I was writing a letter of thanks to Len Fulton, editor of Small Press Review, for a recent front page review of The Wren Notebook. During the course of this letter I began to "crow" about my many accomplishments in recent months vis-a-vis the Lummox empire. It occurred to me that I had been keeping my great sense of pride to myself and focusing almost exclusively on the increasing pressures that accompany accomplishment. I needed to brag (as unseemly as that might be) to someone.
Anglo-Saxon society raises us to be humble. Our worth is determined by our status on the job, in our marital situation, by our possessions. You know the drill: 2.5 kids, a wife, a house, 2 cars (late model of course!), an HMO, IRA, a stock portfolio, a Palm Pilot, a G4, etc. These are the elements of the American Dream, right? But what if you aren't in this "mainstream"? What determines your worth then? For me, the accomplishments must be greater than my two jalopies or my cluttered apartment or my string of failed romances. Currently, my accomplishments are in the realm of publishing other people (I like to think "the best"), my own work as a poet / writer, and in just making it in this topsy-turvy world without the usual means of support...working without a net, if you will. This last item is no small feat, especially in Los Angeles, CA where so much of who you are is based on where you are in the economic strata.
Many artists and/or poets present themselves as impoverished when, in reality, they are not. The safety of family ties, pensions or governmental (and I should stress the mental part) support allows these individuals the opportunity to create in a relatively relaxed environment. Few are self-sufficient. Don't get me wrong, there may be glory in self-sufficiency, but there is no sanctity in it. The self-sufficient go, largely, unnoticed through this world. It's the victims that get the headlines and airtime. I think this is perhaps the reason I have focussed primarily on my shortcomings. How much support can you get when you start from; "hey look at me, I'm self-reliant." It's always the pathetic bastards who play the victim, who get the sympathy vote. Look at our new president. What hope do we have when the commander-in-chief is such a sorry mo-fo? (One bright spot though, maybe the rest of the 'free' world will stop expecting us to clean up their messes now).
Over the past year, I've produced a number of books which I'm really proud of. The first one, Rick Smith's The Wren Notebook, is most obvious because it represents a giant leap forward from Dufus! - that sad first attempt of two years ago. Wren is, as Gerry Locklin wrote, "first-class in all respects." A lot of the credit for this goes to Ann Lee of S'Pacific Image (San Pedro, CA). She was the 'ramrod' on this job, making sure that it was done right. It was a lengthy project that brought together many creative talents: the great poems by Rick; the wonderful drawings of Judith Bever; and the patience and forbearance of the editor.
But there are other books, that I'm equally proud of, particularly because I believe that I created a vehicle that carried the POEM forward with honor. The layout, illustrations and design were all done "in house". Todd Moore's The Corpse is Dreaming (LRB 20) and the split book he did with Mark Weber, Bombed in New Mexico (LRB 26) are good examples of this, as well as Scott Wannberg's Nomads of Oblivion (LRB 25). I just got plain lucky with Gerry Locklin's book (LRB 18), primarily when the title poem was read on NPR back in August. Of course, I'm also real pleased with Paper Heart Volume 3 (my collection of love poems - LRB 22) and my most recent LRB (27), On/Off the Beaten Path, which has gotten some really good ink. This hasn't translated itself into significant sales, but that's another issue.
Scott's book is going to be the runaway hit this year. It went into a second printing after only two months. You can't knock that kind of action. But, again, that's another issue. I stress this because I want to keep separate the issues of pride for a job well done and the financial rewards for a job well done. I see them as being two sides of a coin, separate and very distinct.
What's the big deal, you ask? Again, we come back to the definition of success, a la the American Dream. If success is based on cash flow and the accumulation of 'things', then this hasn't been too successful...in fact my whole life could be dismissed, using this measurement. If, however, success is measured by knowing that "you done good" then Lummox is moving up the ladder, slowly but surely. Doggedly. Appropriate don't you think?
This article originally appeared in the December 2000 issue of the journal. The last line refers to RD's nickname: Raindog, a name he "borrowed" from his favorite songwriter: Tom Waits.