Sunday, April 24, 2022

Dion O’Reilly Guest Blog: Demoralization, No! Intention, Yes!

I want to admit something: I’ve been caught in an endless desire for acceptance as a writer. It began with seeking positive critiques in workshop groups and paying famous poets for feedback. Submitting my work has also stirred intense cravings to see my writing in print or online. But it has forced me to study journals, to reconnoiter the literary landscape, and to refine my poems to meet the challenge. As high as I feel when I receive a Yes, inevitably, a crash follows. That can lead to demoralization. Not only that, I’ve jonesed for better and better journals and publishers for my fix. Whenever I’m obsessively checking my emails or social media, it’s time for me to refocus on intention.

poet Dion O’Reilly
When I examine the culture of poetry, I sometimes think poets exist on a spectrum: on one end, those who rarely self-promote and quietly turn out a finely-crafted collection every seven years. On the other, poets who self-published a collection twenty years ago, and have taught high-profile creativity classes and published how-to manuals ever since. In between these poles are poets with an array of accomplishments and varying levels of social media presence. Some write essays like this one. Some teach in MFA programs. Some record and sell craft talks. Some offer podcasts or webinars.

At all spots on that spectrum, poets offer something for someone. I just want to understand where I feel comfortable—and to set my intention accordingly.


For now, my main priority is to dramatize experience, to stand at honesty’s precipice and jump. Then poetry never disappoints and is pleasurable. Even if my poems remain unpublishable, the process is satisfying, leads to greater insights, and sometimes (Hallelujah!) results in “good” poems.


The same is true of the thrill of discovering poems—it’s like finding an absorbed twin. In fact, when I don’t have an engaging book to study, I feel lost. Meeting poets, befriending poets, entering a community of poets is likewise satisfying and provides warm connections.


I don’t want to discount ambition. It moves me, motivates me, and informs me. No one’s pure. I think the trick is to be self-aware, to track what the mind is doing, dis-aggregate the information, and explore what feels valuable. For example, my mentors have followed a trajectory to impressive fame. But there are many ways to skin poetry! By remaining in my own intention, I can be both thrilled to see my poet friends achieve, and also study my vocation’s pathways. Why respect one publisher or one way over another? Why not democratize the journey?


This might seem off topic, but bear with me: In my childhood and into my twenties, I struggled with an eating disorder—an addiction really. I felt fat and ugly. But, through therapy and twelve-step programs, I strived to ignore the disparaging voices—if I couldn’t believe I was worthwhile, I could at least act like I did. I also had to reset my intention—to care for myself in order to be a better person, kinder, and more present—and not because I wanted to be hot and skinny. 


Writing’s the same: when I started out as a poet (and even now sometimes) my disparaging voice whispered, Hey, Bitch, your poems are ugly! But my better angel said: Honey! Don’t listen! Just lace up that corset and go! I realized my intention should not be to “fix” myself with recognition, not to write “good” poems, but rather to work at feeling poetry’s pleasures, to enter poetry—to resolutely craft the rawness of life—in doing so, I might become more mindful, insightful, empathetic, and content.


Besides, self-disgust—anything I feel—is worth writing about, if I can just detach a little and examine it from a new angle.


One more thing: of course I’m insecure! I’m writing poetry—it’s the opposite of engineering. Everyone knows what engineering is for! But when I say I’m a poet, people ask if I make money at it, or they complain about their high school English teacher (which I also am). Or, if they’re a poet, they might ask what press I publish with, and if it’s not Norton, they’re unimpressed. Even among other poets, reaction to my intense, “confessional” poems can be dismissive.


Yes, self-disgust originates from others—from family, society, and some peers. That’s why overcoming demoralization by honing intention is a radical act. I also think finely crafting our deepest thoughts stimulates the brain’s pleasure centers in a healthy way. The trick is to develop a greater sensitivity to poetry’s mysteries at work in our minds. And finally, I want to share this advice: be your own damn self.

Dion O’Reilly’s debut book of poems, Ghost Dogs (Terrapin 2020), was shortlisted for the Catamaran Poetry Prize and the Eric Hoffer Award. Her work appears in The Sun, Rattle, Cincinnati Review, Narrative, and other magazines. Her second book, Sadness of the Apex Predator, was chosen for the Portage Poetry Series from University of Wisconsin’s Cornerstone Press and will be published in 2024. She facilitates workshops with poets from all over the U.S. and hosts a poetry podcast at The Hive Poetry Collective.

Dion O’Reilly’s most recent book, highly recommended!
Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies

Zack’s most recent book of translations, BĂ©renice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris

Other posts of interest:

How to Get Published

Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop

How Not to Become a Literary Dropout

Putting Together a Book Manuscript

Working with a Writing Mentor

How to Deliver Your Message

Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?

Why Write Poetry?

Poetic Forms: Introductionthe Sonnetthe Sestinathe Ghazalthe Tankathe Villanelle

Praise and Lament

How to Be an American Writer

Writers and Collaboration

Types of Closure in Poetry