Are You Skill-Based?

In the latest issue of Poetry, Eavan Boland has an essay in which she decries the current emphasis on poets being skill-based. In other words, to be a practicing “professional” poet one has to be a reliable and social enough human being to teach workshops and comp/lit courses, give readings in distant cities, edit books and journals, deliver papers at conferences, etc. She argues that there should be a place in poetry for those who are too socially challenged or otherwise unstable to carry out the seemingly required offices of the poet. There are, of course, another group of people who write poetry who simply have no interest in participating in any poetic community outside of themselves and their books, and they should have a place as well.

By “a place” I think what is really meant is a financial livelihood. There are obviously a limited number of grants and fellowships available which are granted strictly on the merit of a writing sample that could support some of these non-skill based poets, but since teaching is the main way that poets make a living, poets who aren’t able or are unwilling to teach may miss out on a way of having a lifestyle in which they can both have financial security and write. This can’t be a good thing for poetry.

Probably because I have spent most of my writing life in academia, I have a hard time thinking of a poet that I know personally who falls into the category of someone who is a brilliant poet but could never hack the teaching/reading/reviewing life because of mental or personal issues. I know they exist, and I love the work of many past poets who were unable to live the academic lifestyle (Dickson, Crane, Bob Kaufman, John Wieners), but I’m not sure that I know anyone like this.

As for those who are unwilling to exist in academia (like Willams, Stevens, O’Hara, etc.), I know plenty of folks who want to be professional, skill-based poets with teaching jobs but who haven’t found a way to make it happen yet and are pursuing other employment in the meantime. But I don’t know many people who are perfectly contented to have a career outside of teaching or editing while still writing poems. While I have chosen to go down many of the “proper” channels to become a skill-based poet (I have an MFA, I teach, I give readings, I have a fellowship at a University), I still read my inability to think of contemporary poet that I know who is A) a terrific poet and B) not interested in pursuing at least some of the activities of the skill-based poet as a shortcoming not only of my own, but of our poetic moment in general. Honestly, I am much more interested in those poets who are unable to be skill-based than unwilling. There is simply something to be said for a poet whose work you have spent hours on the couch with but who you would never want inside of your home. Who are those poets now?

While talking about the phenomenon of skill-based poets, Boland asks the question, “Who is losing out?” I’m very curious as to what others think about this–do you know someone who is a good poet whose work is flying under the radar because for whatever reason they can’t perform the basic steps most people take (being in workshops, sending out work, giving readings) to become a poet with a readership? And if you don’t, does it worry you? Or is it simply a fact of poetry that there are always going to be some poets who are so marginalized or insular in their lifetime that we will only discover them after the fact? Or never?