The Plight of the Emerging Writer by Jiwon Choi
As a platform focused on uplifting the emerging and new poets entering out community, we’ve had many discussions about our complicated relationship with the word “emerging.” Jiwon Choi’s interview-essay hybrid here explores the weight and worry of the term beautifully, inviting the voices of Kenning Jean-Paul García, Justin Jamail, Caroline Hagood, Robert Hershon, Alan Perry, and Lori Toppel.
It’s been two years since my book was released into the Amazonesphere and beyond, and about how long it took to become aware of my situation: I was published but so what? It seemed that I had landed Nowhere with “Nowhere” being an in-between space where emerging and being published is a wasteland as opportunities once proscribed to unpublished writers are no longer available. Also there’s the age thing: did you know once you’re out of your thirties, you’ve reached your shelf life? As if you had an expiration date. How did I go from emerging to expiring? Sure, I get it: emerging infers a coming out to become the thing you were meant to be, and if I were a caterpillar I would know when that was because I’d sprout my wings and be ready to start the next stage of my butterfly career. But what of the emerging writer?
As a small-pond poet, I understand there is a hierarchy of writers, and unless you’re Toni Morrison or Stephen King, you’ll hustle to get your work out there and even when it gets out there, it may not do much. What I didn’t fully understand was that by wanting to write professionally, I was being sucked into a caste system with its top tier of famous and/or NY Times Book Review writers up high, and the untouchables, which could include the self and small-press published types, way down below. It’s okay to be in the small pond because it’s a choice, but it’s not okay if I am being forced to stay in perpetuity. As diarist, antipoet, humorist, essayist, and editor/publisher of Rigorous, Kenning JP Garcia puts it:
“I don’t think I’ll ever really emerge. I don’t think emergence is something that happens for fringe writers. In my experience, nobody is looking for an emerging experimental writer of color.”
Kenning brings up another layer of bother to this conundrum: being an emerging writer of color. Historically platforms for us have been quite limited so it’s worth mentioning that Kenning’s journal, Rigorous, is written and edited by people of color, on a mission to focus and highlight works by artists of color.
At the risk of sounding naïve, I posit that the moniker “emerging writer” gets bandied about quite a bit and holds a lot of weight for a concept that, for me, started to get somewhat vague the more I thought about it. Is this status an organic condition that arises from our human compulsion to document and record experience, or is it a construct that has been put into our social and cultural psyche by the powers that be: the gatekeepers of publishing and whatever reading trends are “of the moment”?
In the spirit of gaining more clarity and insight on what this elusive label might mean, I decided to gather some information by conducting my very own unscientific research, which merely consisted of me asking other writers to weigh in. The microcosm of the writing industry I managed to consult consists of writers who are also editors, publishers and teachers. One is even a general consul.
I’ll start with Justin Jamail, a poet, whose “Exchangeable Bonds” was published in 2018 by Hanging Loose Press. A full disclosure here, Justin and I share the same publisher. When I asked Justin about “emerging” he admitted to not knowing “exactly” what it meant, but offered this: “…to denote someone early in a publishing career? That is, it seems to refer to emerging ‘professionally’ rather than emerging as a matter of aesthetics or development of one’s work?”
Justin parses emerging aesthetically (developing one’s work to the fullest) vs. professionally and I’m very glad he did, as it makes me think about the tension between process and product. Process leads to product but do we apply equal energies into both or does one command the lion’s share? The intense impulse of writers to publish is hardly a secret, but the creative force that runs through our veins is equally strong. Is there a happy medium where these two realities can come together for great result?
Justin goes on to add, “I guess I am an emerging poet as I have only recently published a first book. I guess I will not be one once I hit some sort of professional stride or (more likely) the ‘lack of stride’.” His “lack of stride” comment perked up my ears as I imagined him to be speaking of a purer inclination to forego obvious praise in favor of developing one’s art to the fullest. When I asked Justin to give more context, he responded, “I just meant — jokingly — that even the lack of development can itself indicate the end of the “emerging” period… Oh yes, there is that.
But let’s go back to this idea of developing professionally as a writer because it is an idea that still feels so abstract and far away from me. And it is slowly dawning on me as I write this article, that this is the piece of the puzzle that has been stolen and buried by a wayward squirrel so that I shall never be able to find it. So it’s a good thing Justin is here to explain it:
“I mean, you know, the success of a writer’s professional life — number of publications, awards, tenures, etc — is unrelated as an empirical matter from success of a writer’s art, which is marked by quality of publications and genuine acclaim by the worthy. While they are certainly not mutually exclusive, they do not appear to be related or dependent in any way.”
Well, I don’t really know, but I can use my imagination.
Let’s bring in Caroline Hagood, who is in the throes of what Justin describes as “publications, awards, tenures, etc.“ And who in her roles as teacher, editor, poet, and blogger weighs in as a quadruple threat. Another full disclosure, Caroline was the editor for Justin’s book. I don’t know how she found time to answer my questions about emerging writers, but I am super appreciative she did.
She brought up, right away, the parameters of how writers are measured:
“Like many concepts in the writing world, the term “emerging writer” is of course linked to questions of race, class, etc. Who gets to be categorized as emerging is just as political as any other decision…there are also countless writers who labor diligently, doing the work every day, even publishing that first book, but who aren’t getting special articles touting their “emerging” status—and many of these are writers of color, which is an issue at which we have to take a long, hard look.”
What is compelling here is that Caroline’s comment on race as an “issue” resoundingly echoes Kenning’s earlier stark assessment that, “…nobody is looking for an emerging experimental writer of color.”
Caroline says she sees her role as teacher and editor as being a “spotlight shiner” trying to make sure she “shine[s] it on as much deserving work as possible and on the work of people from a variety of different backgrounds.”
The writing world is a system that is beholden to many moving parts to keep it afloat––writers, editors, publishers, readers, critics, booksellers, teachers, bloggers, etc. I like knowing that writers like Caroline are one of the gears that keep the machine running. But with any machine, there is someone in charge of the controls. It’s like Oz with a “wizard” behind the curtain pushing, pulling and turning all those buttons, levers and knobs.
In Caroline’s estimation, this system is not “beneficial” and “we don’t have to follow along.” And part of this not following along is embodied in “so many edgy small presses and magazines popping up all the time.” She calls this “a form of resistance” that will inspire and catalyze: “a lot of important innovation (both in terms of the work that comes out of it and in terms of how it changes this potentially harmful system).”
Another point of confusion, on the vagaries of this system, is the idea that you can have several and more books published and still be doubtful of your status as a writer. Caroline cites her own situation of having three books published and still grappling with the “emerging writer” moniker for herself.
What she calls the “imposter system” whereby you never feel like “you made it.”
And here is where I want to bring in Lori Toppel and her perspective as a counterbalance and complement to Kenning, Justin and Caroline’s POV. Lori has published a novel, co-authored a memoir, and has written short stories for various publications. And she is a writer who’s never viewed herself as “emerging”:
“Before I was published, I never thought of myself as emerging. I don’t remember the term being that popular in publishing back in the 80s. I considered myself a young writer who was dedicated, persistent, and eager to explore and experiment.”
Wow. Let’s read that again: “I considered myself a young writer who was dedicated, persistent, and eager to explore and experiment.” Thanks Lori, you got me off the window’s ledge with that.
And plus I love her story: working for the editor of Grand Street mag and showing him her first novel, and him showing it to his agent who, in turn, sold it to a publishing house. I thought this could go under the category of “making it” except for when Lori recalled talking to Susan Minot who was “finishing up a book” and wondering:
“…even after a writer has had a few books published, there’s always a worry about the next one. I remember thinking that no matter how far along a writer is in his or her career, there’s always doubt and apprehension. Being established didn’t always take away that tingling sensation of still emerging.”
So then anyone can be emerging?
Lori goes onto say: “emerging as a classification or a marketing term is helpful, I suppose,” which begs the question: “Does the status of the “emerging writer” exist to satisfy a marketing need? Perhaps to keep the catalog ordered and predictable? Here is the view that labels can offer value in some context and one that Alan Perry, poetry editor of Typehouse Literary Magazine, proscribes to: “Generally I think the term is helpful in knowing where a poet is in terms of experience and exposure.” And he identifies “editors, experienced poetry readers and professionals (i.e. professors, instructors, etc.)” as the ones who can anoint writers as “emerging” based on their experience. Alan considers himself to be an emerging poet because though he has been writing poetry for many years, he’s only recently begun to take it seriously:
“So I would consider myself an emerging poet because I consider the past few years as a period of learning, growing and hopefully developing how and what I write.”
Consistent with Lori’s writer who is “…dedicated, persistent, and eager to explore and experiment.”
Speaking of Lori, I want to go back to two additional ideas she brought up, which proved to be what I call “breakthrough moments” in this fact-finding mission. The first was when she defined “emerging” as “a state of being a continuous one” and the second moment when she said:
“If in the world of publishing, I’m neither emerging nor established, I suppose I’m standing in the expansive field in between, like a ‘farmer’, as Jack Gilbert once said about his own poetry: ‘It’s not a business with me…. I’m not a professional of poetry, I’m a farmer of poetry’.”
Let’s start with breakthrough two. Remember the in-between space I called “Nowhere” some few thousand words back? It’s the same space Lori is describing as the “expansive field” and sounds so much better when she talks about it, and there’s even a “farmer of poetry” in it! Which brings us to breakthrough number one: “emerging is a state of being a continuous one” and Bob Hershon, poet, editor and publisher of Hanging Loose Press and Hanging Loose Magazine. Bob who has been publishing his work and the work of others for over fifty years might be the archetype for the “continuous one”. His Hanging Loose is an expert example of a publishing operation that seeks the best works from both new and established writers. He was the first person I asked back in 2018 to proffer thoughts about the emerging writer label. He said he thought it was an imprecise term and that it made him envision “something coming out of a black pool of water,” but conceded that the label could apply to “good writers who have not yet reached an audience.”
Bob’s fifteenth book of poems, “End of the Business Day”, was published this year so it’s unlikely that I would bump into him in that “expansive field”. Or maybe I would have. Perhaps as a “continuous one” there are no boundaries that he cannot traverse and overcome, and perhaps as a “continuous one” he is also what Jack Gilbert dubbed “a farmer of poetry”. Just between you and me, I would gladly be continuous rather than emerging.
Kenning Jean-Paul García is the author of the novel OF (What Place Meant), This Sentimental Education, and Slow Living. Originally from Brooklyn, NY, xe now lives Albany, NY. Xe is a diarist, performer, and antipoet who has degrees in English and linguistics. When xe isn’t working on diaries, xe is creating memes and writing running gags on social media. Xe also works overnights pushing a broom around the biggest box store in America and is an editor at Rigorous.
Justin Jamail is the author of Exchangeable Bonds from Hanging Loose Press (2018). He is a native of Houston, TX, and lives with his family in Montclair, NJ. more info at justinjamail.com.
Caroline Hagood’s first book of poetry, Lunatic Speaks, was published in 2012, and her second poetry book, Making Maxine’s Baby, a small press bestseller, came out in 2015 from Hanging Loose Press. Her book-length essay, Ways of Looking at a Woman, also a small press bestseller, came out in March of 2019 from Hanging Loose. Her writing has also appeared in The Kenyon Review, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, Salon, and the Economist. She’s a Staff Blogger for the Kenyon Review, a Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow at Fordham University, and she teaches creative writing at Barnard College and Fordham.
Robert Hershon’s 15th poetry collection End of the Business Day came out in 2019. He was executive director of The Print Center for 35 years and has been co-editor of Hanging Loose Press since its founding in 1966. Hershon has won two NEA writing fellowships and three from NYFA.
Alan Perry holds a BA in English from the University of Minnesota. His poems have appeared in Heron Tree, Sleet Magazine, Gyroscope Review, Right Hand Pointing, Zingara Poetry Review and elsewhere, and in the recent anthology, Celestial Musings: Poems Inspired by the Night Sky. He is a Senior Poetry Editor for Typehouse Literary Magazine, and was nominated for a 2018 Best of the Net. Alan and his wife divide their time between a suburb of Minneapolis, Minnesota and Tucson, Arizona.
Lori Toppel is the author of Three Children, a novel, and co-author of Still Here Thinking of You, a collaborative memoir. Her short stories and non-fiction have appeared in The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, The Atticus Review, Del Sol Review, and The Antioch Review. She is a graduate of the MFA Program at Columbia University.
Jiwon Choi is a poet, teacher, and urban gardener. She teaches preschool at the Educational Alliance, a multi-generational non-profit located on the Lower East Side of NYC. She is a long-time gardener and coordinator for the Pacific Street Brooklyn Bear’s Community Garden located near Downtown Brooklyn. She is the author of One Daughter is Worth Ten Sons, published by Hanging Loose Press in 2017. Her work can also be found on Rigorous, a journal edited and written by people of color. She is also a poetry editor for Typehouse Literary Magazine. She lives in Brooklyn, NY.