Friday, April 15, 2011

Advice to a Young Poet from a Not-So-Young-Anymore Poet

There’s been a rash of advice given the month. Jeannine Hall Gailey has an excellent post at her blog, with links to a few more. Here is mine. It’s not intended for poets who are mainly thinking of poetry as a hobby, although you might get something out of it if so. Mostly, I’m thinking of the YP (Young Poet) who wants morea “career.”

1.       Overcome the amateur circuit.

For some, cutting your teeth at the local open mic event is a catalyst. You wrote a few poems you were unsure anyone would like, you took a deep breath, read them to strangers, and yay! They loved them. They clapped for you. You got a high. You might get the same experience from posting your poem online somewhere, some site that has no editorial process. Anyone can post. Thousandsthousandsof people have clicked and rated your poem as wonderful. This gave you confidence, and you went on from there to pursue your poetry elsewhere.

For others, the amateur circuit of endless open mics and countless open sites is the death of their growth as a YP. You get hooked on the guaranteed praise, and you can’t give it up. You’re like that teacher’s pet at the end of kindergarten who pitched a fit because he wasn’t sure the first grade teacher would let him be the one who banged the erasers. Don’t stick around the amateur circuit too long. Get what you can from it as quickly as possible and get out, or bypass it altogether. Remember that the only place where everyone always does a good job and gets a cookie is kindergarten.

2.       Beware of sharks.

Your next logical step is seeking publication, and here is where there are millions of poetic equivalents to ambulance chasers waiting to pounce on your wallet. Beware of contests where everybody wins, or where there are many winners or too much prize money or washed-up, non-poetic celebrities involved. Investigate. Who is judging the contest, and what is his or her publishing pedigree? Is the contest affiliated with a reputable publisher or institution, such as a college or university? Fishing out a bogus contest can be very tricky. For one thing, none of them are actually illegal. There is indeed always a winner or winners, and these do get the promised prizes. But so do the people who win Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes, and you don’t fall for that, do you?

Similarly, there are many publishers who are eager to publish your manuscript, for a fee. In the past, this used to be called “vanity publishing,” and carried a heavy stigma. Nobody wanted to publish your poetry but you. Who was the fool? The editor who didn’t recognize your talent, or you, who didn’t recognize your lack of it? Now, that attitude is shifting. More people refer to this practice as “self-publishing,” and many fine writers in all genres are making it work for them. But they’ll be the first to tell you that it’s hard. You have to know about as much about business as you do about poetry to make it work, to get your book into the hands of readers and critics who will look beyond the self-published label and give you credit on par with that automatically conferred on writers who are published traditionally. Anyone who tells you different is trying to sell you something. I do not recommend self-publishing to the YP.

And no, you don’t need an agent. Most poets don’t have one, including fairly well-established poets with many publications. Only a tiny handful of poets already at the very top have agents.

Two organizations that can help you sift through the sharks are Poets & Writers and the CLMP, Council of Literary Magazines and Presses. They both keep directories of magazines, journals, publishers, and presses guaranteed to be the real thing. Frankly, however, you should not seek publication too early. It’s difficult to determine when your poetry is ready for publication, especially if you’re truly young, meaning still in high school or even earlier. You have no access to professional opinions. How far can you trust mom, the boyfriend, the BFF, or the teacher who is overjoyed by the mere fact that you wrote something that actually made sense? That’s how you wind up at an open mic, searching for that confirmation. Sometimes, you have to give it to yourself. When you can look at one of your poems side by side with one published in a book, journal, or magazine you know to be reputable and say, “by golly, that’s just as good!” you might be ready to send work out. But, in order to be able to make that judgment, you need to take another crucial step.

3.       Study.

What I mean by study is more than just reading for pleasure. You have to seek out good poetryit won’t come to you. It’s not taught enough in the schools, and you’re not going to find it on the magazine rack at the dentist’s, or even at most book stores. Go to Poets and Writers, the CLMP, to or Poetry Daily. Write down names, hunt down books and similar writers. Make a point of learning about different styles and schools, read criticism. Subscribe to a few journals. Make sure your reading list is over 75% current, living authors. Go to readings (not open mics), take a class. Ideally, go to college and major in English, but pick a school large enough to offer at least a few classes exclusively on current poetry. Many English departments are watered down to survey courses, or courses in the novel, or the Romantic poets, who are all long dead. I don’t like creative writing programs that are mostly workshops and require little literary study. Writing is both an art and a craft. You learn the craft part by practicing it in workshop, but you learn the art part by studying it in class.

Model the work of poets you admire. Don’t worry about originality, or losing your voice. That’s literally impossible. Eventually, all your mimicking will mesh and evolve into something uniquely your own. That’s how you learned to talk, remember? You listened to your parents, to the television, and suddenly you spoke, and sounded like no one but yourself.

4.       Cultivate both confidence and humility.

The whole point of overcoming the amateur circuit is to find feedback you can trust, and now that you are studying, whether on your own, through a group, or in a class, you are going to get some, maybe even in the form of a rejection from an editor. How do you process rejection?

There is no such thing as a writer who is immune to rejection. The trick is to get past the initial moment where you crumple up the slip and throw it at the wall (or print the rejection, and then crumple it up and throw it at the wall). To respond to it professionally, intellectually, critically. You must always ask yourself what the rejection or criticism means. Say you sent the poem to a journal and it got rejected. Maybe the poem sucks. That’s okay. Just because oneor ten, or twentyof your poems suck doesn’t mean all your poems suck or will suck. But that’s not the only reason why a poem might get rejected. Maybe it doesn’t fit the style of that journal, or that issue. Maybe there was already a poem about French toast they had agreed to publish. Have the confidence to believe not in your writing, but in your critical judgment, which you have struggled to cultivate. You once honestly believed the poem was good enough to send out. You are a well-educated critic. Why should someone else’s opinioneven an equally cultivated opinionchange your mind?

But you must also have humility, especially as a YP. Say you are in workshop, and someone says your poem is full of clichés. You didn’t think so. Well, who does? Has that person said intelligent things about other workshopped pieces? Have you agreed with his or her criticisms in the past? If the critic is just some schmuck who pooh-poohs everything, who cares? But if it’s someone who is a good criticnow that you’ve studied you know who is and who isn’tyou should have the humility to at least reevaluate your work. Perhaps there is something you missed. If all you will accept from others is praise, you might as well go back to kindergarten.

5.       Work for money.

This one’s tough. You need money. Duh. Don’t expect to make it writing poems. There is hardly a poet in the US (and I bet we’re not alone) who lives exclusively off book royalties. Heck, there are hardly any writers at all who do. But at least there are some, popular novelists who get their books turned into movies (when was the last time you saw a poem get turned into a movie?), or genre novelists, scriptwriters. Not poets. Go ahead, I dare you. Pick random poets off the database and see how many you can find whose bios don’t include some other job. Most are academics, professors here or there whose teaching pays the bills. They got the teaching job because of being poets, but they could not be poets without the teaching job. Some have any other job—they are lawyers, politicians, pool sharks, whatever. The more successful ones have grants and awards that pay the bills, not royalties. The even more successful ones make money giving speeches and whatnot.

So you need a job. What kind? You can be an academic. With a BA, you can teach school, or you can teach at a college or university with a graduate degree. For some, this is perfect, because the teaching feeds into the writing. For some, however, this is a bad idea. Teaching is hard work, and teaching writing or literaturethe obvious choicecan backfire. It can be sort of like taking someone who loves animals and making her work at a slaughterhouse. How excited will you be to teach poetry when the mere mention of it draws groans from a class full of students who don’t want to be there and hate poetry and writing, and, by extension, you? If this thought makes you love poetry more“I will fight to make them love it!” you thinkgo into teaching, at whatever level you prefer. But if you’re the type who gets spitting mad when you see a typo in a headline and thinks anyone who doesn’t know who Milton is should be exiled from the planet, look into that pool shark option. You want a job that will give you the money you need and, if not feed your creativity, at least not drain you of it.

People worry too much about the “should I get an MFA?” question. The value of an MFA in creative writing only comes into question comparatively, and the correct answer is always personal. Should I get an MFA, or an MBA? Should I get an MFA, or backpack through Europe? Should I get an MFA, or a husband? The answers to these questions have nothing to do with an MFA. These are personal happiness questions. Do you want money? Well, no teaching job is going to make you rich, MFA-related or otherwise. Do you want experience? An MFA will get you that, but so will backpacking nowhere and buckling down to read some good stuff on your own. I met my husband when I was getting my MFA, but I don’t know if this happens at all MFA programs.

The truth is an MFA is a fine degree. You will learn. I’ve heard some people claim that MFA programs teach everyone to write the same way. I think that has more to do with you and your propensity to be a lump of clay than it does with any program, however. But does it pay off, people ask. Sure. With an MFAand at least one book-length publicationyou can get a job at a college or university. Unlike the MA, which is really just a stop on the road to a PhD, an MFA is a terminal degree. If that is what you mean by whether it pays, the answer is yes. If what you want is some sort of comparison between an MFA and a law or medical degree, that’s pretty silly. No degree “pays,” in a sense. There is always a certain amount of luck involved in turning a piece of paper into a job, and huge discrepancies in wages not just between fields but within them. For every rich lawyer in a mansion there’s at least 100 traffic ticket lawyers living in a tiny apartment with a poet for a roommate. There are many schools now offering PhD’s in creative writing as well. These are great. You study more theory, usually, are more poet-critic than poet-writer. Get that too if you can swing it. Get it into your head that there is no such thing as useless studying.

6.       Work for poetry.

At the same time, do not allow your poetry to take a back seat to your work. Whether you choose to be an academic or an accountant, don’t forget the poetry. Know a distraction when you see one. You’re offered a great promotion, for example, but it’s one of those work-all-day-and-then-some-more-at-night-and-every-weekend promotions. Do you really need it? What will you do with the extra money? If it’s feed and clothe your five hungry, naked children, go ahead and take it, please. But if it’s get a better car, better clothes, or a bigger apartment, realize that you’re paying for it with poetry. Poets don’t drive nice cars, wear fancy clothes, or live in big apartments. That doesn’t mean you have to be a Starving Artist. It simply means you have other priorities. Most people won’t understand why you don’t have an iPhone, iPad, or iAnything. There is no iPoetry.

7.       Pursue publication diligently and meticulously.

Once you are ready to start publishing, always have something out. Don’t leave it for later, don’t wait until you have a full or a better manuscript, and don’t expect anyone else to do it for you. When the rejected stuff comes back, send it right back out again the very next week. Find a system that works and keep it. Send things out the minute they are done, once a day, week, or month. But do it regularlythis is what makes you a poet more so than any degree or even the writing itself. Get it out.

Target your publishing efforts, especially if you have your eye on your academic résumé. Don’t just send your work willy-nilly anywhere. Send to places you respect, and read. Match your poems to the target’s “voice.” Don’t just enter contests. A certain amount of these is fine for your best work, but you should also send poems and manuscripts during regular reading periods.

Keep good records. Find a way. There’s software for this, but you don’t really need it. You can devise your own system. You don’t want to send the same poem or manuscript to several places at once unless they strictly say that simultaneous submissions are okay. If they don’t say so, write, email, or call to ask. Don’t sweat the cover letter. Many places are using submission software now, and you submit your work online with hardly any space for extra comment (some have none at all). I don’t think a cover letter will make an editor look at your work any differently. What matters is the poetry. The cover letter is a business letter, not some cockamamie attempt to showcase your talent. That’s what the poetry is for. Tell them what you’re sending them in the first paragraph (just titles, not lengthy explanations), and who you are in the second: where you’re from, your last three publications if you have them, or where you’ve studied if you don’t, or nothing more if neither. Say thank you and give your contact information clearly. Anything else is unnecessary. Follow any rules they give you to the letter. If they want you to submit your work as a .txt file, don’t send them a .doc. If they want you to include a 50-word bio with your submission, don’t send them a 500-word opus.

Hmm. That seems like an odd last word, but it isn’t. At the end of the day, what YPs need is demystification. The truth about poetry is that it comes down to the mundane, as all things do. Nothing is exempt from the basics of life: work and pay the bills. Not even poetry. Perhaps a better final thought might be this: don’t romanticize the thing. If I tell you poetry is a matter of correctly formatted submissions and it makes you cringe, you might have too hard a road ahead. But if you read that and love the thing anyway, looked out the window at the cherry bush and thought, “I can turn that into a .txt file,” you might be a poet already.


  1. Thanks for the shout-out! Great post. Love Home Movies, too, esp. that episode.

  2. Home Movies is my favorite! When I become Queen of the Universe, I'll make everyone who wants to write watch every episode.

  3. Very interesting list here,
    I find it useful (I disqualify for the most of it).


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