I've vowed not to watch the Olympics this year. I am weary of the division of the world into winners and losers, the winners beating their chests and gloating, the losers vanishing into the background as if what they did was never worthy of our attention anyway. In the arts, we know that winners and losers are ephemera. The work they create,however, whether poem, painting, dance, novel, or for that matter a quilt or a delicious meal, is not ephemeral. In the literary world, we have our Pulitzer winners, our Guggenheim winners, our national and state fellowship winners, our New Yorker published winners, and so on. Our MFA programs list the number of "winners" they have produced, like a list of gold medals. Meanwhile, others of us weep over the soup pot, as I did so many years ago, clutching yet another rejection slip. Was I writing mediocre poems then? No. Was I a loser? No. I was a poet, learning my craft, learning how to live my life.
Eight years ago I gave the keynote at a writers conference in Greeneville, TN; the Olympics were being televised that week. An image forever imprinted in my mind is the tail end of a race, the runner determined to cross the finish line, even though he had fallen, injured, and barely able to move. His response to crossing the line was simply, "I've won." Yes, he was a loser, no medal stand for him. But he had done what he came to town to do; he had crossed the finish line and considered himself a winner. (And here I insert a response from Susan Bell about that incident. "(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Derek_Redmond). He was in the 1992 Olympics. His hamstring tore during the 400 meters semi-final. His father ran out to him and held him up. Together they made a complete lap of the track to finish the race. He was disqualified of course as you have to complete unaided, but they received a standing ovation as they struggled around the track. And they finished the race together. Doesn't that exemplify winning more than anything?" Thank you Susan.
The thesis of my speech was the importance of "losers. How many "winners" can we have? Better to be losers and lovers of the sport, the art, the cuisine, the calling.... and so on, forever and ever.
Competition is an addiction. You will see it in all its presumed glory over the next few days. If you turn on your t.v., that is. I'd rather not. I'd rather pick tomatoes, read Adam Zagajewski's poetry, make pickles, or sit out under the trees watching the clouds pass by. I would wish the same for our state's writers and readers. Especially our poets. When are you going to write "a real book," someone asked after my first book of poetry, The Girl in the Midst of the Harvest, was published.
I didn't know how to answer.
I prefer quoting Richard Hugo, American poet--one we should not forget:
"Writing is a way of saying you and the world have a chance. All art is failure."
"Every poem a poet writes is a slight advance of self and a slight modification of the mask, the one you want to be. Poem after poem, the self grows more worthy of the mask. ... Hope hard to fall always short of success."
To fall always short of success? That is an alien message to the Olympics, the media circus that envelopes it. It is not an alien message to writers and readers.
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