You might be forgiven if, like a kid looking through the newspaper for comic strips, you return to this book only to enjoy the humorous lists, tables, and other extras that punctuate the text. Like “The Periodic Table of Poetic Elements” and its listing for “Glückium – the thinnest, sharpest element…” or the “Top Ten Complaints of Poets” (“#7: Guy I went to school with has yet another poem in The New Yorker.”)
But I was intrigued by the idea of Jeffrey Skinner’s The 6.5 Habits of Moderately Successful Poets, because honestly there are so few books like it. Where could I direct MFA students when they ask about a career in poetry, or when young people come up to me at readings and ask how they can start “being a poet?” The only book I could compare it to is 1998’s Greg Kuzma, What Poetry is All About, which is another humorous look at how to survive life as a poet. Besides the occasional Poets & Writers article or essay in the front of Poet’s Market, where could beginning writers go to learn about the actual real-life every-day work of being a poet?
So I felt there was definitely a need for this book, at least in the weirdly specific world of being a writer/editor/teacher/poet-evangelist-type that I inhabit. Because while many good books out there, like Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux’s The Poet’s Companion or Steve Kowit’s In the Palm of Your Hand, address a beginning poet’s questions about writing, few address harder questions like “How do I earn a living as a poet,” or, even more frightening: “What is PoBiz and why do so many people complain about it?”
Even Skinner, an-even-more-than-moderately-successful poet from the Baby Boomer generation who helped found a poetry press (Sarabande, which he started with wife Sarah Gorham) addresses most of these questions obliquely or ironically, couching them in anecdotes from his early career as his private-eye father’s assistant. As the sub-title indicates, it is as much a book of memoir as it is a book of advice, and sometimes in the short, Zen-lesson-titled chapters (as one miffed Amazon reviewer complained) you get a lot of anecdote and seemingly no poetry-related advice. But is there another person who would patiently give you advice about the poetry life who is also as qualified as a widely-published-and-awarded poet, a publisher, and a professor of creative writing? One who, yes, has won an NEA grant and been to Yaddo, thank you. I mean, if there were, you probably wouldn’t need this book. You would already be winning book awards and living in New York City with a fancy tenured teaching job living on your Whiting Award money. Plus, the first place I saw a review of this book was The New York Times, so Skinner clearly knows a bit about succeeding as a writer.
The book is at its best when Skinner is at his most vulnerable, revealing his own life’s highs and lows – workshops with Phil Levine, receiving an important poetry acceptance at a time when he had no one around to celebrate it with, his struggles with balancing writing and important family relationships. Poking fun at the world of poetry might be shooting fish in a shallow barrel, but Skinner has a talent for it, and “The Pre-MFA Save-Your-Time-&-Money Quiz” should, in my opinion, be required reading for all young aspiring writers.
3. The median yearly income of a moderately successful American poet:
a. Somewhere between that of a highly successful panhandler and a security guard
b. Dependent upon the number of incomprehensible reviews her latest book receives
c. A crying shame…
You will laugh in spite of yourself, even if may not agree with all Skinner’s actual advice – for instance, he scorns self-publishing and social media, which might be the generation-after-mine’s poetry world bread and butter.
I did feel a bit envious when Skinner describes an earlier world of poetry than the one I’ve inhabited, where, for instance, a woman with no connections or prizes from his workshop could get published in Poetry (just try getting in there these days without a major book award or mentor.) It seems that sometimes he describes his early days as a writer, entering a poetry world kinder and smaller and easier to navigate than the one I was born into a generation later (though he does do an excellent job of reaching out and referencing the X-er generation favorite “Family Guy” in his final essay.) I might have liked more specific advice in this book about things he’s clearly pretty good at, like, say, getting grants or getting reviewed in the New York Times, and maybe less of the same-old-writer-truisms like the importance of revision and persistence. (I mean, those things are important, but every young writer has already heard that ten times before they’ve started out of the gate.) These are minor quibbles with a book that was both useful and fun to read and re-read.
Like a chatty series of essays and asides from a mentor or friend who knows a lot about the poetry world, or eavesdropping at the AWP hotel bar for several hours, The 6.5 Habits of Moderately Successful Poets amuses, entertains, and gives new writers challenges and guidance in a field that’s tricky to navigate and often frustratingly opaque.