"There should never be a time when an artist can say: I have done a good job and tomorrow is Sunday. As soon as you stop you must start again."
"The trick naturally is what Duncan learned years ago and tried to teach us—not to search for the perfect poem but to let your way of writing of the moment go along its own paths, explore and retreat but never be fully realized (confined) within the boundaries of one poem . . . he complicated things for us by saying that there is no such thing as good or bad poetry. There is—but not in relation to the single poem. There is really no single poem . . . Poems should echo and reecho against each other. They should create resonances. They cannot live alone any more than we can.”
--Jack Spicer, from Admonitions
And in his talk-poem “dialogue,” David Antin suggests that artists are not professionals. There is no such thing as a professional poet, he says; there are only amateurs. Antin points to the etymology of the word ‘amateur’—a term often used in the pejorative (he’s just an amateur)— to build his case. The word ‘amateur’ literally means one who loves something. At one time, Antin explains, an amateur was distinguished by his passion and knowledge for something. Exactly when and where this was I don’t know; but I like the idea. Amateurism was admired “because it was free and not contingent upon the circumstances or manner of reward” as professionalism was.
These ideas from Spicer, Picasso, and Antin, especially when taken together, push focus away from the product, off the trophy, and towards how to live, how to be. They suggest alternatives to what we know. And because often I feel pulled, forced even, in the other direction, toward the product—the fetishization of which represents a denial of life, as life is motion, moving, moving, while product after product is like stop sign after stop sign—I learn from these statements, which are acts of faith really (professions, in the old sense), again and again.
To be sure, I have at least one product fetish—the book. I love books, like to justify them as motion machines, caress them, hold them, smell them. No intentions here of giving them up. And I have my favorite shirts, too, and some other things. But if we can see these things we value, along with our reasons for valuing them, as parts of one piece, and that piece a moving thing we cannot measure, perhaps a larger book we cannot claim, while sometimes jumping haphazardly from the I to the We, then we might be okay, we might be good.
The real danger isn’t falling in love with objects, of course. It’s objectifying ourselves and each other. When I say I feel “forced toward the product,” I think not only of writing but, say, looking for a job in this culture in which teachers are simply cogs—professional cogs. Professionalism, when divorced from amateurism (as defined by Antin), is a practice of disconnect, a practice of the ‘single poem,’ if you will. Professionalism, as it’s commonly understood, underscores a certain distance from people that’s necessary if you want to climb a monetary ladder and earn respect from those above and below you; and professionalism commodifies people—a professional is a product, a saleable thing, and in a hyperconsumerist society it becomes possible to think of him or her as it. The term also serves as a class signifier, as in Condos Designed Exclusively for Young Professionals!! The professional is an attractive product; can’t say I’ve never been tempted.
This is not to say that people shouldn’t get paid to become expert at something. But your professionalism does no good, ultimately, if you abandon your amateurism—that is, your passion, which entails a willingness to sacrifice, to take risks for what you believe in and what you love.
As a teacher, I experience tensions between professionalism and amateurism every day (far more often than I do as a poet, since teaching is a job—I get paid for it—and besides, a professional poet is no poet at all). Sometimes I ditch my amateurism in favor of professionalism when it’s convenient to do so—if I’m having a bad day, for example, I might tell myself, well, at least I’m gettin paid. More often the challenge is finding the right level of formality in how I interact with my students; this varies from student to student and course to course, so sometimes I feel like a chameleon, which can be exhausting. But I know that over time I’ve become a better teacher by insisting on my amateurism—i.e., working on my own creative terms, as much as I can, for the sake of my students—not my professionalism, despite voices that say why bother, there’s no incentive, etc. To do good—a good that extends beyond oneself—requires a way of being that is not required to succeed as a Young Professional. This way of being is something I’m learning. I don’t expect the learning to end.