What’s Your Intention?

December 12, 2010

Once upon a time, I was apartment hunting. I was 20 years old and it was really my first time not living in a dorm room, or my parents’ house, or in a room in an apartment that a friend of a friend told me about. I was in Boston, and if you know anything about apartment hunting in Boston and needing a home with a 1 September start date, then you know a little bit of something about a particular level of hell that may or may not be documented in Dante’s Inferno. I seriously needed to exit an apartment that was quite uncomfortable: my roommates were these dudes from Scotland who all had each other’s back, and to them I was That Weird Girl with the breaking down car, who had neither Scottish nor Boston accent, and who was frighteningly short. There were other more legitimate frustrations, but we needn’t get into that now.

These were the days of apartment-hunting before Craig’s List. And they were tough. Sketchy looking websites seemed to advertise “roommate wanted” situations, and listings were posted in actual newspaper classifieds. It was just the way things were done. It was the late 1990s. And I spent the end of August and almost all of September searching and obsessing over these advertisements and apartment-hunting.

One place was in the shadows of the Boston University campus. The tenants were these women who all had great jobs and seemed to have built some solid connections to each other. It felt like the place I needed to live. But I couldn’t help feel like the insufficient person with little to offer. I had a big hole in the left knee of my jeans and a couple of years left to go before finishing college and searching for a halfway-decent job. That place didn’t work out. Another apartment—in a neighborhood near what would become my favorite Boston neighborhood—seemed promising. The two tenants were closer to my age and had some recent memories of making that transition from not-quite-a-kid-anymore to self-sufficient Bostonian adult. We liked similar movies, music, books. We clicked. But then things changed. One of them asked me, “Well, why do you want to live here? Why are you leaving where you live now?” I was inarticulate and instead of answering a simple question, I unleashed my frustration about how “wrong” my current living situation was, how isolated I felt, and how much my roommates sucked. Until that point, there was promise. After that point, the current tenants quickly ushered me out of their home.

A couple of days later, I was thinking about my plight. As I was mindless walking the aisles in a drug store, that I thought about intentionality. What I mean is, I asked myself a series of questions—what would a new home open up for me? How could a new place nurture parts of my life that just didn’t seem to be thriving? Why did it matter for me to live someplace where more than my most absolute basic needs were met? Until I could answer these questions and figure out why finding a great place to live really mattered to me I would feel “not quite enough” of a match for the people with great jobs and a great apartment, or I would unleash my laundry list of frustrations and scare people away. Something had to give, and that “something” meant my approach to finding a new home.

Once I answered these questions, my apartment search changed. Within 2 weeks I found a room in a great old Victorian with 5 roommates, and it was a community-minded cooperative (read: ex-hippie-commune) house. More than just my basic needs could be met in this place. Everything I came to value about a “home” could be celebrated every day I lived there. The rent was cheap, I found the décor charming, my bedroom was quirky in all the right ways, and the kitchen was huge. It was, to reduce to one word, completely and utterly perfect.

Excuse my hippie-dippiness over here, but I think these things matter. Whether it’s finding a new apartment, a new job, or a “home” for one’s first poetry collection, envisioning how you want yourself—and what it is that you have created—to thrive in the world matters. There are reasons why publishing your collection matters to you: It’s the fulfillment of a personal dream. It’s closure to a specific mindset and timeframe of your writing. It’s a professionalization mark and will help make getting on the job market, or getting grants, or finding audiences to read to, a little bit easier. But let me ask you why the world of potential readers, job-hirers, audiences, and book buyers might want or need to pick up your book and buy it, read it, find themselves somehow enriched and changed by your poems. What work in the world will your book do? What do you value about the relationship you as a poet can have with your readers and how your poems can fulfill that? What can you wish upon the person who picks up your book?

One day over the summer, when I was sweating out everything I had in me at the gym, I realized that this level of intentionality and questioning pertained to my book. Why did I want it to win a contest? What did I want to convey to my readers (both those who would buy my book in the store AND those who would read my book and pass it on to a judge or editor)? In a world of so many poetry books, why did mine matter? I had some thinking to do, and I found that my answers were not unlike the spirit of my answers back when I was 20 and looking for a room in a Boston apartment. I believe there is something in my writing that builds a bridge between human experience and the need to articulate it. I believe that the voice in my poems, and in my book, speak sincerely for all of the things that people can’t easily give voice to. I believe that someone reading my book will find themselves with a strange sense of questioning, longing, compassion, love, and kindness that’s more acutely in tune than what they may have understood before. I don’t believe my book will solve the poverty problem or will speak to issues of race and prejudice and social justice. I don’t believe my book will say something about pop culture, or the conflict in the Middle East, or about compromised energy supplies. My book doesn’t tell a narrative-driven story, and it doesn’t have an expressly formal focus.

My book is internal, atmospheric, and built on the rhythm of this crazy, searching, and deeply affected heart I have. And it needs to be with a publisher that gets that, that has room for that identity in its catalogue, that values distributing its books to potential readers. There are publishers whose contests and open reading periods I have no business sending my work to, because I know that my work doesn’t really speak to what they do. And there are publishers where I think maybe I can fit in—maybe I can stretch the boundaries of their aesthetic and emotional range just a small bit. And of course, there are the dream publishers (and dream judges!). I know who they are. I have had many dreams where I literally get a call on my old, battered cell phone from the poetry series editor of one of those publishers. Or where I get an e-mail that makes my day. Or where I am at AWP and someone puts a hand on my shoulder and says “let’s go get a glass of wine…” I won’t “give up the ghost” on who those publishers are, lest I jinx myself horribly, but let’s just say that I am absolutely clear on who they are.

Do you know what your book’s intentions are? Do you know what work your book does in this world? What is its identity? What bridge does it build with its readers?

A comprehensive list of upcoming deadlines for contests—with publishers that might be some of your ideals and all of the others—can be found easily on the Poets & Writers website under the “Tools for Writers” link. A selection of these appear here:

• Tupelo Press, Dorset Prize (December 31, $25, judge undisclosed)
• University of Tampa Press, Tampa Review Prize for Poetry (December 31, $25, judge undisclosed)
• Colorado Review/Center for Literary Arts, Colorado Prize (January 14, $25, Cole Swenson judges)
• BkMk Press, Ciardi/Chandra Prizes (January 15, $25, judge undisclosed)

This is a guest post by Stephanie Kartalopoulos. Follow her on Twitter.

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