One Piece of Advice for Poets, Part 1

Over the years, I’ve asked the question (or a version of it) of several poets: If you could pass on only one piece of advice, what would it be?

Below, I’ve assembled some of the answers from previous interviews. As you may have guessed from me titling this Part 1, there will be a Part 2 (and perhaps even a Part 3).

Dorianne Laux: I once had a dream in which the poet Jack Gilbert came to me in a white room and sat down in a white chair at a white table. We made soup together and his had blueberries in it. I asked him if had any advice for me as a young poet and he said,”Yes. Don’t write sissy poems. And don’t be in collusion with your own poems.” It’s still the best advice I ever got.

Jillian Weise: There is no such thing as writer’s block.

Joseph Mills: Consider it a life’s work. After 20 years, I’m finally writing poems that I think reward attention. I hope in the next 20 years, I’ll learn to write poems that hold up. And in the 20 years after that…

You write a little bit at a time, consistently, and it adds up, and the work improves. I’ve often had the experience of discovering a way to finally revise a poem that for years hasn’t been quite right or how to use a few lines or ideas that I have squirreled away long ago.

Valerie Nieman: Keep the old stuff. I’m working now on a series of poems, a book, from pages of notes that I put on the computer years ago–tying together some existing poems with fragments and ideas for new ones. I set it all aside as I worked on a novel. Maybe it was spending weekends at the lake, maybe it was moving to a new house where Canada geese fly over every morning–but I am working seriously on that book now. It pulls on threads that go back to childhood, to trout fishing and woods walking and reading Jack London and my father’s outdoor magazines. And it has a lot in it of friendships that led me to haiku and Basho, and to recent experiences such as taking up sailing–all coming together now.

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Helene Cardona: Do things that inspire you.

Jericho Brown: Make love.

Denise Low: I appreciate Paul Muldoon’s answer to that question when he visited Lawrence lately–remain humble. Be open. I understand that to mean that receptivity allows for authentic poetry. Okay, second piece of advice: read as much as you can.

John M. Fitzgerald: Read, read, read.

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Anne Tardos: Try to be clear in your intentions, in your statements. Step back a lot, like a painter does. Leave the room, think about the poem, or don’t think about it, and then come back to it. Read it out loud.

Sandra Beasley: Read your contemporary poets, ideally in the venue of literary journals. That’s where the heart of today’s work is beating. So often poets decide a particular school is “not my thing” based not on what this generation is doing with the tenets of that school, but based on what the canonical style has been. The poetry world should be a lot more permeable than that.

Aimee Nezhukumatathil: Oh, I have lots of little morsels of advice: read often and a lot. Floss. Invest in a good pair of shoes and write letters more often. Listen to the paper take the ink when you sign your name.

Jeannine Hall Gailey: Don’t be afraid to write about the subjects you care most about; not every poem has to be about snow falling on an old farmhouse. Stick with your passions. Embrace your own special weirdness.

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Diane Lockward: I’m not a minimalist, so I’ll offer my three mantras: 1) Weird is good; embrace it. 2) Be alert. 3) Go forth boldly.

J.P. Dancing Bear: Constantly push and challenge yourself to do new things and learn new things. If you’ve never written a sonnet, then challenge yourself to writing a crown of sonnets. If you’ve never written anything other than formal verse, write a prose poem. Breaking down things, understanding the craft behind them and rebuilding the way you write only makes you a stronger and better writer. Never, ever think you are “there”–always be on the journey.

Susan Rich: I wish I had come across W.S. Merwin’s poem “Berryman” years earlier. I share “Berryman” with my students now and we read it aloud together. The sense that we will never really know if anything we write is any good I find incredibly freeing. If we aren’t able to pass judgment on our work, then we are free of that burden. There’s nothing that drains the pen more quickly than the rush to decide if this is the next Pulitzer Prize-winning poem or not.

Recently, a poem of mine won a large prize which arrived with a bucket of award money. The truth is, I was utterly flabbergasted when I learned that the judges, and then the general public, chose this poem. Please don’t get me wrong. I am proud of this poem and I am thrilled to have won the award, but I never would have believed that this small piece would go so far. If I had passed judgment on its worth, instead of sending it off into the world, I would have been wrong.

What I want to convey is this: Push and sweat to write your best, and after that, leave it others to judge. Try not to second guess your craft; trust in what you cannot know.

Tom C. Hunley: Read as many other poets as you can. Buy their books. Get in touch with them. Learn from as many people as you can.

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To learn from these poets and many others, click here to read poet interviews.

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Follow me on Twitter @robertleebrewer

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