1

Learn the Basics of Poetry

A poet is someone who communicates thoughts and emotions to others through the written word. Although many people associate poetry with words that rhyme, a poet may choose one of many different writing styles to convey his or her message. For instance, poets often use metaphors instead of direct language to create strong imagery for readers. There are haiku’s, limericks, free verse, and ballads, plus many more styles of poetry. 

A poem may be as short as a few sentences or as long as a few pages. The brevity of a poem is one of the things that can make it a more powerful experience for the reader. The other is the poet’s choice of words. As a poet, you would need to choose strong descriptive words so your reader can envision the message and feel the meaning behind your words. 

Unlike other types of writing that try to inform readers about a topic in the realm of their everyday experience, poetry often speaks to the need to escape the logical world. And, poetry is highly subjective, meaning that individual readers determine its value. What one person finds emotional and moving, another may find pretentious. Poets with sophisticated skills know how to capture images vividly and in a manner that is refreshing and original. Their poems build tension while inspiring profound reflection and complex emotion. 

A poet is a creator whose art form is the written word. Some publish books of their poetry, a feat made easier with the growing popularity of self-publishing. You could also work for an advertising agency or publishing company as a poet to write greeting cards, songs, or advertising jingles.

2

Earn a Degree & Develop Your Creative Writing Skills

Some people know they want to become a poet from early childhood. They have a different way of viewing the world and expressing their thoughts that family and friends often encourage and appreciate. Others come to the realization later in life and begin writing extensively to make up for lost time. No matter where you find yourself on the spectrum, you could benefit from post-secondary education to improve your skills and learn how to market yourself. 

Most two-year and four-year colleges don’t offer degrees focusing solely on poetry. However, studying liberal arts in general or enrolling in a creative writing or a humanities degree program can provide the background you need to grow as a poet. These programs aren’t as intensely focused as other writing degrees such as English, public relations, and journalism. Rather, the broad focus is on teaching students practical skills to improve their communication style no matter what profession they ultimately choose to pursue. 

Creative writing degree programs provide education on both the technical aspects of writing as well as developing an individual style. Technical skills you may learn include syntax, vocabulary, spelling, and grammar rules. You also learn how to set a tone, choose metaphors in your writing, create visual imagery, and perfect a style that stands out as uniquely yours. While formal education can improve the quality of your work and open doors to additional career possibilities, some people choose to develop poetry skills on their own and pursue self-employment. But, knowing that you want to become a poet is just the beginning. It’s important to envision what you would like to do with your interests and skills in the future to help plan your own career path. 

If you choose to pursue a degree, it’s a good idea to keep in touch with your classmates after graduation. Not only can you provide each other with networking opportunities, but having people in your social circle who understand the unique lifestyle of a poet can be essential to your well-being. This is especially true if you pursue self-employment and end up working alone all day. 

Some other things to consider in making connections with poets and other types of writers include joining social networking sites of poets who you already admire. This allows you to follow their work as well as make connections with other writers. Reading other poet’s blogs and commenting on them when something particularly moves you can help you grow as a poet and appreciate differences in styles. Signing up for a poetry forum can be invaluable because it provides you with tips for your trade and connections with other writers. Some also sponsor poetry contests where you can submit your work or publish leads for writing-related jobs. Signing up for online poetry seminars to learn from more experienced poets and becoming part of a community of people who appreciate this written form of art can further boost your career. Equally important is remembering that you need offline connections as well. Poetry workshops, a dramatic reading, or a book launch are all good examples of community activities that allow you to become part of a local poetry network.

3

Build a Strong Portfolio & Personal Brand

Most colleges that offer writing degrees require students to compile a portfolio while still an undergraduate student. While this may not be the one that you present to prospective employers, preparing a portfolio in college allows you to see the progression of your work and gain valuable experience in creating a professional portfolio later. When the time comes to create a portfolio for job interviews, it’s important to tailor it to the specific occupation. For example, include a series of jingles if you want to work for an advertising company, or poems displaying strong imagery if you want to win a publishing contract.

A common mistake new poets make is trying to build their author brand too soon. It’s important to know who you’re trying to reach and identify your goals and purpose first. Some people try to jump right in to create their personal brand on multiple social media channels or in the community without understanding their work won’t appeal to everyone. This can cause you to burn out quickly because you may find yourself trying to fit into a mold you assume your readers want. You can attract more people to your personal brand by understanding your purpose and narrowing who you try to attract with your work.

Beyond an education, portfolio or personal brand, there are a number of skills all poets should have in order to make a living.  First and foremost, poets must be good writers who are able to communicate effectively to a wide audience, and have a good grasp of the English language (or other native language). They must have a “poetic voice,” and understand style and structure. They must also have critical thinking skills, be able to convey information clearly, and be socially perceptive; aware of other’s reactions and why they think as they do.  It’s important that poets understand human behavior, what moves them emotionally and motivates them day-to-day. 

Since many poets are self-employed or work on a contract basis, they must be flexible, yet able to meet deadlines. They must be dependable and have an innate ability to handle the stress of a hit-and-miss paycheck.  They must have attention to detail, be creative and innovative, and be willing to take the initiative when necessary. These traits are also important if hired by a company or publishing firm.

But, if poetry is more of a hobby, you may also consider a career as an editor, a technical writer, a copywriter within an advertising agency, an author, or a publishing.

Get to Know Our Experts

Donald Dunbar

  • Title:
    Poet
  • Company:
    The Journal of Process, If Not For Kidnap, Oregon Culinary Institute
  • Where:
    Portland, OR
  • Experience:
    14 years in the industry
  • 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

  • Title:
    Poet
  • Company:
    Laundry & Love Notes
  • Where:
    Berkeley, CA
  • Experience:
    15 years in the industry
  • 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

  • Title:
    Poet
  • Company:
    Gotham Writer’s Workshop
  • Where:
    New York, NY
  • Experience:
    12 years in the industry
  • 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.

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    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.

    Poet Infographic