful of old white guys who went to the “right” schools and studied with the “right” teachers, etc., etc. So obviously, even though he had great credentials, he couldn’t possibly be good enough for this job. He didn’t fit the mold.
I read these carpings with little worry. I knew the quality of Richard’s work, and I knew he would write and read a great poem. When the inauguration came, he read with great effect a wonderful poem, in which he did the almost impossible and caught the essence of America on the page. He brought tears to the eyes of many Americans with his great poem, which caught perfectly the mood of the moment that, even after terrible things have happened, we will all pull together and make our country great.
Bare minutes after he finished reading, the insults and criticizing began on Facebook and soon moved to prestigious blogs. His poem was trashed, his performance was trashed, and sometimes he himself was trashed. I came face to face with a very strong expression of the ugly side of po-biz. One academic poet even admitted at the beginning of his attack, “I wanted to hate [the poem.]” He ended with a suggestion that Richard should have inserted some exciting profanity to liven up the poem and make it a little bit hip (completely ignoring the occasion for which the poem was written at which “exciting profanity” would have been totally inappropriate, if very hip).
So this past week I’ve been living more in the poetry world than the mystery (and other commercial novel) world. I wrote a blog lamenting the situation and the way poets tend to eat their own at the slightest excuse and how the egos of poets are so often poetry’s worst enemies.
I’ve had a lot of support for this from poets of the side-niche, collaborative communities of poetry—and even from some of the po-biz folks themselves. But I’m ready to quit reading every attack and frothing at the mouth at the absolute stupidity and cupidity of the remarks.
I’m ready to return to the sane and generous community of mystery novelists where few, if any, feel that someone else’s professional good fortune is a threat and an attack on their own lives, where writers are more likely to extend a hand in congratulations to someone else getting an award rather than to sling mud at her or him. I’m eager to return to the place where kind writers with major reputations often offer a hand to those just starting out or having to start over.
And I’m here to tell my friends who are writers and readers in this great community—you don’t realize how good we have it here. Just take a look across the way at po-biz and thank your stars or guardian angels that you’re novel writers and readers and not poets.