So, as a result of my work translating classical Iranian poetry, I’ve come up with this idea for a book that I think can make a real contribution to how we understand not just the historical relationship between, but also the cultural interconnectedness of, Iran/Islam and the West. I intend, as the title of this post announces, to blog my writing of the book proposal, but I want here, first, to talk about why, instead of getting down to work, I have been putting this off and putting this off and putting this off. Indeed, even though I’ve been thinking about this project since way back in March or April, it’s taken me nearly eight months to begin in earnest. I tell myself it’s because I’ve been busy, and I have been, but that’s only a partial explanation, because it’s not so much that I haven’t had time to do this work. It’s that I haven’t felt like I’ve had the time. What it all comes down to, I realized the other day, is a lack of perspective and an overwhelming fear of commitment.
In other words, while it’s true that my personal and professional lives have demanded a lot of attention lately — mostly for good reasons, thankfully — it’s not true that they’ve left me no time to work on this project. It’s more that every time I thinking about starting, I end up worrying about my other, in-progress projects — ones that are not so much closer to my heart as they are of longer, unfinished standing; and thinking about setting them aside (which working on this book proposal will require) makes me feel like I’m giving up on them, and that makes me feel like a failure.
I’ve been writing about feminism and its impact on my life — this is what these other projects are about — for more than twenty years. In the 1990s, I wrote a good 150 – 200 pages worth of personal essays on manhood and masculinity. Then I wrote a book proposal, landing an agent who worked very hard for one year before she had to give the project up as unsellable. (The link in that sentence takes you to a post I wrote about that experience.) For reasons that are not relevant here, I put that book aside in the mid-to-late 1990s, but I have recently started writing new essays on the same topic, and I’m starting to feel about them the same energy that I felt twenty years ago. I still want to write this book.
These new essays, however, are nowhere near the point where thinking about a book even begins to make sense, and therein lies the problem. Even now, I carry with me some of the disappointment from not getting published the first time around, and I am very away that much of what I wrote back then is dated, both because our society’s conversation about men and masculinity has moved and because I am now, nearly two decades later, a very different man. I’m afraid that if I let this new masculinity-and-manhood material languish while I work on a book proposal about classical Iranian poetry, I will be that much further behind the times and the book I couldn’t publish twenty years ago will never even get written.
There are, however, very good, practical reasons for making the manhood-and-masculinity project a secondary priority and turning my attention to — this is my working title—Benjamin Franklin’s Persian Parable: How a poem about religious tolerance from 13th Iran became Franklin’s “Parable Against Persecution” and why that still matters today. It’s quite a mouthful, I know, and I will write more about how I came up with it in a later post. For now, I just want to point out that it connects a whole bunch of ideas that have a lot of currency in the present moment, both because Iran is, and is likely to be for some time, so much in the news and because our popular stereotypes of Muslims and their faith would seem to suggest that the story hinted at in my title is not even possible. The time, in other words, feels right for a book like this one.
More personally, I have earned through my translation work at least a small bit of recognized authority on which I might be able to capitalize, not just in getting this book published, but also in promoting it. Here too, though, I run into the problem of time. Capitalizing on that reputation, however minor it might be, requires putting myself out there — giving readings and talks, delivering conference papers and writing blog posts, meeting the people who might one day buy this book — which means having even less time to give to my other project. Which only serves to feed my feelings of failure even further. Which is why I’ve been having a hard time committing myself to Benjamin Franklin’s Persian Parable. Because that sense of failure makes working on it feel like a consolation prize, a backup plan, something to do because I’m just not good enough to do what I really want to do, and who likes to settle for second best?
What I realized the other day, though, is that this sense of failure is borne of a lack of perspective. I have been thinking of my manhood-and-masculinity work only in terms of the essays that might one day become a book. I have been neglecting entirely developments around my poetry, which deals with the same issues. These developments include the fact that I am in the process of submitting my second book of poems, Words for What Those Men Have Done, to publishers; that I will be chairing a seminar on creative writing and gender at the Northeast Modern Language Association’s (NeMLA) annual conference next year; that I will be leading a workshop at the Split This Rock conference, also next year, for poets who want to write, autobiographically or otherwise, about sex; that, just today, on the basis of a poem I recently published called, “For My Son, A Kind of Prayer,” — the poem is on page 28 – I received an email from the director of the Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities at Stony Brook University, inviting me to give a reading. That work, in other words, has been anything but a failure.
Looked at from this perspective, I see no reason why I can’t commit myself to writing the proposal for Benjamin Franklin’s Persian Parable. Indeed, I am looking forward to telling you about what I’ve accomplished so far — my working title and my “selling handle” — in the next post.