Michael Spence discusses perseverance throughout his career and the success it brought him, and ultimately what he learned from Carol Channing. He last appeared in the North American Review with his poem “Consensus” in issue 298.2, Spring 2013. He also discusses “Consensus” in an earlier post.
Carol Channing was not an actress I ever paid much attention to. I knew her name and that she’d been in some well-known shows and films, but I never would’ve thought she’d have made any comment that would mean much to me. As with many other things in my life, I was wrong. One day she appeared on a TV talk show and was asked, in the face of constant rejection and difficulty getting her career going in her early days, how she found the strength to keep going. As I recall it, she said, “You just keep trying and trying and trying, and finally, fate gives up.” That’s a great, funny way to phrase it, implying that whatever forces may seem aligned against one’s efforts at least can be worn down enough to allow a victory now and then.
I recently had my own Carol Channing moment in the world of poetry book contests. Like many of us, I’d dutifully sent my manuscripts to competitions large and small. For three decades I tried contests from the Walt Whitman Award to lesser-known ones sponsored by presses that now, alas, have vanished or ceased publishing poetry. I was fortunate enough occasionally to get a kind comment or two from the judges, and I even “finalized” (as novelist and short-story writer Marjorie Kemper put it) a few times through the years. But I could never get the last nod needed to actually win such a contest and get a volume of poems published that way. Though I kept on sending manuscripts out, fate showed no sign I could see of giving up, so I came to the conclusion that such a win just wasn’t in the deck of cards I was playing with. Mathematically of course, it’s always the case that the odds are tiny that a particular person will win: There are hundreds or thousands of manuscripts being submitted, and only one is selected. Still, we keep trying, because maybe…
So I was, as I like to now joke, completely floored and walled and ceilinged when I learned that the manuscript of my fifth book of poems, Umbilical, had been selected this January as the winner of The New Criterion Poetry Prize. I kept reading and re-reading the email telling me this, certain that the words would morph into the this-came-close/thanks-anyway comments I’d been “trained” by all these years to expect. The volume is slated to appear this fall from St. Augustine’s Press.
All of which is to say that, if you believe in your work—even if you don’t necessarily believe the outside world will favor it—you have to keep on trying. Fate is so fickle a thing, you can never tell when it will finally give up.
Michael Spence retired on Valentine’s Day, 2014 from thirty years of driving public transit buses in the Seattle area. His poems have appeared recently in The Hudson Review, Measure, The New Criterion, The Sewanee Review, Shenandoah, and Tar River Poetry. New work is forthcoming in The Hudson Review, The Sewanee Review, and Southwest Review. His fourth book, The Bus Driver’s Threnody, was released last September by Truman State University Press. (The Spring 2015 issue of The Hudson Review includes a quite complimentary review of Threnody.) He was awarded a 2014 Literary Fellowship from Artist Trust of Washington State. His fifth book, Umbilical, is slated to be published this fall by St. Augustine’s Press as the winner of The New Criterion Poetry Prize.