In the democratic institutions of literary journals and open mics, reputation is not supposed to matter. A poet is only ever as good as her last poem, and everyone recognizes this. Such nice ideas. So untrue.
Reputation, like trust, is earned through experience. Observing myself at an open mic reading, I notice my attention ebb and flow. When a poet who has built some reputation with me takes to the microphone, I relax a little. I give them a bit more of my attention. I perk up. I take notice. I listen. As open-minded as I try to be, new faces have to earn my trust.
Poetry is a profoundly intimate art. We demand the full attention of our listeners on something as complex and undecorated as words. No backing music, no other channel to flip to while the commercials are on. We make every word tell because it has to–because with a captive audience comes a lot of responsibility. Just calling a piece of writing a poem ups the ante considerably on both sides.
When a poet I really trust and whose work I really admire starts reading their poems, I take off my skin. I turn up my antennae. And if in that fully exposed state they take advantage of me or worse just let words fall flat, I go away almost wounded. The dial drops a notch on how much I can trust them with my most vulnerable self, the rare and precious commodity of my full attention. This constant unconscious fiddling with rating knobs in our psyche is reputation.
It matters because with so many poems and poets nowadays, all of us seeking the ones we can trust to deliver great art–and all with very different criteria for what that means–an individual accounting of reputation is the only way we can justify letting our attention ride on new poets and poems. Our audience-minds, like professional gamblers, lay down chips, see what happens, and adjust. Of course we’re all rooting for the long-shot, the underdog–because it is also in our nature. In the end, though, we have to feed our creative selves from our winnings–and reputation makes all that possible.