Success Is All Smoke

Smoke is all there’s been in my life . . .
Success has got no taste or smell.
And when you get used to it,
it’s as if it didn’t exist.

            from Almodóvar’s All About My Mother

That’s what the successful older actor, Huma (fem. version of “smoke” in Spanish), says in the movie, which I recently re-watched. And I have to ponder it, here, in New York, which has got to be one of the most success-driven places on the planet. What counts as success for an artist? Getting to do the work you want to do and getting paid for it? Getting paid well for it? That might be an answer. Of course, we poets rarely get paid for anything. And yet we persist. Why do we do what we do? For glory? For the sheer joy of it? Someone, a new friend, recently asked me why I called such things as guilt, regret, indecision—all subjects of poems in my fourth book—vices. And I replied, It’s because they take me out of the moment—out of the present enjoyment of life. And that amounts to a certain kind of failure, I suppose. So perhaps I am at my most successful when I am most present: walking the dog in the morning and really breathing in the air, noting the season by the stage the trees are in, watching the sunlight filter through the branches. Or when I’m at my “desk,” which might be a subway car or a park bench or an actual desk—these days, the dining room table.

And yet I persist, as do so many others, in wishing for that other kind of success: the kind where people I don’t know know me. The kind where I get invited to give readings and talks for real money, knowing full well that to be a successful poet, in the deeper sense, may have little or nothing to do with such public strivings. As Christopher Hitchens wrote, paraphrasing Nadine Gordimer,  “A serious person should try to write posthumously.” And for that, it is not necessary that anyone know me/you now.Here’s a quote I used to have over my desk. It’s by another favorite artist of mine, Mark Twain, who said:

 “Fame is a vapor, popularity an accident; the only earthly certainty is oblivion.”
Yet I write this on the heels of a book party for Whirlwind, my fifth book (a number I find hard to fathom), and the publication of my new poems and Q&A featured in December’s Poetry. What is success? That I have persevered. That I keep challenging myself to write new kinds of poems. That I don’t care where the culture is moving. I still believe deeply in poems, in paintings, in music, in dance, in human connection. So as much as I toot my own kazoo like all the other New York—American—poets clamoring for some attention from a public that is mostly oblivious to poetry, I know that “All is vanity and a striving after wind.” But wind is all we’ve got. And some times, however briefly, it does have a piquant taste and even a sweet smell.

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