How to Become a Poet

Poetry is an ancient and well-respected art and writing form. It has been evolving through different forms and styles for centuries and has seen a variety of movements. Today, poets write in classic and modern styles, following rhyme or applying a more contemporary flow, and will normally include their reflections about their inner or outer world in their work.

Often seen as a romantic career, poetry can be a difficult field to make a living from. Most poets don’t only write poems as part of their career, but teach, write prose, get involved in workshops or with other events related to their craft – all in order to make a decent living. The benefit, however, is the fact that they are able to do what they love on a daily basis.

Unless you love poetry and creating it, this is probably not a career for you. If, on the other hand, this is your true passion, then pursuing this career can be extremely rewarding. It will allow you to dedicate yourself to something you enjoy and your career will not necessarily feel like a job, but a pleasant pass-time. Just be prepared to find other sources of financing besides the poetry itself.

Here is some more information about poetry and its forms.

WHAT THE EXPERTS ARE SAYING

Donald Dunbar

Poet

Quick Look Bio

  • Name:
  • Location:
  • Years in the Industry:
  • Twitter:
  • Donald Dunbar
  • Portland, OR
  • 14
  • @333uuu

Understanding My Career Path

  • I had no interest in poetry until I accidentally signed up for the only all-poetry introductory creative writing workshop my freshman year at the University of Wisconsin.
  • I barely squeaked through my undergraduate education, but ended up at University of Arizona for grad school, as grades don’t really factor in to acceptance decisions for most MFA programs.
  • The community that formed among my friends in grad school has really shaped my experience of the poetry world at large.
  • Getting to teach writing at Arizona was way helpful, not just because it’s an okay way to make money to support the bare essentials of life, but because in explaining my ideas of art to students I was forced to refine them further, and because I was forced to appreciate a wide range of approaches and aesthetics.
  • Similarly, I edited poetry for the Sonora Review while I was in school there, which gave me some understanding of the inner workings of a lit journal.
  • The most important step I took towards actually becoming a poet was taking some time away from the world after school. I went and lived in a cottage by myself for three months, during which I had to ask myself why I write, and what I want out of it.
  • After going broke trying to live in Europe, I moved to Portland and I started meeting poets around here, especially though If Not For Kidnap, a reading series I founded with a friend.
  • In Portland I’ve been involved with a number of projects and organizations; journals, reading series, arts coordination organizations, smaller events, etc.
  • Also, a huge step for my “career” was getting my book taken by a press that had published a bunch of books I love.
  • Since then, I’ve kept writing and publishing poems, I’ve started writing essays, and I’ve generally said yes to every non-exploitative query I’ve received. The work is for the most part completely enjoyable. It’s rare I get paid any meaningful amount for it, but doing stuff leads to more offers to do stuff, and at least until I’m providing for kids or something, the people I meet, the places I visit, and the fun I have writing are well worth the budgeting.

Recommended Organizations

The only organizations worth being a part of are things you can help run, things that are local, or things that give money away. The larger professional organizations can be cool if you’re in a city where they have a large footprint and are hosting events regularly, but otherwise your money would be better spent on a subscription to a press or a journal. For networking, nothing beats poetry readings, especially as they don’t feel like networking.

Advice

On whether or not he recommends a formal education
The MFA in Poetry is probably the best degree, provided the school will pay for it. If you’ve got few external obligations, and you’re not generally mean to people, two or three years of taking a couple classes, teaching a couple classes, and drinking a lot of beers with people who are nerdy about the same thing you’re nerdy about is pretty paradisiacal. However, getting a Ph.D is not worth it.

Cultivate a lot of interests
Not only will your other skills be handy for paying the bills, they will inform your writing in surprising ways. I know poets who are statisticians, musicians, painters, programmers, biotech engineers, baristas, weed farmers, booksellers, and cooks, and the language and the forms of thought they learned from their other interests are for sure things that make their poetry more their own and more unique.

Learn to read with judgment
And then learn to read without it. It’s important to feel strongly about how art should be to figure out what you should be doing with it, but after you’ve got some idea, learning how to access the spaces that other artists are creating is necessary for learning how to expand your own. It’s fine to hate most poetry when you’ve been writing for under a decade – maybe it’s actually good to – but after a decade you’re just being close-minded.

Protect your writing time
But get involved with a poetry community, not because it will give you opportunity – though it will – but because that’s the end-game for poets. There’s no million-dollar book deal. There’s no real fame – ask the next person you see to name three living poets. There’s no realistic job prospects for those who want to live above the poverty line. But if you love the work, and you do the work your whole life, you will have spent your life doing something you love. And that’s more than 99% of people you know can say.

Advice on getting your foot in the door
Write a bunch. Go to poetry readings. Buy poetry books. Write more. Get friends who write. Read their writing. Write more. Eventually let your friends read your writing. Buy more books. Re-read the books you bought three years ago. Write more, more, more. Introduce yourself to people at readings and buy their books from them. Ask them how to get involved with things. Get involved with things. Become a reader for a journal, or host a reading series. Get rid of all your old writing and write stuff that’s completely different. But especially: live in a major metropolitan area with an arts scene. Becoming a poet is something only Emily Dickinson could do alone. Understand that you are not Emily Dickinson, though you may be differently great.

Alicia Zakon

Poet

Quick Look Bio

  • Name:
  • Location:
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Understanding My Career Path

  • I joined a poetry performance group in high school (Youth Speaks).
  • In high school and college I wrote daily and performed poems weekly at area-wide poetry slams
  • In college, I enrolled in poetry courses where I studied and emulated the works of famous poets, wrote personal narrative poetry, and participated in a weekly writing critique workshop.
  • I performed at least 20x a year locally and internationally, mainly at open mics.
  • Later, I submitted poems for publication in anthologies.
  • Also, I recorded poems and was featured on recording albums and on NPR.
  • In 2014, I self-published a book. (Laundry & Love Notes: a poetic memoir, 2014)
  • Then, I fundraised $10,000+ on Kickstarter to publish a book and fund a nationwide tour.
  • As a result, I planned and executed a nationwide book tour, performing and teaching in 15 cities, and created and facilitated a poetry/self-love workshop series, teaching in 15 cities across the country, encouraging young women to write their own stories.

Recommended Organizations

  • Youth Speaks – offers free writing workshops for youth and hosts weekly poetry slams, open mic, and national competitions.
  • Cave Canem – offers artistic and professional development for African American poets; founded by Junot Diaz.
  • VONA – supports emerging writers of color through writing workshops and mentorship from established writers.

Advice

On whether or not she recommends a formal education
On my specific path as a poet, I don’t believe that formal education is necessary. While many esteemed poets will take university courses and pursue an MFA, it is not a prerequisite for a successful career in poetry. What’s important to understand is that there are many facets of the poetry world from which you can seek to craft a career. Poets can run the gamut, and many poets have more than one way they make a living from their art form. From creating poetry albums to landing residencies at universities to teaching poetry in the corporate world, poets are diverse in the ways they engage with their craft and create profit.

Regardless of the specific path you take as a poet, the field is based in your writing ability. To develop your craft as a writer, you should write daily, read the works of others, and get quality feedback on your work. This can often be facilitated by joining a writing group or taking a class at a college or university.

Know what you want
It’s important to consider which aspect of poetry intrigues you most. Maybe you’re enthralled with language and want to spend your days studying and composing poetry. Perhaps you enjoy the performance/entertainment aspect of being a poet and want to focus on competing at poetry slams, booking television gigs, and collaborating with recording artists. Or, you may be like me and use writing as a tool for self-growth and use your gift to teach others. Determine which route excites you the most, and start making steps in that direction.

Be open to varying income streams
Most poets build their career by having more than one income stream. They may be paid by performing with a band, hosting/producing poetry events, publishing and selling their books, teaching, or even through commissioned writing. Understand that you too may have one than one method for making money on your career path, and be open to this possibility.

Perfect your craft
Whichever career path you choose in poetry, be committed to the art form. Stay fresh by joining a writing group. Write daily. Have your work critiqued. Read the poetry of others. Stay in love with language.

Advice on getting your foot in the door
Join a writing group. Submit your poems to anthologies. Perform your poetry at local open mics. These things all help you to start finding your voice and meet people in your field.

Carter Edwards

Poet

Quick Look Bio

  • Name:
  • Location:
  • Years in the Industry:
  • Company:
  • Twitter:
  • Carter Edwards
  • New York, NY
  • 12
  • Gotham Writer’s Workshop
  • @bagsandcarts

Understanding My Career Path

  • Like most people, I wrote a lot of poetry through high school and it then petered off somewhat through college and fell off completely after graduation.
  • In the fall of 2007 I started the Fiction Writing MFA Program at the New School in New York. The program includes poetry, fiction, non-fiction and writing for children, and students of one focus are encouraged to take classes and intermix with the students from other foci.
  • So, very quickly I was having long and deep conversations about poetry even while I was primarily writing fiction. This restarted my interest in the form.
  • In the winter of 2008 I joined the Poetry Brothel, a salon built around poets performing their work for only one audience member, rather than an entire room. Once joined, I began writing poetry again in earnest.
  • In the fall of 2010 the bulk of my debut collection was written, mostly as a diversion from a novella I had been conscripted to write, but had no interest in.
  • In 2011 Black Lawrence Press awarded me the Hudson Prize for my debut collection of stories, The Aversive Clause.
  • In 2012 my first chapbook, To Mend Small Children was published by Augury Books. In 2012 I also placed a selection of poems in a number of small online and print journals.
  • January 2015 the New York Foundation for the Arts awarded me a poetry fellowship. The fellowship provides grants for the year to allow artists to focus more on their art.

Recommended Organizations

Poets & Writers – which has an amazing up-to-date catalog of presses, journals, grants and contests. If you’ve got the inclination AWP is an annual conference that takes place at a different city each year.

Advice

On whether or not he recommends a formal education
It’s true that writing and especially poetry relies on innate ability more than a lot of fields, which might make one think that a formal education, e.g. an MFA writing program, is a waste of time and money. But I quite heartily disagree. I came out of my writing program a much better writer, with a deeper understanding of my voice, my form and where my talents lie. The programs also instill a strong work ethic and capacity to meet deadlines. More importantly, though, is the community that emerged out of the program. Nearly every literary contact and relationship that I have traces back to my graduate program in one way or another.

Dont think of it as a career
Think of it as a job. Careers are lofty and praiseworthy. A job is grimy and thankless. Treat it like a job. Do it every day, like a job. Clock in and get to work. Even on the days when everything you write sucks. Keep doing it. Because doing it every day is the only way that it will stop sucking.

Mitigate your expectations
You will never be paid to be a poet. No one is paid to be a poet. Even the poet laureates aren’t paid enough for their art to support themselves. Poets are paid three ways: 1) Free drinks when they read at readings, 2) A free copy of the journal into which their poem has been accepted, 3) And 10 Free copies of their own book when they publish a full-length manuscript. That’s all. Any poet who gets more than that for their poetry has basically won the lottery.

Find something else to do
The saying ‘Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.’ doesn’t apply to here. Rather it’s ‘those who can write poetry, write poetry AND teach.’ Sometimes they write and teach and bartend. Personally I write poetry and also write fiction and the occasional essay and I teach poetry and fiction and the essay; I also produce events for various arts organizations and I write copy for tech startups and ad firms and once I even came up with the name of a website for a franchise of gyms. If all you are doing is writing poetry then you are probably really burning through your trust fund.

Advice on getting your foot in the door
Go to readings. If you live in even a small city or near a small city there are poetry readings going on all the time. If you live in a major city then you’re probably at a poetry reading right now and you just don’t know it. Readings are where you find the community of writers and poets that will emotionally support your work, help you find outlets for publication.

Write voraciously. If you’re not writing constantly, then why do you want to be a poet? If you don’t think you’ve got any interesting thing to say, then you’re wrong. If you’re waiting for inspiration to strike, then I guarantee you it won’t. Just write and keep writing because that’s all there is to it.

Read more than you write. Reading other people’s work is the only way to gain any perspective on your own. Read everything. Read terrible novels and fantastic novels. Read all the books you were forced to read freshmen year in high-school and hated. Read cookbooks, read video-game instruction manuals. Read cereal boxes, and bank statements, and billboards and everything. Read poetry too. Read a lot of poetry.

Stop being scared to share your work. I promise your work is not as bad as you think it is. And I also promise that when you read something to a roomful of people you’ll know immediately what needs to be changed.

What Kind of Education Do I Need to Become a Poet?


There is no definitive path that you must take to become a poet. If you wish to self-teach, learn from past literature, and practice your personal style and talent, then it is a path you can definitely follow. Your work is what will define whether you will be published or not. However, this may limit your opportunities for other types of income, as well as your poetry community. Plus, obtaining a degree can be a rewarding personal experience in general.

If you would like to get a degree, you have a few options. Normally, poetry will be a specialization on the undergraduate level, while graduate school will allow you to specifically focus on poetry as a degree. Having said this, you can take creative writing, English, language-related history classes, among other degree options, in order to learn more about poetry and hone your skills. The benefit you will get is being part of a community of students and professors with similar interests, who will also be able to challenge you and your work.

There is also no reason why you can’t be a poet and pursue any other career under the sun that you enjoy. So if there is something else that you love doing, say biology, then you can study that in university and pursue poetry on the side.

WHAT IF I DO WANT A FORMAL EDUCATION TO BECOME A POET?

  • Emory University
    The Department of English at Emory University in Atlanta, offers students an undergraduate track where they first study English literature, then learn critical analysis, and finally refine their own writing and creative ability. There are also master’s level study options and a path where a student can obtain an MA by adding one more year to their BA studies. Average tuition here is $45,008 per year.
  • Columbia University
    One of the best respected schools in the US, Columbia University in New York City, allows students to pursue and English and Comparative Literature major through its Department of English. Students may also move on to an MFA in Writing through the School of the Arts. Average tuition here is $51,008 per year.
  • University of Virgina
    Located in Charlottesville, the University of Virginia offers a variety of majors through its Department of English. Students can choose a classic English Major or select Global English Literature and Culture, Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Modern Literature and Culture, or Creative Writing Concentrations. They may also choose to pursue master’s level studies. Virginia residents pay $10,484 per year, while out-of-state undergrads pay $38,988.
  • New York University
    NYU’s Department of English allows students to pursue an English major or minor, with an optional honors level program, where they are able to focus on their writing. Additionally, the university promotes internships and co-op placements. Students may also take MA or MFA level studies. Tuition is $21,873 per term.
  • Oberlin college and Conservatory
    Located in Oberlin, Ohio, the Oberlin College and Conservatory lets students pursue a major or a minor in English, focusing both on traditional American and English literature, but also exploring contemporary social issues and new perspectives. Other major options include Comparative Literature, History, Classics, and Creative Writing. Tuition here is $48,054 per year.

GETTING MY FOOT IN THE DOOR

Experts say that the best way to get started out in the industry is to write a lot of poetry first, then review and rewrite it, and keep going. Meanwhile, you should also be meeting people in the industry and having your work reviewed by others and critiqued. Through this, you will be able to make enough contacts to meet potential publishers, then you need to be persistent in sending work and creating new pieces and collections.

Another great way to get started is to participate in the various competitions available for poets. There are many prestigious awards that will put your name on the radar, but also look into the different universities that hold poetry competitions and submit your work. Once again, this won’t only highlight your name among your peers, but attending the actual events will aid with networking.