Redefining Success

  • By Megan Alpert
  • July 5, 2021

It’s about your community, not your résumé.

Redefining Success

Last September, my first book was published, an event that used to mark the beginning of a poet’s career but which is now often a mid- or even late-career accomplishment. While some are lucky enough to publish a first book right out of college or their MFA program, it’s not uncommon to send a book out for five to 10 years. I know a writer who sent hers out for 15. Another for 20.

For a long time, I felt like I wasn’t legitimate without a book, that I was a kind of ghost-author waiting for a publisher to grant me existence. Now, when I’m asked for advice about getting published, I often pivot. Just keep sending it out, I say. But, more importantly, you need to build a life for yourself as a writer without a book. And I’d argue that this can be a very good life, especially if you live in DC.

My introduction to the DC poetry world was Sparkle DC, a queer poetry night that Danielle Evennou and Regie Cabico ran for nine years. Sparkle brought together “page” and “stage” poets, and included Black, Asian, Latinx, and white people of a multitude of genders and gender expressions. Grand-slam champions shared the stage with writing professors and people getting up to read for the first time.

One night at Sparkle, two poets, Angelique Palmer and goddess x, did a joint reading of Palmer’s poem “Passive Voice on a Tuesday,” an interpretation/expansion of Lucille Clifton’s “won’t you celebrate with me.” The poets — a Black queer woman and a Black transfemme — overlapped their voices as they read, building and layering, expanding and calling out the ever-present relevance of Clifton’s celebration to Black femmes “that every day/ something has tried to kill me/ and has failed.” (The poem will appear in Palmer’s forthcoming collection, Also Dark).

As I watched this, one of the most powerful things I have ever seen onstage, I wasn’t a sad ghost-author waiting to exist. I was in the present moment, thinking I am so lucky that I get to see this.

When I tell people outside the DMV area that DC has a great poetry scene, I’m often met with disbelief. “Really?” a famous poet asked me recently. “Who’s there? Who are the names?”

But that’s the thing about DC: There are names, but it isn’t about names. DC literary life is not about who won a big prize or who can introduce you to the right people. It’s about who is in the room right now.

After I read at Sparkle for the first time, Danielle pulled me aside and told me about other reading series that I should apply for, including the Inner Loop. These events taught me to love reading onstage. I could feel in real time my words connecting with the audience and the energy I received back from them.

After readings, poets and audience members would gather and talk to each other. We were excited about each other’s work. We invited each other to critique groups, suggested other places to read and submit work, and helped one another grow as writers.

When my book finally did come out, having the support of other writers was vital. Friends invited me to read, bought the book, and helped me plan a weird and complicated online book launch (thank you, Natalie Illum and Danielle Evennou). The Inner Loop’s Author’s Corner program is a dream come true for a small-press writer.

But these connections are not about “being connected” or “networking.” I value them because they make me feel happy and fulfilled.

Most of us are not going to be as successful as we might have dreamed as children. Getting published might take a decade (or two) longer than we planned. But writing gives us the incredible privilege of witnessing each other and being witnessed, of forming rich bonds with people we never would have met otherwise.

Whether it’s sitting at the booths in the Petworth Safeway talking about a friend’s poem, listening to trans poets support each other at Capturing Fire, or heading over to Hank’s after a reading at Liberty Books, we are lucky every time we get to hear someone sharing their true self. 

[Editor’s note: This piece is in support of the Inner Loop’s “Author’s Corner,” a monthly campaign that spotlights a DC-area writer and their recently published work from a small to medium-sized publisher.]

Megan Alpert is the author of The Animal at Your Side, which won the Airlie Prize and was a finalist for the Julie Suk Award. Her poems have appeared in Verse Daily, Colorado Review, Cincinnati Review, Muzzle, and Copper Nickel, among others. As a journalist, she has reported for the Guardian, Smithsonian, Foreign Policy, and the Atlantic. Subscribe to her newsletter here.

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