Monthly Archives: February 2023

2 posts

“Prizes Are Part of the Politics That Attend Art the Way Flies Attend Horses” — Carl Phillips on Ambition

In the past few days, I’ve been enjoying the poet Carl Phillips’ new collection of essays on writing poetry, My Trade Is Mystery: Seven Meditations from a Life in Writing. The seven topics he riffs on are “Ambition,” “Stamina,” “Silence,” “Politics,” “Practice,” “Audience,” and “Community.” An instructive parlor game might be to list these by order of importance to a successful writer. After you define “successful,” that is.

In the first meditation, Phillips takes on the Siren call of poetry contests. For poets subjected to their share of rejections, it reads like a pleasant balm after a marathon run. Here are some key thoughts Phillips offers on “the desire to show one’s work to the world”:

“The dangers of this form of ambition are many. Its first strategy is to seduce by distorting logic: ‘If I’m published in a magazine, I’ll be a real writer.’ It becomes quickly addictive: ‘If my poems could be published in a book, I’ll truly have made it’ leads easily to ‘If my book wins a prize, I’ll be the best writer, having triumphed over all the other contenders.’ I believe very few artists avoid falling into some version of this thinking from time to time. As artists, we have something to say, and because we are saying it, it feels—it is—personal, which makes us vulnerable, which in turn makes us long for the protection that, at first, public approbation feels like, protection ultimately from our own fears and doubts as to  our ‘worthiness,’ our ‘right’ to call ourselves an artist, maybe even a good one.”

Over time, Phillips has become skeptical of juried prizes for writing, as “winning a prize for art, far from meaning you were the best today, really just means that a randomly assembled group of humans and therefore subjective and each-with-their-own–biases judges came to an agreement—itself often uneasy—that your art was deserving of a prize. That doesn’t make it the best or, to be absolutely honest, even good.”

Still, writers will take that prize and willingly jump into Hemingway’s famous last line in The Sun Also Rises: “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” 

And why not? After being rejected too many times to count, paying reading fees for naught umpteen times, entering contests where their work never get past a certain reader to the eyes of the deciding panel of editors slash judges, most any poet would happily delude himself with a literary victory, suspect as it may be.

To my mind, then, Phillips counsel is better used to not enter contests at all. You could even take it to the extreme and not submit to poetry journals while you’re at it, but a better compromise might be to save your pennies (which, over the course of a year, add up to more dollars than you want to count) by only submitting to journals that do not charge a reading fee for the questionable pleasure of judging your art.

Phillips concludes with these thoughts: “Prizes are part of the politics that attend art the way flies attend horses. They ultimately distract from what, as far as I can tell, art is mostly about: the urgency of and devotion to and sheer pleasure in the act of making some form of expression for what it means to be alive in a human body at this moment in time.”

Phillips, who has been a teacher all his life, tells his students that writing requires “luck, some talent, and stamina: a constant calibrating and recalibrating of arrogance and humility.”

I like that strange brew because it’s true. There’s a certain lovely arrogance to submitting work you’re sure is good enough for acceptance and print. Humility comes when you’re rejected. Or accepted and destined to see your poem in print months after the fact. 

You know. When the restless reviser in you whispers its hot breath in your ear: How could you have considered this work “done”?

Slaying the “Muse of Sluggishness”

The early risers. It’s a club that just as soon not meet, because what’s best about each morning is solitude—when a writer sends his convocation to the Muses. While the house still sleeps, I mean. And only the clock’s ticks can be heard. Or the dog’s breathing. Or the heat radiator’s pings.

Fitting music for writing, the early hours. One can’t help but believe that not only the household sleeps, but the world, for part of the magic of writing in the dark before dawn is the deliberate deception that you are the only one awake in the world. A childish delusion, then. Indoor light reflects your face in the dark window pane, and taking the dog outside reveals only a world with birds on the verge, raccoons on the move, and, weather depending, peepers singing (warm world) and owls whooing (cold, mysterious world). 

We are the perfect audience for Polish poet Adam Zagajewski’s “The Early Hours,” a poem as much about writing as not writing (or, how writing is often hidden in the act of not yet writing). Paradoxical? Here’s the poem:


“The Early Hours”

Adam Zagajewski


The early hours of morning: you still aren’t writing

(rather, you aren’t even trying), you just read lazily.

Everything is idle, quiet, full, as if

it were a gift from the muse of sluggishness,


just as earlier, in childhood, on vacation, when a colored

map was slowly scrutinized before a trip, a map

promising so much, deep ponds in the forest

like glittering butterfly eyes, mountain meadows drowning in

           sharp grass;


or the moment before sleep, when no dreams have appeared,

but they whisper their approach from all parts of the world,

their march, their pilgrimage, their vigil at the sickbed

(grown sick of wakefulness), and the quickening among medieval



compressed in endless stasis over the cathedral;

the early hours of morning, silence

                                                               —you still aren’t writing,

you still understand so much.

                                                 Joy is close.

A muse of sluggishness? I missed him (and am convinced it’s a “him”) in Greek mythology studies but understand his presence, once announced. Then, the two metaphors, one about a love of maps formed in childhood, the other about that odd moment before sleep, the one where “no dreams have appeared,/but they whisper their approach from all parts of the world.”

Perhaps the biggest pay-off to the poem is how it refuses to acknowledge so-called “writer’s block.” Pre-writing, after all, requires NOT writing. Thinking. Dreaming. Creating and recreating the groundwork for poetry. Until, you can’t help but admit, “Joy is close.”

And that, for this poem’s particular trajectory, is the perfect closing.