So, today I found out that my shortlisted poem America, You Sexy Fuck, did not place among the final three winning entrants for the Judith Wright Poetry Prize. I’d like to take a moment to congratulate those who did; I can’t wait to read what I’m sure are exceptional poems. While I’m undoubtedly disappointed, I’ve had a few hours to think this over and I realised I was hurt not because I needed any further validation of the work itself – I’ve had that in spades since writing it and many others in the months since submitting it – but because of my financial problems at the moment, which I’ve written about previously.
Basically, I was upset because all of my problems weren’t going to be solved in one fell swoop. When I realised that, I laughed at myself. Hard. Since when have any of my problems ever been solved all at once? Never. The same is true for most people. It’s a ridiculous sentiment to hold, even in the midst of a big disappointment. I went back and read a letter from a poet I admire, who was responding to one I’d written her, in which I wondered what the point of all this was, this crazy nonsense system of literary journals paying essentially nothing ($5-50 at most, per poem) and how anyone was expected to make a living through it. That’s $5-50 you’re only making if you get accepted, 3-6 months after you submitted in the first place.
She wrote back to say something along the lines of, she never relied on that broken system in the first place. The work – her work and the work of her unpublished peers – sustained her. Everything else came after. It was a reminder I needed. See, I don’t write poetry for publication in magazines. I don’t write it for prizes either. I write poems because they’re one of the few things in this life that can elicit true joy, and total relief. When I write poetry, I can breathe for what feels the first time in full, deep breaths. This is, in short, a disease. It makes no sense except to others who have been diagnosed with it, and it’s difficult to communicate why we do what we do, when there’s so little money and so much struggle.
You have to want it with a kind of demented zeal, a truly irrational desire. Imagine a salesman pitching this: “Hey you! Fancy a life of financial hardship, paralysing doubt and insecurity, as well as very little recognition and appreciation? Because if you do, man, have we got the thing for you! And all you have to do to get it is swim through this lake of fire.” It’s like wait, what? But the thing I’m going for is already bad! How can the trial and reward both consist of suffering? It made me laugh, honestly. I realise this, and a lot of what I say, might sound angsty in text, but more often than not I’m saying it and laughing. It’s so important not to take yourself too seriously, and I thank fuck every day that comedy constantly punctures my ego.
With all that said, the reason I’m writing this post now is simple: I write poetry, and I love doing it, and while publication in fancy pants journals is lovely, and shortlists and prizes are all very well and good too, I don’t need them. If they didn’t exist, I’d do it on the streets, standing atop a cardboard box if necessary. Which brings me to you: see, when I’m done with writing a poem, and it’s sitting there all pretty and new, I want nothing more than to share it. It kills me a little when I don’t, and instead send it off and have to wait agonising months for a reply, and so rather than go through that process again with this once-shortlisted poem of mine, I’ve decided I’m just going to share it here.
I hope you like it, and I hope to do this more often, too.
America, You Sexy Fuck
You are wearing your prettiest dress:
Fall, the only one named
for its desired effect, that is
when the colourful fabric (succinct
golds, russet reds, and deep browns
swirling together) drops
to your knees.
The trees are endless skeletal shadows
blurring the horizon,
some still clinging to their last vibrancy,
daring winter to freeze them
still crowned in faded glory.
The view out the window shifts
as gradually as the seasons: the slopes
of forest recede, and clusters of houses
peek out from the foliage – humanity
emerging from the landscape,
from your bosom – as of old.
Roads proliferate, black stretchmarks
stitching your body together.
Factories dot the distance, smoke hanging
between chimney and sky, still
as a painting, yet drifting apart all the time
like a cloud. Destiny is a beauty mark
on your collarbone (the dress has slipped
as you reveal yourself to me) sign-posted
at an intersection near Syracuse; I had the rare
pleasure of watching Destiny diminish
in the rear view mirror, not a final destination,
merely one of many options
getting you from here to there.
Fat syrupy clouds gather, swallowing the blue
and you begin to sweat.
I cross your bridges, your rivers
and dried up creek beds patterned with leaves,
tracing my footsteps across your soft middle,
wearing a groove into your skin.
I want to peel it back with my teeth,
see what’s beneath, what you’re hiding
but I am too distracted by your brazenness,
the swell of your hips. A valley beckons
and a vast wetness appears: steam billows
off the lake, or perhaps it’s a fog,
this dense rolling whiteness reaching up
to trail fingers over lips of storm.
I am heading to your borders,
to your discrete edges
so I can outline your everything
and hold your shape in my arms.
Between us, however, lies so much emptiness:
pit stops, Burger Kings, and dead towns
spoil the treeline
with a kind of beautiful desolation.
Beautiful because of people like Tammy,
iron-grey and pushing sixty, still working
behind the counter, smile flash-frozen in ‘89,
who keep industry alive
even in its death-throes, crowning capitalism
between halogen lights and trays of grease,
the way winter anoints autumn,
highlighting the end
in a furious burst of colour.