Hayan Charara essay, view from Astoria of NYC Skyline

At the first poetry reading I attended, at a bar in Detroit, I heard a poet introduce himself by summing up his disillusionment with a life in poetry: “I was under the impression there’d be more women.” Everyone laughed at the joke, even the women listening.          

What did I expect out of poetry?

I hardly knew how to write a poem, much less what poems would do for me—if anything at all—after writing them. I definitely did not anticipate more dates with women. Admitting that I was a poet seemed to produce the opposite effect. On the few dates I went on in my early 20s, the answer “I write poetry” to the question “What do you?” was usually followed by “Are you gay?”

“Do you think all poets are gay?”

“No, but you also dress nice.”

“Do you think all well-dressed poets are gay?”

“But you’re also neat.”

“Do you think...?”

This could’ve gone on forever, but fortunately the date ended early.

While I never made an actual, physical list, I did imagine the things to come from a poetic life. As a very young poet, for some reason—perhaps immaturity, or lack of experience in life—I thought that “making it” would mean ending up living and working in New York City where, by pure osmosis, I suppose, the city would allow me to write my best poems.

At this time in my life, I’d only been to New York once before, when I was thirteen. I hadn’t lived on my own yet, either, and I didn’t have a job or a reason (like graduate school) to go. I did, however, have an image in mind (the poet in the city) and an uncle who lived there and who offered to let me stay in his apartment until I found a job and could move out on my own. I remember thinking to myself: How hard could it be to find a decent, affordable apartment in New York City?

I packed my clothes into a suitcase, and eleven hours, two packs of cigarettes, and a handful of truck-stop coffees later I crossed the George Washington Bridge into Manhattan.

My uncle didn’t live in the city, though. To reach his apartment, I had to cross over another bridge, the Queensborough, into Astoria, Queens, a predominantly working class neighborhood off the N-line with a lot of Greek diners and coffee houses and a Laundromat on every block. I knew he lived in a one-bedroom apartment. No big deal, I could still see the Manhattan skyline from the streets of Astoria. What I didn’t know, and what I discovered when he opened the door to let me in: he shared the one-bedroom with four other men, all of them come from the Middle East and working in the United States on temporary visas—everyday they headed out, on foot, to sell sweatshirts and jeans out of suitcases to patrons at bars, strip clubs, and beauty salons. Come nighttime, after sorting through their wares for the next day, and counting their cash, they turned the “living room” into a makeshift bedroom. Fortunately, my uncle let me share the bedroom with him.

The men argued all the time, usually over politics and religion. They often yelled at each other, they nearly came to blows a few times, and one night the oldest among them slapped the youngest across the face for insulting his country. Though they never picked a fight with me—and never carried on a conversation about politics or religion with me—they would repeatedly ask, every single one of them, how on earth did I expect to earn a living as a poet. I never had a good answer for them—or for myself.

The apartment was, in every other way, a shithole. It had a mouse problem. The floors had holes. The view outside the bedroom window was a brick wall; the view outside the kitchen was another brick wall. Several times a day, the bathtub would mysteriously fill up with black, grimy water—sometimes while I was in it. And the tenant across the hall, a single mother, screamed at her kids during the day, and at night she blared Wagner on her stereo.

I escaped to the city every chance I got. On the subway, I paid attention to the reading habits of other riders. If not a newspaper, they usually read novels, romances, biographies, self-improvement guides, and how-to-be-successful books. I don’t remember ever seeing anyone immersed in a poetry book. I also mostly read the paper, checking the job postings first, and then the news—both usually left me feeling less than optimistic.

I walked a lot, too, so much so I lost twenty pounds in the first couple months. I walked because taking the subway, though cheap, still cost money and I still hadn’t landed a job. I had been under the impression that, as a poet, I would easily find work editing or publishing—or at least in a bookstore. I did apply to dozens of jobs, but no one called back. So I walked. I walked past glitzy and famous restaurants and boutiques (did poets shop there?), and I walked past elegant brownstones and high-rises fronted by doormen (did poets live in them?), and I walked until I stopped paying attention to what surrounded me, until the point wasn’t what I walked past but just walking. And when walking became tiresome I sat on park benches, smoked cigarettes, and watched the pigeons peck at the ground (is this how other poets go crazy?)

To make ends meet, I borrowed money from my father, sold a few belongings, and racked up credit card debt. I did finally land a job: selling Christmas trees curbside on the Upper West Side. The question I got asked the most: “What kind of tree is that?” To which I always answered: “A Christmas tree.”

The second most commonly asked question I heard: “Do you speak English?” To which I always kept my mouth shut—until, on a cold, wet night, a beautiful couple wearing beautiful clothes asked me the question and I responded by telling them I was a poet.

“In what language?”

“English, in fucking English.”

To which they responded: “Just sell us a tree, okay.”  

Then I went home, to Queens, where I was greeted in the hallway to the worst music ever made, and, opening the door to my apartment, to half a dozen men snoring loudly.

On top of everything, I hadn’t written a poem in months. And nobody gave a shit.

So I gave up on making it as a poet in the city. Unable to stomach another week of Wagner or fights about God or to be questioned about my ability to speak the language, I packed up and moved back to Detroit.

After some wound licking, I took a hard look at the mirror that failure set before my eyes: it revealed my limitations to me; it exposed me to myself in ways I hadn’t been accustomed to or prepared for; it brought me around to an alternative understanding about “making it.” Soon enough, I accepted that “making it” had less to do with concrete goals than with being able to live with goals (achieved or not) meaningfully and with dignity, and I began to regard “making it” not as the end-point of a pursuit, but the pursuit itself—a journey, one of many, and not the destination.

Regardless of what “making it” means to you (fame, fortune, respect and admiration, friendships, relationships you cherish, a job you enjoy, a good night’s sleep), there is no escaping failure. At least this is what I’ve come to believe—you can believe anything you like—I’m sticking with this. Failure is one of those experiences that define what it means to be human—and making poems is, for me, for some of us, our daily, defining human practice. Ultimately, for me, at least, this is what poems are about: going through something (an experience, an idea, or language itself) with the goal of sense making, of understanding—even if I fall short of the goal, if I fail—it’s the journey there that matters.

I did go back to New York, and the second time around I made it a bit longer. It wasn’t easy—it was barely easier, actually, but I managed much better. I’m convinced that I made it (through) because I had gained just enough knowledge about myself to “revise” my sense of self. And while I didn’t write much poetry when I first tried making it in New York, I learned a lot about being a poet, and as a result I changed. The first time around I had been under the impression that “making it” meant checking items off a list: publishing in this and that journal, winning a book prize, receiving prestigious awards, and being able to claim, somehow, that my work had influenced others, or even better, the ultimate marker of having made it: the certainty (somehow, impossibly) that when I was no longer around to do anything about it I would still be read, deemed important, and remembered. These aren’t bad things, mind you, and I haven’t necessarily abandoned them, either. They remain, but not as expectations—they are, at best, hopes, but I no longer take them to be necessary milestones in a life of poetry. I don’t count on them to tell me whether or not I have made it. More than ever, even the idea of “making it” strikes me as not a poet’s job—it may make a difference in the short term, but in the long run, which is what ultimately matters, it is someone else’s concern. Let them worry about it.

Originally Published: March 12th, 2018

The son of Lebanese immigrants, Hayan Charara grew up in Detroit, Michigan. He earned a BA in English from Wayne State University, an MA in humanities from New York University, and a PhD in literature and creative writing from the University of Houston. He is the author of the poetry...