We all have an ego and we all need one. It’s a strange irony that ego is necessary to achieve anything that involves other people! An ego-less poet might compose verse, but would never think to display it publicly or seek an audience. The minute a poet sends off a submission to a magazine, or creates a blog/website, or stands up to read in front of anyone, the ego is at work.
Publishers clearly appreciate poets who create an audience for themselves. As Tony Frazer says in the submission guidelines to the Shearsman Press (not a press associated with commercial populism!), “It is very unlikely that a poet with no track record of publication in magazines in either the UK or North America will be accepted for publication, as there is no obvious audience for the work. We do have to sell the books.”
Other publishers also publicly emphasise the importance of the poet’s role in promoting and selling their work. It’s not as though small poetry publishers can do it all on their own.
However, there is a fine line, easily crossed, between self promotion and arrogance, and if you slip onto the wrong side of that line, it comes over very badly indeed. It’s often tricky to know exactly where you are around that line. That’s the worst of it. You might think you’re doing a good job of promoting yourself and your poetry, and yet other people think of you as a desperate, needy individual with only a moderate talent and an immoderate sense of your own importance.
I am Scottish, born and bred in Glasgow – it’s hard to think of a city that has less sympathy for prima donnas. Often that part of the Scottish psyche can be destructive – anyone who shows an ounce of creativity and the willingness to display it will soon have it knocked out of them, an attitude Kathleen Jamie effectively lampooned in the title poem from her collection, The Queen of Sheba. I am naturally reticent to push myself forward, but since The Clown of Natural Sorrow was published (note the self-promotional link!), I’ve tried hard to sell copies, to network both in real life and on the Internet. But I am always conscious of that fine line…
How to avoid stepping onto the wrong side of the line? Suggestions are welcome. So far, I’ve come up with four:
1. "You are not as good as you think you are" (Scavella’s mantra).
2. "Never believe in your own propaganda" (John Peel).
3. Never dispose of a rejection slip.
4. When people, especially famous poets, say something nice about you, accept that with good grace. But listen even more carefully when people you respect criticise your writing.