Extracting Hope from Poison: On Quitting the Writer’s Life
Essay and artwork by Ashley Obscura
When I was presented with the opportunity and encouragement to write this essay I was in the midst of a personal crisis. I had just received my first, hard-earned travel grant to attend my first AWP Conference last year in Portland. I should have been eager to connect, but the truth is that I spent the majority of my time removed from the Oregon Convention Center, seeking solace from being seen in the parks looking at the flowers. I did not have the energy to ask for attention from the public. I did not have the emotional capacity to network. I felt like a loser in the sense that I felt I was losing something precious from within myself: ambition, confidence, and hope.
The irony was that I had just experienced a great accolade: I had learned while in Portland that a virtual reality project I had been the screenwriter for, Museum of Symmetry, had won a Canadian Screen Award. I had just spoken on a panel at AWP about the power of digital platforms to redefine new literary landscapes. My book, Ambient Technology, was a few months old. I was laying in a field of cherry blossoms with a new, beautiful friend (the one who encouraged me to write this essay). I was supposed to feel hopeful. I was used to feeling hopeful. But it was then that I realized my hope in the future had perished.
It was there, in that time, that I suddenly fell out of love with the idea of being a writer.
In this essay, I initially wanted to write about why, for the past year and a half, I have not cared about writing, or publishing, or doing public readings, or even tweeting or sharing my work on Instagram. While these things had at one point been the center of my life and brought me much joy, I no longer felt that way. I wanted to explore the reasons why I felt this way, if this failing was coming from within or outside of me.
Outside: I was disenchanted by the literary industry. I no longer cared about advancing in that world, convinced voices like mine were not to be leveraged (Latinx poetry in Canada is merely recognised), that the barriers to entry were impermeable, that the effort was not worth it.
Inside: I didn’t feel like my voice was important.
The truth was, I was financially and spiritually poor, and I was deeply tired by and of my life of precarity. I was without prospects. I had nothing or no one holding me up in the literary world. I was coming to terms with burning out from being a hopeful, optimistic person. I was tired of having to remain hopeful. I was tired of trying to pretend to be someone worthy of attention. Skeptical of all the choices I had made in regards to my so-called career, I could not trust the path I was on.
Publishing my second book of poetry, Ambient Technology, was a certain kind of devastation to me, one that we don’t hear enough about within literary circles. I was proud of what I had done with my book, and thought there was a lot to draw out of there about love and connection in contemporary times, but no one really cared. My book experienced a sort of stint in book purgatory, where books go when no one pays attention to them. I didn’t even bother to submit it to awards. Even if I had a chance, the fees chased me away. Self-promotion felt shallow, insincere, inconsiderate.
I know I’m not alone in this—poets are rarely made to feel validated for the work they do, seldom encouraged. It’s up to us to hold ourselves up. Even if we do know how to promote ourselves, that labour can be painful and unfruitful. Asking the world to pay attention to you can feel selfish if you’re well-versed in the politics of visibility. It is truly a rare and privileged thing to feel held and validated by a so-called community engrained within a capitalist, consumer-driven industry.
There is so much that demands our attention. So much. It’s hard to find your space in it at all.
On the contrary, I greatly benefited from the support of an international online community (Alt Lit) when my first book, I Am Here, came out. I felt held. I felt heard. I was lucky to experience the love and support of women from the Alt Lit community at that time without having to ask, a community that eventually made its way into the mainstream only to crumble and scatter from the trauma of having multiple accounts of sexual assault and predatory behaviour exposed amongst the masculine elite of our community (something I wrote for the Montreal Review of Books).
What the release of my second book revealed to me was that I was, yet again, without a clear sense of who my community was. And for the first time, I was realizing just how devastating that really was.
Can poetry matter if it only matters to you?
So, I decided to quit writing poetry and start living my life more. I fell in love for the third time. I fled the city to the forests of Quebec as often as possible. I picked up a fascination with mushrooms with my partner, foraging them, observing their every detail and finding their names in the field guides we collected. I learned how to find joy in cooking. I dove into the world of homemade cocktails. I tried my best to love life, be present, and not write about it. I relished in using my free time not to write, but to live an alternative version of my life. And honestly, I was happy. I felt unburdened by the weight of trying to be someone.
A year later, I have set out to write something about the sheer strength of will it takes to persevere in the world of literature (in Canada, and beyond). I wish I could have known about the kind of life I was throwing myself into, heart-first: the burnout, the loneliness, the lack of validation one may experience even when their work is published. I wish someone had said: it’s going to be up to you to create your own sense of value in your work. Not an easy task.
As poets, it’s up to us to create our own personal sense of value.
So often we’re presented with these happy stories of literary success. We see people’s books get published, reviewed, make awards lists, win awards, get translated into various languages, appear on cool podcasts, etc. It’s all that’s really visible in the world of literary media, on our newsfeeds. But what we don’t see is, well, what we don’t see.
The whole book industry depends on the hope that writers have of being successful. Hope is a thing we are sold, book after book. Redemption is embedded in literary culture here in Canada. We all write with dreams, don’t we? We, as writers, interface with the literary industry through the hope that our voices matter.
The literary dream in Canada works like this: 1. Write a book. Maybe you’re fortunate enough to write it in university or perhaps a residency. Maybe you have time to write with the help of a grant or financial support from your partner/family. Maybe you’re super blessed to have a mentor. 2. Hope that you find a well-funded publisher for it (if you’re lucky). 3. Hope that your book gets reviewed in a few well-regarded publications. 4. Hope that it wins an award or leads you to earn another grant. 5. Hope that one of the few reputable, well-funded publishers or granting institutions give you money to write another.
Hope that what you write resonates with people. Hope that the money that went into promoting it helps catapult it. Hope that the money keeps flowing in for you. That the industry finds you worthy of juicing for success. That they extract you for all that you’re worth. That the cycle may continue to your benefit.
Or, you can go the academic route. Get an expensive degree in writing, go on to getting a Masters. Maybe teach until retirement, if you’re lucky enough to get a tenure position, which is unlikely. You’re still at the whims of an institution.
If you’re lucky to live in Toronto, then perhaps you can attend fancy industry parties and mingle and schmooze with fellow writers, editors, and publishers in academia and literary journals, make those essential connections you need to get noticed, to get published, to get ahead.
It all feels petty in its competitiveness, in its performative community, in its privilege and elitism. Publishing is an extractive industry. It either pits us against one another, or leaves most out of its closed circuit. It robs us of community. It affords those with confidence more confidence, those with more affluence, even more affluence.
Literary success feels like a myth, akin to a fairy tale.
Young and emerging poets, for the most part, work outside of the industry and without the privileges and protections afforded to those who have somehow found success in their work, who come from a family that can financially support the writer’s life, or who have access to a powerful community of peers. And even then, you’re not so well off. Most of us have had to create our own ways to exist and survive.
We’ve written without the luxury of grants, done readings without speaking fees. We’ve stayed away from literary residencies because of the costs, or we’ve gone into debt to do so and invest in our craft. We’ve gone into debt investing in dead-end writing programs, or not gone at all. We’ve forfeited our work from prizes due to costs and the sheer unlikelihood a small book like ours would ever succeed in this world. We’ve published for free, or paid for the production of our books or chapbooks ourselves. We’ve had to self-publish. We’ve begun our own newsletters to make up for the lack of publishing opportunities, and printed our own zines. We’ve worked for abysmal wages, or for free. We’ve published without praise, attention, validation; at great personal risk.
For writers who aren’t white, who don’t come from money, or who don’t have the confidence or emotional capacity to continuously apply for grants, or the resources needed to go through with post-secondary education and graduate school, the challenge to rise in the literary industry is insurmountable. They are left with only their community to lean on, if they’re even lucky to have that. Furthermore, so many of those writers have had to remove themselves from their communities because of racism, transphobia, and sexual violence, because of threats to their survival.
What I’m trying to say is that there are barriers to entry in this industry that are deeply unjust, barriers that make it merely impossible for the most vulnerable in our society to break through. And what I’ve spent my time thinking about during my break from writing is: How do we create a world outside of our literary bubble that supports, holds and genuinely cares for its poets, regardless of their affluence? How do we create a new industry that truly embodies genuine change?
We have fed our hope into a system that doesn’t even believe in us. No wonder we’re exhausted! Not only are we writers trying to survive in 2020, we are poets trying to survive in 2020.
In 2014, I endeavoured to fill a hole I perceived in Canadian literary publishing and established Metatron Press—an alternative, independent publishing house that prints and promotes debut books by young writers. My feeling was that if the industry (indies included) weren’t going to support my work (they weren’t) I would support it myself, and bring as many others along as possible.
Early on it was clear to me that what I was trying to create, outside of physical publications, was an inclusive and colourful community, one that I did not perceive to have existed at the time. A local and digital community that would come together to shine light on new voices, stories, perspectives and visions for the future. The things I found myself doing for others were things I wished someone had done for me when I was young. And while Metatron has been—I believe—a positive force, a launchpad for 40 (and counting) writers as well as 500 others whose work we have supported via our various channels and projects, what I’ve learned about how things work from the publishing end is that the mountain I thought I was climbing is actually a hundred times its size. The resources needed to build something truly sustainable and great can feel truly impossible.
The industry, too, benefits those big presses with affluence. It takes money to access money. In order to access financial support you need to earn a certain amount of money in publishing. And when you’re working with new, diverse voices, these sales goals can be painfully difficult. Even if a new press is doing something good and different, someone else with more power and more money can easily swoop in and take that very thing away, and claim that innovation as their own.
Over the years I’ve witnessed my peers persevere and use their local communities and the Internet to build their own worlds to live in. I’ve witnessed them build networks of support and visibility with literally nothing but devotion, passion and a lust for communities of care. They’ve started their own magazines (mostly digital) that feature new voices, ones we haven’t heard before (LESTE, Peach Mag, Cosmonauts Avenue, Theta Wave, b l u s h, and many now-defunct platforms come to mind). They’ve held free literary events and affordable workshops in offbeat spaces and online, and attended each other’s living room readings. They’ve published each other’s first zines and books. Offered to blurb to one another. Attended each other’s launches. They’ve reviewed each other’s work. Bought each other’s books (trading the same $15 back and forth). Translated each other. Used their platforms to uplift each other’s work.
We are connected not necessarily through physicality—though some of us are—but through networks of care and attention. We engage with each other’s work. We believe in one another, even if no one else does. We use our poetry as a force of good. Right now, many poets I know are taking part in digital readings as a means to raise funds for various communities affected by the pandemic, especially Black and Indigenous communities, as the collective fight against police brutality and systemic racism continues. Most of the poets I know are fighting at the frontlines of racial justice and prison abolition, using whatever means they have to raise awareness and donate to various causes.
We’ve done everything we can to keep each other and each other’s work alive, and that work is the only meaningful work I feel connected to. Because it’s these acts that have made me realize that we’ve created a culture outside of the industry and capitalist consumerism. We’ve created a whole little microcosm within the macrocosm, establishing our own rules, our own ethics, our own expectations.
Perhaps this is the point: poetry allows us space to believe in one another and lift each other up. This culture we are creating, it’s something worth believing in.
But outside of our echo chamber, this little non-sustainable utopia we’ve worked so hard to build, our work goes unnoticed by those with power in the industry, those with the power to pay us, to elevate us. Or, they steal our ideas, decorate themselves in our culture. Or, they steal members of our community. They give that person money and power, and they become unrelatable to us. I know, it’s a jaded thing to talk about poetry within capitalism. Capitalism makes it difficult to talk about anything with a soul! Poets, we know this.
Sometimes my devotion to poetry has made me feel like I’m plagued by a wound. This love and reverence for the wor(l)d is heavy to hold. Because poetry has failed to keep me safe in this world. Poetry has failed to keep me fed or housed. It has been, for the most part, completely unproductive and unprofitable. It is thankless labour. Being someone devoted to this art constantly makes you feel useless. It’s hard to explain. So, why even bother?
I bother because I feel closer to my soul when I write. And when I read, I feel closer to other people’s souls. And the truth is that Ambient Technology was the straw I used to extract hope from the poison in my life. It’s the medicine I used to heal my broken heart, to teach myself I was capable of loving again. It doesn’t really matter how well it did because, well, it helped me survive.
I’ve realized that the role of the writer is not just to write—but to make this world more livable for ourselves and for each other. It’s our job to extract hope from the poison. To keep going, even if we feel we can’t.
When you read a piece of someone’s writing, you are giving someone the opportunity to be heard. You are extending your attention to those outside of your existence. And with each act of care and attention, we are building a new world together, one gesture at a time.
In closing, I want to express my pure gratitude and admiration to my poet friends for being the most resilient people I know. Those who have taught me more than any university class ever could. Those who write because it matters to them. Who write without expectation of praise or awards. Who write without grants or residencies, without community. Who do it because they are moved to express something about themselves, because if they weren’t writing their souls would grow old, tired and disenchanted by this world, because it’s their only way to hope. Thank you to my small and mighty community, for making the pain of being human more comfortable. For teaching me. For speaking. For listening.
I want you to know, if you’re dissuaded to keep going, you’re not alone.
I wanted to write about holding space for writers in our society. About how we can better support one another, outside of success. How we can hold each other and raise each other up, keep each other safe. But for some of us, we are already trying to do that. I know we will continue to find small yet mighty ways to help each other persevere, and that we will continue to extract the poison from this industry, this world.
I hope that we can always find ways to return to hope, even when it’s seemingly impossible. Because the truth is that when I set my mind away from any ideals of “literary success” and instead focus on the value in making connections with real people, carving out conscious community with poets and people who are thinking and feeling with intentionality, who are all doing their part to make the world a little bit better in every moment, making use of the limited resources they have to bring temporary but long-lasting moments of change, joy and togetherness—it’s worth it. It’s each and everyone’s honest and devoted contribution to creating community and visibility for each other that matters, that makes this vocation worth the fight; that makes life on the fringes of the literary industry a place worthy of being.
There is no worldly compensation for the type of luminous labour that goes into a life devoted to poetry.
On day XX of my quarantine I wake up, slip into a white robe, make myself a coffee, and join a Zoom reading organized by Ivanna Baranova, a fellow Latinx Metatron author, in Brooklyn, the epicentre of the COVID-19 crisis in the United States. For an hour and a half on that day I tuned into the Internet to hear some friends, peers and strangers read the letters of Rainer Maria Rilke found in Letters to a Young Poet. It’s the most meaningful thing I’ve done all month. I forget we are living in the midst of a pandemic. This section resonates with me:
There is only one way: Go within. Search for the cause, find the impetus that bids you write. Put it to this test: Does it stretch out its roots in the deepest place of your heart? Can you avow that you would die if you were forbidden to write? Above all, in the most silent hour of your night, ask yourself this: Must I write? Dig deep into yourself for a true answer. And if it should ring its assent, if you can confidently meet this serious question with a simple, ‘I must,’ then build your life upon it. It has become your necessity. Your life, in even the most mundane and least significant hour, must become a sign, a testimony to this urge.Rainer Maria Rilke
The thing with poets is that they aren’t just poets. Hardly any of us are sustained by the creative work we do, nor have the time we desire to fill with writing. Hardly any of us feel seen, feel heard.
Poets are grocery store workers, world-builders, whistleblowers. They are dreamers. They are bedridden. They are caregivers, teachers. They are raising gardens, caring for traumatized animals, children, the elderly. They are advocates for social justice. They are visionaries. They are raising money for and awareness about worthy causes. They are speaking out. They are rebellious. They are talking about things we’ve never talked about before. They are calling people out and in and caring for those that have been hurt. They are flawed like everyone else. They are holding themselves accountable. They are reading poetry to strangers on the Internet. They are dreaming up a new way of living and being in the world, one that doesn’t reduce us down to flattened versions of ourselves. We are many things, all coming together under the hopeful canopy of poetry.
And through this shared love, we have been building a new world together, one gesture at a time. Even if it’s just in our minds. Even if no one notices. Even if no one listens or pays us. Even if it feels like the world is ending before we’ve even had a chance to start. Even if we think we can give up.
ASHLEY OBSCURA (B. 1988) IS A MEXICAN-CANADIAN, MULTI-DISCIPLINARY WRITER AND PUBLISHER WHOSE WORK SPANS VARIOUS MEDIA TO EXPLORE AND ILLUSTRATE THE POWER OF THE TECHNOLOGY OF LOVE AND CONNECTION. RECENTLY, HER CREATIVE FOCUS HAS BEEN ON NEW MEDIA POETICS AND INTERACTIVE NARRATIVE, WRITING FOR THE VIDEO GAME SONGS OF THE LOST AND THE VIRTUAL REALITY EXPERIENCE MUSEUM OF SYMMETRY (NATIONAL FILM BOARD OF CANADA), WHICH WON MULTIPLE AWARDS INCLUDING THE CANADIAN SCREEN AWARD FOR BEST VIRTUAL REALITY GAME IN 2019 FOR ITS EXCELLENCE IN DIGITAL STORYTELLING. A GRADUATE OF CONCORDIA UNIVERSITY’S CREATIVE AND PROFESSIONAL WRITING PROGRAMS, SHE HAS PUBLISHED TWO POETRY COLLECTIONS: AMBIENT TECHNOLOGY (METATRON, 2018) AND I AM HERE (METATRON, 2014). OBSCURA’S POETRY HAS BEEN TRANSLATED, ANTHOLOGIZED AND PUBLISHED IN CANADA, THE UNITED STATES, MEXICO, ARGENTINA, PERU, SPAIN, ROMANIA AND GERMANY. IN ADDITION TO HER CREATIVE WORK, OBSCURA IS THE FOUNDER AND MANAGING EDITOR OF METATRON PRESS, A LITERARY PUBLISHER AND INNOVATIVE INCUBATOR FOR YOUNG POETS