Poets are an odd, beautiful breed. Constantly observant and obsessed by details, we speak a language that can both transcend and tap into time and place.
My poetic life started before I was even born, I believe, but really I’ve been a working poet for about a decade. As a child, I’d notice things the other children didn’t; I saw the world as a place filled with secrets, in-between colors, textures, whispers, and hidden spaces. I could make a world out of the smallest moment. I still do. Being a poet feels like having two bodies — one in this world, and one in some other. Does this sound like you?
But is poetry even relevant? some ask. I say, who says poetry is dead? It has many different faces: academic and canonical, contemporary, conversational, amorphous and timeless. It’s even on the subway in New York City.
From Lana Del Rey’s breathy proclamation (“I once had dreams of becoming a beautiful poet”) and Beyonce’s Lemonade featuring the work of poet Warsan Shire, to the world created by the #PoetsofInstagram community, there is a place for poetry — and all its incarnations — everywhere.
There are so many different kinds and styles of poetry, and there are so many different ways to be a poet. And for the record, there are no rules. In fact, poets have a whole playground before them (life!).
Today, I have a few books, I publish widely, and I read to audiences several times per month. It’s amazing, beautiful, and nerve-wracking — and it came with a lot of work. To learn more, let’s talk about how to harness the poet’s life, whether you want to start publishing or simply write for yourself.
Read, read, read.
When I was in college, before I became serious about writing poetry, someone casually gave me Cesar Vallejo’s Spain, Take This Chalice From Me. I’d been exposed to tons of poets, but most were old white, English males. Not to mention (shhh) Jewel’s ’90s poetry collection.
Vallejo’s language struck something in me; it was colorful and intoxicating. I developed an intimate relationship with his work, and by doing so I realized that my knowledge of poetry was very limited.
So I read everything — the poets put before me in class; the literary journals sold at the bookstore; online literary magazines, both independent (check out Poets & Writers to find them) and institutional (like The Paris Review); and the beautiful books lining the shelves in the library. I didn’t like a lot of poetry that I felt I should (we won’t go into that here), but the point was that I took the time to understand its approach and technique, and that allowed me to think on how my own voice might sound.
Oh, and lot of the time, poets getting their wings emulate other poets’ work that they really like, and while that sounds like plagiarism, it’s not. It’s totally okay, and normal in the early beginning. Eventually, with enough writing and reading and listening to yourself, you will find authenticity and your own voice. I am always working on my own. But seriously: read. It’s not enough to write. Here are some poets I love.
Don’t listen to the rules. Reinvent them.
People say a lot of things about poetry. It should rhyme (nope, it definitely doesn’t need to!). It should be in couplets. In should be confessional. It should be political. It should be about nature. It should be written in high language. It should be formatted a certain way. It should have titles. It should be Instagrammable.
But do not be bound by these restricting ideas; poetry’s real power is found in its ability to morph and evolve. And while I prefer certain kinds of poetry to others, I will always defend a poet’s right to create the poem they want.
Create the poetry you want to read. There are no rules, and if someone tells you there are, they’re probably not evolving quickly enough.
Write, write, write.
But don’t write for an end-goal — write for you. There’s just no way to say this more clearly: A poet must write as much as they can. That doesn’t mean for hours a day, of course. What I do mean to say is that you must dedicate some of your time to the craft.
Writing is like the body; it has to be conditioned to grow and change. Your writing ritual depends entirely on you. But you will never be a better writer without writing — even if what you are writing is bad or you dislike it. You will write through the badness and into the good.
Eventually, through writing, you’ll discover what feels right and sounds like you, authentically. Don’t write for an end-goal (to get published, or to impress someone — although that never hurts). Write for you.