Several months ago I read a column in Poets & Writers magazine about the bounds of realistic ambition for a writer, or more specifically, for a poet. The writer of the column made a point I make a lot — how many people have ever heard of those we poets consider famous? Almost no one. This was made very real for me recently when Sharon Olds, a neighbor of sorts, won the Pulitzer Prize, after winning the T. S. Eliot prize a few months before, and the local daily paper made a big deal about it, as they should. But a friend who is deeply involved in and interested in the arts had never heard of her. Really? Yes, really.
As a poet I’m used to a small audience, both at poetry readings, and in terms of readers. Even widely published and celebrated poets have a very small audience in our current culture. If you touch one person with a poem, the column author I read several months ago asserted, count that as a real success.
I’ve been back out in the world with The Truth About Death, giving readings, one of which was in far northern Vermont, at the Galaxy Bookshop in Hardwick, Vermont, The Town That Food Saved. (It’s a very groovy little town, at the epicenter of Vermont’s grow local, eat local food movement.) The local weekly paper had requested a review copy of the book, so I sent one off. I was delighted by the review one of the staff wrote. “Most people would not be excited to pick up this book,” the writer begins. “Such a depressing subject, what can she say? But this book is so well crafted, the poems so tight and intimate, that it is exciting to read.” Not only did the reviewer praise the book, she got it. “Some of the poems are elegies to lost love, but many are fierce as the author courageously faces a new reality, a world without a part of her soul.”
As happy as this review made me, I was even happier when the editor of the Hardwick Gazette came to the reading and immediately approached me. I thanked him for printing the review. “I read the book too,” he said. “I lost my wife two years ago, and your book really spoke to me. I’m buying one for a friend who lost her husband last year.” After the reading a woman bought a copy to donate to the local hospice program.
Yesterday I did another reading and again sold a few books, one to a woman who is giving it to her friend whose son died several years ago. Two readings in two weeks, a total of 20 people at the readings and 10 books sold. Not very big numbers. But in those numbers is one man who was truly touched by the book, and hopefully at least a couple others who’ll see something of their own grief journey in mine, and realize that there is a way to navigate that difficult path. That’s what counts.