If I had a nickel for every word I wrote…
Child, it’s a lot of nickels. You don’t even know. Enough nickels to make heaping cartoonish mountains of currency in unfathomably large caverns. It looks like glitter. Dunes of disco ball bits. Enough nickels to bedazzle all the cars in a parking garage. Enough nickels to pave Main Street with a wash of silver. To gut every vending machine in the tri-county area with the flickering knife of “ka-plink, ka-plink, ka-plink” through the heart of the coin slot. From mighty coin purse. From mighty thumbs. Nickels: the skittering buttons. Like fish scales.
Nickels: the coin. Like hard circles of thinly compressed base metals that I haven’t legitimately used in years. Like child-choking-hazard. Like clutter-the-desk. Like lost-and-no-one-noticed.
Nickels: like words.
I am useful in that I have a mildly apparent talent for rearranging marks on a page that you will read and enjoy. People call these sentences. I call playing with them “writing”. It’s important that I do this kind of useful because many of my fellow humans get lost in language, unwilling to walk hand-in-hand with vocabulary or to wag the jaunty tail of the semi-colon. You need me because I’m a young millennial, and yet I usefully (arrogantly?) still know the subtleties of English syntax. Let’s practice:
I write because it’s what I enjoy doing with you, for you, in you, around you, obnoxiously; I write obnoxiously because it’s for me. Is me. I love it. Obnoxiously.
I write because I am useless. And I make a lot of useless every day. Sometimes the useless happens on a napkin. Or in a drafted text message on my phone. Punched out on a keyboard. On a legal pad – I don’t like notebooks. It happens here an awful lot. Sometimes it never leaves my head. Sometimes the useless seems so much of Not Important.
This has nothing to do with Jeffrey Skinner. Or his accomplishments in poetry. Or his book. Wait. That last one is a lie. This has everything to do with his book. Here: The 6.5 Practices of Moderately Successful Poets. He wrote it. I read it. I finished it on Monday. This has everything to do with me and Jeffrey Skinner and his book, and me sitting in various chairs around town while reading his book and suddenly feeling relief that my uselessness is not lonely in this world.
Listen: There are, in fact, 6.5 practices outlined in 6.5 Practices. I’m not going to name them here. That’s cheating. Go read the book. The bullet points are not actually important here, anyway. The music is in the meat. And that, in my opinion, is the shining beacon of the book.
The 6.5 Practices of Moderately Successful Poets is marketed on the cover as a “Self-Help Memoir”, and this is accurate. Young writers anticipating a cool cocktail of helpful tips to improve writing – or just to improve and to write at maybe the same time – will find those tidbits mixed in with the flavor of Skinner’s experiences both as a poet and as a human being. It’s approachable; it’s candid and fully reflective of the title. I book-marked the pages with writing prompts and tricks because they are excellent and will be of good Help to my Self. But Skinner is doing a lot more than simply giving advice or waxing auto-biographical with dry humor.
The 6.5 Practices of Moderately Successful Poets is a love letter to bubble-headed youngins’ who have had the misfortune to be “struck on the head by the poetry brick” but were not actually killed in the process. Skinner offers solace to aspiring writers in the form of himself.
Jeffrey Skinner calls himself “Moderately Successful”. I disagree. I think Moderately is a stupid word choice. I am criticizing this. But before I waste obscene paragraphs describing “Success-isn’t-monetary” and “Stephanie Meyer-has-notoriety-but-no-True-Success”, let me continue to be really real with the literary journalism momentum.
I believe Skinner is a Successful and not a Moderately Successful because someone has given him nickels for his words. Enough nickels that The 6.5 Practices of Moderately Successful Poets: A Self-Help Memoir was published – a book that amounts to a plethora of golden kinship disguised as equally golden rambling and silliness. These are not base metals.
6.5 Practices is a book that calls to attention the ways in which all the young and (moderately-narcissistic) literary dreamers of this world can pursue a love of words – and find solace. And maybe be Moderately Successful. Or not. That’s the beauty of it: writing is hard, and Skinner presents his Moderately Difficult life experiences here – like so much the master Jedi – in a package for the young poet to devour and feel relief. Skinner writes a manifesto that does not mince words, but still promises the possibility that – success or failure, either way – a human being in love with writing can come out on the other side still loving the pursuit of pursuing a love of words.
I appreciate Skinner’s black humor. I appreciate the moments I spent laughing like a buffoon while my young ego warmly commiserated through “Introduction to the Preface”, “Preface” and “Introduction”. Skinner describes the Modern Poet: the insecure, sheepish and normal-looking creature that drives a Toyota and eats ethnic food while fondly waiting for their names to be written in the stars. Or for nickels. Or both.
Skinner recounts his blue collar childhood in Levittown, Long Island, New York, and the seeds of shyness, solitary reading and work as a Private Eye that laid his life’s foundation. Skinner said “I love you” to me, his reader. These moments all happened before the pages that get real numbers. Before The 6.5 Practices of Moderately Successful Poets even takes wing in the first chapter.
It sounds like a mess. But it’s not. It’s the perfect chaos of a writer who has learned to tame the stampede of a lyric worldview and mold it into an epistle that is engaging, honest and informative. It’s a “Self-Help Memoir”. And it seems effortless. The words of advice, anecdote and humor just fall out of him.
Listen: do you remember the first time you found a mirror in the world? Allow me to refine this. Do you remember the first time you emotionally/mentally/psychotically bumped into something on this planet and saw a perfectly-formed replica of Yourself? Saw the place that had a spot shaped like You? A place for You? This is The Calling. It’s a thing. It wears a lot of hats.
Skinner found his, and wrote this book – as well as a lot of poetry.
I found mine when I was six. When I wrote 52-or-something installments of The Adventures of Mr. Friend and made an encyclopedic flurry of computer paper and staple-bound perfection with a mechanical pencil. I wrote life. I sculpted human experience – however basic and linear and predictable – out of my batty little head and found the first wee dots of that darkly sparkling Rush Of Words that now makes me talk to myself at 2am and spill my head all over the place using the alphabet. The Rush that Skinner describes, and understands and encourages in young writers who want to be Professionally Useless.
I was six when I first wrote. And it was useless, and it was perfect, and I don’t know that I’ve written anything better.
The 6.5 Practices of Moderately Successful Poets is published by Sarabande Books  and is available at a number of fine independent booksellers (Amazon.com too, but you know better). I bought mine at Carmichael’s Bookstore  for $15.95.
Jeffrey Skinner is the author of five books of poetry, most recently 2005’s Salt Water Amnesia, and has published work in The New Yorker, Poetry, BOMB, The Atlantic, The Nation, The American Poetry Review and The Paris Review. Skinner also audited my Intermediate Creative Fiction class last semester on the day we workshopped MY story, and I almost died, thank you very much.