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.
Revise, revise, revise.
I don’t think people talk about revision enough. I certainly never used to revise, and it caught up to me. Whatever you create, right off the first go, is usually not a masterpiece. Some people say that the rawness of a first draft is indicative of its true power. Well, sure. But a poem is made of a few parts, one being heart and one being craft, I think.
What you write first is the heart of the poem. And then craft is where technique comes in. This is when you finesse it, color in the lines, rework language to better translate those initial emotions. Or erase it altogether (although I do recommend saving even your bad drafts as a starting poet).
That doesn’t mean improvisational performance poetry is bad, by the way. It’s just another world altogether. (One I can’t speak to.)
Make community. Listen, observe, critique, and be critiqued with grace.
A lot of people say that to become a “real poet,” you have to get an MFA or study English. That’s not true. There are many wonderful poets from all walks of life, and spending money on a degree doesn’t make you any more of a poet. It may present opportunities and community, but you can also find that in local community writing groups, by taking a class online, or by going to local literary readings.
If your city has a limited art scene, Facebook provides a good way to initially meet poets, too. Join groups, share your work and read others’. I would say my community has made me the writer I am today. I initially met them by going to local (free!) events and following their work. It doesn’t come easily, though; like friendship, it’s something you work at.
Try to get published, or don’t.
When you think you’ve reached a point where your poetry is impatiently waiting to get into the world, you can submit your work to different magazines, online blogs, or journals. Here’s a list and here’s another list of where to find journals. Make 100% sure you read the magazine’s “submissions” page and follow each rule correctly. Editors are not into submissions that don’t follow the rules! Don’t let that scare you, though — I’ve made my share of mistakes (like that time I called one editor another editors’ name — yikes).
But if you don’t want to publish your work, that’s OKAY, too. That doesn’t make you any less a poet. Print your poems out, make art with them, or keep them hidden away for yourself, as a talisman. Your words have power.
Create a space online for your poetry. Poetry is part business.
Now, if your goal is to publish your work and build a name for yourself, create an author website. Even if you don’t have anything published, build a quick site with a picture, your name (or pseudonym), and a bio about you. Need inspiration? Here’s my author website.
If you want, you can also google any of the poets you love. Chances are they have a website, too! Eventually, you may want to brand your social media to your poetry — you can share it, or simply list that you’re poet. Share other poems, tweet to other poets, and generally take part in the conversation.
Remember that poetry is not a competition or a race.
Write for you. Don’t worry about what other people think or do or win. Don’t rush your work; the best work comes naturally and is let into the world when it’s ready. Treat yourself and your work kindly.
Look at the little things in life. The seemingly mundane, the quiet, the shadow, the political, the self, the body, the belief, the disbelief, the beauty, the ugliness, the in-between, the death and the life — that’s where poetry hides. Always listen, always play, always touch, always question, always watch. Nothing is off-limits. Everything is yours.
Lastly, and most importantly, avoid cliché.
I mention this because I believe it is the poison of all good poetry. Perhaps cliché is subjective. Perhaps my last paragraph was a giant cliché. But please, poet, stray from Hallmark card language. Stray from the obvious. Stray from language you’ve heard before. Push yourself to use language in new ways, to express yourself with words that don’t come bundled together in a neat little package. You have millions of words (and millions more if you are bi or multilingual).