I’d like to say I left New York and never looked back, that there was some cloud-parting moment of clarity when I knew I had to stop being a New Yorker, stopped claiming the appellation of New York Poet, and never looked back. But I can’t.
My life as a New York Poet begins at age 26, in seminar rooms near Washington Square, reciting first drafts with sober incantation. Star Teacher #1 orders us to read Poet in New York. I do. “New York has given me the knock-out punch,” Federico García Lorca writes back to his family in Spain in 1929. I share classes with a Troubled South African Poet of Indian Descent, who ululates and laments the absence of servants in her West Village apartment. She brings in handwritten poems, calls her classmates racists. Finally, one night, Star Teacher #1 tells her this is all inappropriate, calls her into her office. We never see her again. Two years later, another student asks Star Teacher #2 what to do when we get out of grad school: Should we apply for teaching jobs, send poems to journals? Her tone is desperate; she really wants to know. Star Teacher #2 pauses, looks at the ceiling—dreaming of his summer house in Vermont, no doubt.
“Try just being a poet,” he says.
People write this down.
My life as New York Poet ends 12 years later, on March 12, 2005, when I announce my intention to move out of town—upstate to a teaching job, the coveted prize for poets—to 312 people on my personal email list. No one responds to this email. From then, it takes all of six months to lose almost 100 poet friends. “Before the late 1960s,” Norman Podhoretz writes in his book Ex-Friends, “I was much better at making friends of strangers than of making enemies of friends.” Podhoretz’s ex-friends—Allen Ginsberg, Norman Mailer, the Trillings—were part of his Family of New York, fellow travelers in the writing scenes of his time. Some of my ex-friends are now successful, some may become famous. By March 2005, after 12 years in New York, it seemed I was much better at making enemies of friends than friends of enemies.
New School MFA Graduate X, who had emailed me every day for a month to secure a slot at a reading series I no longer ran, forgets my name when we are introduced at a book party in April. Friend of Friend Gallery Curator throws champagne on my shoes in June; the lack of immediate sympathy is striking. In August, I spot East Village Poet on Mercer Street; I say hello, walk over to him. He stares at me, says We don’t have anything to say to each other, do we? I am not surprised at how rude East Village Poet is; I’ve gotten used to it. I play along, and walk to the wind tunnel of Lower Broadway.
Incidents of this type replay over and over in the space of six months. It is as if I have deserted the cause, rejected the dogma of New York Poets, which is to Never Leave New York, Our Ultimate Muse. After years of behaving as the Inappropriate Poet, some crack-up occurs: It has come time for me to endure the inappropriate behavior of others.
I didn’t give up writing poetry, I like to say; poetry gave up on me. Through 20-odd years of reading and writing poems, I felt reputations rise and fall around me, certain styles of poems fall in and out of fashion. Unlike with painting or music, the poetry world’s changes occur entirely outside anything that resembles the forces of reception or reading. In New York, it is a self-licking ice cream cone that depends on untalented poets to keep the system going. The more paranoid poets regarded their skills as a threat to those toward the bottom of the Ponzi scheme, whose worship of higher-ups were not adequate enough to rise a level on the Poetry Chain of Being.
I looked around and saw all these initial-capped names and for once felt like I fit in, at least in some ancillary way.
I would like to think I am not one of those paranoid poets; rather, I ultimately thought of myself as a fatally flawed poet, if one at all. Paul Valery, in his essay “Memoirs of a Poem,” speaks of poets who, since 1850, have been “introduced into the art of verse, the necessity of separating, more than ever before, the original stimulus and intent from the execution of the work.” As the years went by in New York, I felt separated from the original impulse to write poems. Poets around me were trying too hard to imitate their immediate predecessors, were too keen to keep up with current fashions, what Valery calls “painstaking embellishments,” all of which leads to a lack of connection to the reader. I’d like to be able to say I did not employ painstaking embellishments, but as I saw which poems got published, which poets won prizes, I became obsessed with novelty and bells and whistles. I wanted to embody what one of my heroes, Allen Ginsberg, called candor; I wanted to give Too Much Information. But TMI was out of fashion; what was in fashion was aloof disengagement. I wanted to write a poem that told a story, any story, or was about feeling, any feeling. To do so during this time was to engage in a kind of pornography. I remember one reading where a Big Journal Editor mentioned E.M. Forster’s famous quote from Howard’s End, how writers should “only connect” and “live in fragments no longer,” and how the Big Journal Editor giggled at these antiquated notions. Other New York Poets giggled as well.
I knew whatever poems I would write from these initial impulses would never go anywhere. But I still loved the tactile putting-together of poems, any poems, how words slap up against each other, how sentences sound. So I became a mimic, lived in fragments, forged together lines like everyone else was doing, played word games, engaged in what Keats calls “unpleasantness without exciting any momentous depth of speculation,” and crossed my fingers, hoped I would pass as one of them.
As long as I stayed in New York, it seems, I did.
I remember some night when I am eating a Mexican dinner in the company of a Famous Eastern European Poet. As we celebrate his reading, a member of our party starts to choke on her food. We laugh at first, but her situation escalates. Emergency medical technicians come in, stick a tube stuck down her throat. She is taken away in an ambulance. And all the while, Famous Eastern European Poet continues to eat his meal and speak with other famous poets. They glance back twice. The only explanation for why this Poet did not react to the woman choking on a bony burrito was it was messing up one of his few nights in Manhattan. I have no explanation, however, for Poets A and B sitting next to him, who continued their conversation on European literary festivals and the pros and cons of living in Iowa.
There was another night when I made out with a Boston Lyrical Poet and assistant to another Star Teacher, as rain fell on Lower Broadway. We stood there inside a doorstop of an abandoned building that is now a J. Crew. She later confessed to me that she was the Mistress of a Famous Dimple-Chinned Nonfiction Writer. She would arrange visits to artist colonies at the same time as him, meet on corners in Queens. For those few months we dated, I could claim the title of Other Man in an Affair with the Mistress of a Famous Dimple-Chinned Nonfiction Writer. This title and others delighted and wearied me as the years went by. It didn’t take too long to grow tired of the circular affiliations, literary friendships, poet alliances, which corners one stood in at readings. The nexuses accrued as the years went on. At some point, it seemed too much to carry, or at least too complicated to keep up with and still write poems.
There is a school of thought that holds that the poet’s job is to straddle the sacred and profane, to say and do the perfectly wrong thing at the perfectly right time. To do so, writing teachers and writing books tell us, is to act as a prophet, a truth-teller. This translates into some remarkable misbehavior on the part of poets. I, too, engaged in this poet misbehavior. Stealing centerpieces at restaurants. Heckling pool players in George Plimpton’s basement. Making a point of mentioning to a Student Upset That the Thesis Film in Which She Appears Naked Throughout Is Now Playing at the Film Forum, that I had just seen her naked onscreen at the Film Forum. Instigating a bar fight at the book party of a Successful Fiction Writer, in which I punch out the second-string bouncer and am taken away in a police van. To complain or protest as I did all this would itself be regarded as inappropriate, somehow un-poet-like.
Poets behave badly, a Famous Poet once wrote to me after I complained about how another poet sent me a flurry of angry emails for rejecting his sestina. Their feelings of entitlement are misplaced. As long as one keeps busy with other poets in New York, none of this bad behavior matters. I introduced poets to each other, ran reading series to meet other poets, edited journals and solicited poets’ work, talked to journal editors about poets and poets about journals, introduced poets to publishers, drove poets on tour, put poets up in my mother’s home. After 10 years, my address book filled with poet-names of all stripes: narrative, language, experimental, lyric, avant garde, conceptual, formalist, slam, feminist, political (always far left), personal-confessional. Those who attended the readings I went to were, by and large, other aspiring poets.
During these years, friends who weren’t poets fell by the wayside. I ignored some, broke off with other non-poets altogether. I know I hurt some people. Whereas initially I thought I was part of some intentional poetry community—I called it all sorts of things: a gift economy of the like-minded, a demimonde, a coterie—I soon felt overspent, oversocialized. At first, people looked over my shoulder when they saw someone more successful; after 10 years, I had transformed into another over-the-shoulder-looking person.
Toward the end of my 12 years in New York, the novelty of poet misbehavior having long worn off, I attend a book party for an anthology in which one of my poems appears. I look around and see, at least to my mind, the Leading Poets of My Generation. There is the Editor of That Big Journal. There’s that Guy Who Runs the Best Small Press in Massachusetts. Those two have the run of the two Leading Poetry Organizations. There’s a Whole Group of People Who Went to Iowa; that Well-Dressed Trust Fund Poet appears in the latest Best American Poetry. There’s the Woman Who Knows the People Who Give Away That Two-Year Grant Who Got That Two-Year Grant. Those two will soon start Teaching Jobs Out West. Everyone, it seems, wears the latest clothes and glasses.
I looked around and saw all these initial-capped names and for once felt like I fit in, at least in some ancillary way. I imagined myself as one of those B-list musical artists who appear on charity singles, the ones who stand off to the sides in the chorus shots. But I was, however much I may not have wanted to admit it, one of the In Crowd. In many ways I had worked hard for this moment. I had sent poems out in envelopes to far-off publications, started my own journals, attended readings of famous poets. I had introduced myself to people. I had gone to parties and bars when perhaps my time would have been better spent at home, re-reading Rilke.
I have a friend of a friend who, after he left New York, kept photos on his cell phone of the sushi he was served at Nobu. I behaved like that when speaking of bookstores or wine stores or rock clubs.
I thought about how I Deserved to Be There, and now that I was there it Didn’t Feel Special. Instead, it felt like Another Day at the Office. It was a weekday; I had worked for 12 hours editing the fine print of cell phone ads; I was tired. I told all this to my friend Chris, who sat at the bar with me. Chris and I both went to the same graduate school. He had since stopped writing poems and instead was writing a novel. He refused to take my self-loathing bait. He just said we should go drink somewhere else. So we walked out onto Spring St., looked around, and went to another overpriced bar with other beautiful people. They all seemed younger than us.
There were other afternoons at other bars, other readings. One night toward the end, I studied the crowd and saw five Poets Whose Book I Had Lobbied for Publication; only one still spoke to me. There were three other Poets Whose Work I Had Published in Journals I Edited, four more Poets Who Had Read at Readings I Organized. I had done all of this out of being a fan of their work, I liked to think then, all part of an aggressively outgoing persona I had adopted over the years, I liked to think, to maintain some sense of inner life.
I looked around at these people and realized I could not tell any of them that this was all depressing, that all of this seemed like a colossal waste of time, that none of these poems we were cheering on would change a thing, that we were fooling around with a sacred art with poems that used foolish wordplay that had nothing to do with real feeling. I wanted to tell them about Valery’s warning about the painstaking embellishments. I wanted to say we should stop living in fragments. But I said nothing. I had become a mimic. I had worn out my welcome. I felt like a traitor.
I left New York City and I keep looking back. I left poetry and keep looking back. I don’t miss New York City as much as I miss poetry. I didn’t get priced out of poetry. But leaving poetry helped me leave New York City. Each year, new crops of poets come to the city, a renewable resource; some poets scrub floors, type memos, make Venti mochas; other poets (probably more than is mentioned) draw from the last familial wells of financial support. Each one arrives with Moleskin notebooks, a laptop, a sublet.
My complaint, if there is one, is not that New York Poets are rude. It is that New York Poets are too nice, that they don’t tell the truth to each other enough. In New York, you see, it also helps to have someone else say you are a poet. Beneath the surface politesse and modesty of the New York Poet runs an undercurrent of exclusion you only sense years later. To be coddled in New York City as a poet is to be killed slowly.
And that’s exactly what was happening to me.
I can’t see the beginning of the end or the end of the beginning. I write this at a desk 154 miles due north from New York City, a drive that is estimated anywhere from three hours and seven minutes to four hours and 32 minutes long. By train, from the Albany-Rensselaer Amtrak station, I arrive in New York City in two hours and 15 minutes. For the first two years after the last muscle-bound Russian guy brought the last box off our moving truck, my wife and I pretended we were on an extended vacation to a fairyland called Not New York, where everything is compared to an experience inside New York’s city limits. I have a friend of a friend who, after he left New York, kept photos on his cell phone of the sushi he was served at Nobu. I behaved like that when speaking of bookstores or wine stores or rock clubs. Everything either had a New York City cognate or it did not.
Now, when I surface from Penn Station and look up at midtown confusion, delis, German tourists, I am gripped by the much different anxieties I used to get when I was 21 years old, when I would visit my friend Eric’s sublet in Murray Hill, a kitchen-less room with a bath in the hallway. Back then, after dragging myself down to the East Village at dawn looking for an angry fix of anything genuinely New York, I would sleep soundly on his cold concrete floor and plot for any way I could not only get to New York, but stay there. Now, I look on those same blocks as if I’ve arrived at an apartment after the party ends, when the hosts offer you a drink while they continue to clean up, or as I did the day my mom sold the rancher I grew up in to another family. “They can take better care of this place,” my mom said. They can afford to live there.
“The true New Yorker,” John Updike once wrote, “secretly believes that people living anywhere else have to be, in some sense, kidding.” What I can say is that I came to a point over time where I thought about sleeping on a bed outside the five boroughs, and I wasn’t kidding myself. What I can say is that, over time, from the middle of one autumn to the middle of another 12 years later, there came isolated moments when the prospect of leaving New York didn’t strike me as absurd, and leaving poetry didn’t seem heartbreaking as much as a relief.