How to Get Further in Poetry
Some of the following advice will apply to writers generally, however this is primarily a guide for poets just starting out in poetry, who have perhaps only performed at a few open mics or who have been in a poetry audience and thought, ‘I could do that.’
One of the reasons that I felt compelled to write this guide was because I wish there had been a guide such as this for me in the past. Sure there are lots of—probably better—tips online, but none of them seemed to effectively bridge the gap of how to get from absolutely nothing to something to me. When I was at the University of Kent, I attended a workshop by a nationally-known poet. Afterwards I gestured to their book and asked how they got to that point. “Well, you know,” they said, “You do a few things and you get to this point.” This left me feeling frustrated and disappointed. Now that I have been published numerous times, have been shortlisted for prizes, have completed a residency and successfully published a well-received first book amongst other achievements, I make sure not to give anyone such unhelpful advice.
Gig a lot. There may be plenty of wonderful, genius poets out there that we will ultimately never hear of because they did not take the initiative when it came to their writing. If you want to get further than you are, you’re going to have to do so. So, gig a lot. As a rule, you can’t really gig too much, and there is only an upside; more people will hear your material, perhaps appreciate it and perhaps offer you opportunities. When some poets get to a certain level of success they prefer to gig less and take a break, or they’ll only perform feature sets. I myself can’t imagine a point where I won’t turn up to an open mic, and can’t see a downside to doing so.
Think about which poets you admire and try and emulate the practical steps that they have taken to get to where they are. Who have they worked with, and can you work with them? Who is their publisher, could you send your work to them?
Diversify. You may be a poet, but could you write articles? There are so many fulfilling writing-related things that you can do that ultimately build your profile and feed back into your poetry practice. Could you run workshops? Make zines? Also, do you have another skill, such as photography? You could combine this with your poetry practice or simply use it to your advantage and take some promotional photos of yourself. As well as this, perhaps you could provide this service to other creatives, which again builds your profile and enriches your community.
If an opportunity doesn’t exist, create it. I have been amazed by the opportunities that poets I know have created for themselves and others, from booking renowned acts to creating town-wide residency schemes. If something doesn’t exist and you wish it did, or you have a good idea, don’t wait for others to do it. Do it yourself.
If there’s an opportunity that you’ve seen locally—or otherwise—that you’d like to take part in, just ask! Most of the time you can only obtain performing slots by actually asking. It sounds simple, but opportunities can easily be missed by the hesitant.
Build your profile
This section is closely related to the previous one, and it definitely counts as part of taking initiative. As a poet, you must build your profile. Source out opportunities where you could be interviewed, from local radio stations and papers to online sources.
Keep a poetry CV. This should include any competitions that have been won, notable performances, publications and submissions. As with any CV, don’t include your life history in it; go for the most significant achievements and think about who you’re aiming it at. However, alongside your poetry CV, makes sure you keep a list of all of your performances, their dates, locations, and whether or not they were feature sets or booked slots or open mics. Also, keep a list of publications you have appeared in and any other relevant information. Organisation can go a long way to aid you in your success.
Think about your branding. This may sound contrived to some, and you don’t have to make a song and dance of it, but it is prudent to be aware of your branding, and brand yourself well. Could you contact certain outlets about creating poetry videos? Could you source someone to take some headshots or a create a photoshoot with you, in case a promoter asks for a picture, so you don’t have to give them an awkward, blurry selfie?
Think about creating a blog and have a social media presence. If someone has recently seen you perform, they may want to look you up, and it’s your job to maximise on this. A professional, easy to use website or blog platform will be essential. Also, have a social media presence. I found it an absolute pain to keep sharing poetry information to my nan and colleagues who were perfectly justified in not giving a damn, so set up a Facebook artist’s page. It is a great way to effectively reach those that may actually be interested in your work and to separate your personal and professional life. Instagram is a good platform to express yourself creatively and share your aesthetic. Experiment with different social media platforms.
Work with other artists and network. Not only does this help build your profile, you can learn from each other, inspire each other and be part of a community that pools resources.
Watch your attitude
Don’t waste your time with jealousy. The negative energy that it brings will sour your life and work. Just as all writing is different, all success is different; your path is yours alone.
Be nice. Kindness does the reverse of the above, it also relaxes you and will most likely make people want to work with you. Help others and lift them up. As I mentioned previously, by utilising your skill set you may actually end up doing so professionally to your advantage.
Don’t get caught in drama. Admittedly, we’ve had drama since the ancient Greeks, but be supportive of others whilst maintaining privacy and clear boundaries.
Similarly, poetry is not a dating service. Other poets are your colleagues. You can’t help who you fall in love with, but if you’re single, carefree and looking to explore romantically, maintain your dignity and look outside the pool.
Source out and accept criticism, even if you don’t agree with it. You may not always act on it, but ultimately criticism is invaluable. My writing changed permanently when another poet pointed out early on that I really didn’t need a capital letter and the beginning of every line, nor did I need to keep writing ‘I’, ‘my’, ‘me’ or ‘mine’.
Keep working hard. Longevity breeds success. If you’re not working hard, you have no chance of coming across opportunities.
Improve your skills
Read, read, read! I’ve been flabbergasted on the occasions where other poets have bragged about not reading poetry. Some poets are more direct than others in performance and writing, and that’s fine, but there’s no poet who would not benefit from reading other poetry. Imagine a marathon runner telling you that they prefer to run without trainers, or a doctor who tells you he doesn’t check the latest medical journals. The absurdity of this is akin to poets not reading.
Practice your writing. Not everything has to be good, this idea can really hold you back. Practice your performing too: read your poems out loud to yourself or to someone you trust.
Edit. Poetry is in the cut. Occasionally you will get poems that are absolutes gifts from the gods/your subconscious that are almost perfect, but more often than not you must edit your work rigorously and not rest on the laurels of your initial draft.
Every time an idea occurs to you, record it. I do so in the notes app on my phone.
A degree is not necessary to poetry success, but educating yourself—whether through traditional methods, online courses, going to evening classes or workshops—is a good idea. If you have a chance to learn you should take it.
Be practical about your writing. You’ve got your pieces which you feel are masterpieces and you pieces which are from the heart, but could you write for a blog or a magazine in order to have some initial publishing credentials? Also, could you perhaps send out the poems that you’re not so attached to outlets that may be a suitable fit, rather than getting no use from them?
One of the best ways of beginning your journey to getting published is to know what’s happening in poetry now, particularly in your country, your local community and a big city near you (for me that would be London). If you want to get published, it helps to be familiar with publishers and their work. Only then can you decide if yours might fit. Once you start looking around you, you’ll be guaranteed to find at least a few local publishers. Take time to showcase your work to them at events and build a relationship with them. Alternatively, look at small presses. It’s great that increasingly, small poetry presses are open to unsolicited manuscripts.
Look up local magazines and outlets that could help you get published. If you have been promoting yourself, local magazines are more likely to be familiar with you and publish your work. Also, notice that I wrote ‘outlets.’ Think outside the box of magazines and publishers; perhaps you could do some campaigning with a charity and get published through them via video or on their website? Perhaps you could perform at an event and get published in the programme? It all counts. On the subject of submitting to magazines and journals, always adhere to the submission guidelines. No one is above them—your work will simply be rejected if you do not.
I know stellar writers who have not been published because they cannot accept being edited. No one wants their work to be edited until its form and content is fundamentally changed, but how much editing would you accept in order to be published? If you feel like you can be edited and retain the integrity and essence of your work, it’s well worth working with an editor in order to get published. I allowed a poem of mine to be heavily edited for an anthology because I felt that were it to be published later in a collection, I could go back to the original and edit it again, perhaps differently.
In conclusion, although many people could argue that you gain experience the hard way—by going through the motions, by making mistakes and learning lessons—a lot of time can be saved and stress avoided by bearing the points above in mind. This should also help you focus and conserve your energy, which you don’t want to be expending when you don’t need to. Finally, I hope that the above illustrates that, just like anything in life, writing and publishing can be achieved methodically, by following the required steps, rather than by miracle, or some mystery.
© 2019 Setareh Ebrahimi
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Setareh Ebrahimi performs regularly, and is a poet working in Faversham, Kent. She is the author of In My Arms from Bad Betty Press.