As with most things when decided upon at first—a beloved, a political cause, or, in my own case, the writing of poems—it’s easy to think all we have to do is start doing: show love, be politically alert, write poems. Maybe one of the chief values of enthusiasm is its ability to simultaneously energize us toward commitment and render us usefully—for the time—oblivious to the sheer stamina that sustained commitment, what we call a career, requires. Shortly after my first book was published, a teacher of mine told me that having a career in poetry was like riding a runaway open streetcar, that the secret was to hold on tightly and stay aboard, rather than becoming one of the many who get thrown off, into the street. “Keep watching, you’ll see what I mean,” he said. I remember being amused and more than a little horrified by this image, but I’ve come to understand the general idea, and I don’t disagree, not entirely. Thinking back to all of the writers who started publishing around the same time as I did, there are so many whose voices I had thought would be the dominant ones for decades to come—yet they fell silent or, if not silent, never matched or in any way came close to the achievement for which they were earlier acclaimed. There are just as many others whose voices seemed negligible to me, whose work I’d still call unsurprising, yet it continues, like the writers themselves, to thrive and be published widely. And there is a third group, of modest accomplishment at the start, who have managed to differently surprise me by becoming better. I now see how much more powerful stamina can be than talent; or to say it another way, how powerless talent is, on its own, without stamina—rather like what is said about the body once the soul has left it, though I don’t believe in the soul. I do believe in stamina.
Stamina, at least at first, presumes ambition. If ambition is what makes us want to write at all, for example, stamina is what sustains that drive or desire over time in the face of the many things that can sometimes thwart ambition and sometimes utterly destroy it. Stamina has its limitations, of course; it’s not much use against the certainty of death and, before that, the unpredictability of physical and mental health. But if ambition is, as I’ve suggested earlier, a form of faith, then stamina is what comes into play when that faith—as it will, inevitably—gets shaken. Stamina is the persistence by which we move past doubt and return to the task of making. But when we’re in doubt, it’s not always as simple to just “move on” or “get over it.” Which is to say, stamina is not just persistence; stamina, in the way that I’m thinking of it, always includes perspective, the means by which we can contextualize doubt and, in giving it context, displace it somewhat, thereby clearing room again for shaken faith. Maybe the best way to think of stamina is as a fusion of perspective and will.
Too much or too little attention paid from outside—by readers, critics—is a leading cause of doubt when it comes to ambition. Granted, much of this will depend on the individual. To receive a lot of favorable attention to a first book, say, can spur some writers to work confidently toward the second book, but for others it can create the pressure of expectation: Can I do this again, can I keep doing it, at just as praiseworthy a level, over many years? Conversely, sometimes the attention received is disproportionately negative—and again, different artists respond differently: some, believing the negative attention, fall silent, humiliated at having been, as they’d feared, “found out,” while others, convinced that the reviewers and readers are all of them wrong, set out to prove it by writing the next book as evidence.
Stamina’s essential, though, to each of these scenarios, if we’re to move past these mostly psychological and emotional obstacles. “I can’t go on, I’ll go on,” goes the line from Beckett’s The Unnamable. Stamina’s what happens between those two sentences. It reminds me, whether the attention to a given book has been good or bad, that the book itself existed and meant something to me long before anyone else confirmed its existence or worth, and that each book is itself, that the point is for me to find my way, undistracted, toward the book that I have to write, for me—only I need to find it praiseworthy; likewise, if I’ve failed to write the book I must write, only I can know that, it’s for me to say. Of course, when the attention has been negative, it’s harder to think this way, and it may take a bit longer for stamina to kick in, as it were; negative attention—or no attention—to what we’ve worked hard to make from and of our deepest selves hurts, quite a lot, initially. But the perspective that stamina includes helps me to remember. It also makes me mindful of one of the artist’s tasks, mentioned earlier: the necessary and ongoing calibration of arrogance and humility that helps the artist distinguish ambition for the work from the endlessly hungry, other ambition for public approval. Take praise when and if you can get it, but don’t forget that it was never the point—or, if it was, then you’ve confused devotion with celebrity, which is a sometime by-product of the devotion that the committed making of art equals, but celebrity has nothing to do, in the end, with the making of art, let alone its value.
In the dream, I lived alone with an old dog in an abandoned filling station, as they used to call them. The dog, whose hind legs were becoming daily more useless to him, suddenly leapt with ease onto a countertop and looked me in the eye. “Wait—how’d you do that?” I asked him. “I wanted to see the world from where you are, from your perspective,” the dog said. Sometimes I think the dream is about reading, other times about the readers we write toward, a small hand against disappearance, not the gull but its reflection moving steadily across the water’s—for now—windless surface . . .
There’s also a kind of stamina that doesn’t, initially, involve perspective at all, a stamina fueled by urgency, which is to stamina as adrenaline is to the body, enabling us, for a moment, to perform at levels we didn’t know we were capable of, or that we take at the time for granted.
For me, urgency’s always involved, at some level, when I’m writing, or at least a feeling of necessity, something needs to be expressed. But the kind of urgency I mean here is more extreme, where the urgency feels impossible to ignore, it crowds everything else from view, until there’s only urgency and the imperative to write a way through it. That’s where stamina comes in. I’ve only known this form of urgency twice so far in my writing life. The first was when I was writing the poems for what would become my first book. As I’ve mentioned, the urgency had to do with a conundrum of sexuality; I’d come to believe that my life quite literally depended on my resolving that conundrum. Resolving it was as “simple” as acknowledging my being a gay man, but that was hardly simple, between how I’d been raised and the times as they were, between my being married at the time to a woman whom I truly loved and my having found myself sexually involved with—and yes, in love with, though love, in fact, was nowhere part of it—a man I’d turned to for help in my confusion.
Without planning to, I began writing several poems each weekend (the only time my job allowed for writing), many of which got written in a single sitting without revision. I can be skeptical of this way of proceeding when I see it in my students, yet I’ve been there myself, when all that matters is to write until I can’t. It violates Wordsworth’s “sacred”—though somewhat contradictory—idea that poetry is “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” and at the same time “takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.” Or maybe I had, in fact, had enough years to reflect, even if subconsciously, on my feelings by having lived with them long enough inside, and what felt like spontaneous outbursts had actually been long in the making, getting steadily revised along the way—who can say?
For the poems that I wrote weren’t bald confessions. Though I’d not yet studied poetry writing, some part of me seems to have understood instinctively what Ellen Bryant Voigt would end up telling me many years later, that poetry is not the transcription but the transformation of experience. I wrote the poems of my first book in my late twenties. I’d had enough time—even if only barely enough—both to have accumulated experiences and to have begun thinking past the fact of those experiences to what’s more difficult, what together they might mean.
The urgency behind that first book felt like writing to save my life. The only other time I’ve experienced that urgency was in the immediate wake of my coming out, which coincided with meeting a man who would be my partner for almost eighteen years and with my getting divorced and consequently trying to reconcile doubts about faith and commitment with my determination to forge a lasting relationship with a man, the kind of relationship I’d grown up thinking was immoral and therefore impossible. I was writing now not to save my life but to find a sturdy enough shape for it. By then my first book had been published and I’d been admitted to a writing program that provided a year to do pretty much nothing but write; I’d say I wrote four to five poems a week for that entire year.
Stamina—sheer will—produced the poems of these two periods, but in both of them a particular urgency, a crisis of identity, lay behind the stamina, and was the catalyst for a productivity I’ve not known since. But if we’re lucky, crisis doesn’t govern every moment of our lives. And while a large part of the urgency of that period of my life had to do with sexual identity, I have to mention the urgency, as well, of youth itself. I wasn’t yet thirty-two during the periods I’ve mentioned. Our twenties and thirties, for most of us, are the time when we’re just coming into a sense of who we are as adults; the different freedom of adulthood (for childhood, too, has its freedoms, as does adolescence, despite how it feels), combined with the recent maturing of our thinking—about ourselves, about the world around us—means we have a lot to say, all of it still new, and we have the energy to say it. I remember feeling, at the time, that I couldn’t write fast enough to get all of my thoughts down.
I once heard Geoffrey Hill speak about the role of tension in poetry—specifically, he said the poet must have something to push up against. I agree. Earlier, for me, I’d say I was pushing against societal conventions about sexual identity, figuring out how to make a space for someone like me who didn’t “fit” convention. But having understood my sexuality, I no longer needed to write about trying to understand it. That would be redundant. Meanwhile, youth fades, as do the energies that came with it. So the challenge is how to maintain stamina, past youth, and without having to be routinely visited by crisis. It helps to remember that urgency doesn’t have to mean crisis. Simply to interrogate an idea or event is a form of that pushing against that Hill argues for. And to the degree that you have a stake in that interrogation, there is an urgency to it, for you. For example, say you want to write a sequence of poems on the life of Billie Holiday. Presumably you’ve read enough to know the basic biography. So, in deciding to take on this subject, you should either have something new to say about it—to add, revise, contradict—or have come upon a new way to say what’s already been said. This means you’re pushing against either received information or conventions of form, respectively. This isn’t crisis, but it is resistance, and that, combined with your personal investment in that resistance, is a form of urgency, which is in turn a catalyst for you to get the poems written—a catalyst, that is, for stamina.
(Utterance itself is a form of resistance against silence.)
Meanwhile, we get older. And if we’ve continued writing and arrived at something like a career, the act of writing has become habit, a way of life. We may still have much to say, but we’ve also said many things already. How to avoid repeating ourselves, how to keep seeing things anew, how to separate habit from habit’s predictability—and how to find the stamina to do so? I think this is where self-awareness—about ourselves, yes, but also about the work—is key. I’ve written plenty of poems that interested me, but later, sometimes minutes after finishing them, sometimes months, I’ll realize I’ve merely echoed what I’ve written somewhere else before. Or I’ve used an image I’ve used often—fair enough—but I haven’t used it any differently than I have before. For me those poems aren’t worth holding onto. That doesn’t mean they weren’t worth writing, since everything we write is a necessary step to the poems we need to write, but I don’t find that I need to publish them. This may be the most important requirement for a career, the ability to look at one’s own work with enough detachment to be a useful monitor and critic of the work, across decades.
At the same time, it’s encouraging to know that, with age, in tandem with experience, our sensibilities deepen, which means that we don’t have to work at constantly changing how we see the world—that changes anyway, as does the world itself. A certain amount of the work of avoiding redundancy is just part of being alive. I’ve written quite a bit about the body, about sex in particular, but each time I’ve done so from within a different body, a body that isn’t as young as it once was, but is much more practiced, as well, much more understood as my own. Necessarily, though sometimes subtly, the poems have changed over time.
For me, both as reader and writer, a piece of writing (but again, the same for all art) is only as interesting as its capacity for surprise. And it’s the possibility of surprise—the firm belief in that possibility—that keeps me reading and writing. Which is to say, it encourages stamina, a drive to keep moving forward, perhaps at a different pace as I get older, perhaps no longer in the grip of crisis, but I’m moving forward. The journey has its own pleasures, as does having arrived—which has less, I think, to do with my being an artist than with my commitment to living deeply, mindfully, and without complacency. Can’t that too, though, be a definition, at least part of one, for the artistic life?
To write poems that make a meaningful difference, that do the transformative work of showing readers (and myself as the writer) the world in a new way—this is difficult, yes. But the chance for surprise makes the work inviting. Difficulty, surprise—maybe that’s all a career comes down to. Difficulty meets surprise, and—without having thought to choose to—they mate for life.
Excerpted from My Trade Is Mystery: Seven Meditations from a Life in Writing, by Carl Phillips, to be published in Fall 2022 by Yale University Press. Copyright © 2022 by Carl Phillips. Reprinted by permission of Yale University Press.