Finding Success as a Poet

Today, I announced my debut full-length book of poetry, Solving the World’s Problems (Press 53), is available for pre-order on my publisher’s website (click here to learn more). It didn’t take long–about 3 minutes on Facebook–for someone to start attacking the collection, my poetry, and me.

Solving_the_Worlds_Problems_cover2I would chalk it up to some random nut, except that I met with the same kind of attacks a few years ago when I was nominated for and then voted Poet Laureate of the Blogosphere. And I see it consistently from a distance with any poet that seems to get the smallest nugget of success thrown their way. In fact, the person today kept throwing out the term “success” in relation to my poetry (both in the public thread and in private DMs) as his reason for attacking me.

Mean people suck, but I’m not going to devote a blog post to that (at least, not on this blog). The more important question for me has become, What does finding success as a poet mean?

What Constitutes Poetic Success?

As the editor of Writer’s Market, I know there are any manner of quantifiable ways to measure success for writers. Those include:

  • Publication Credits
  • Money
  • Fame
  • Artistic Achievement
  • Immortality

I’m sure there are others, but these are some of the biggies. Let’s take a look at each one in relation to poets finding success.

Publication

Being published is nice. I’m grateful to every person who’s put time and effort into publishing my poetry. For all the rejection that occurs in submitting poetry, it’s a great feeling when I find an editor who connects with my poetry enough to publish it.

Plus, it’s a thrill to hear from people who read those published poems and let me know my words stirred something in them. That makes me feel good about taking the time to submit my poetry, but it’s not the reason I write.

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Money

I can already hear all the laughter from experienced poets, and there’s a reason why. For most poets (myself and the poets I know), there’s not a lot of money in poetry. It’s a simple matter of supply and demand. The supply is incredibly high; the demand is incredibly low.

For my poetry, I’ve only ever been paid for one poem. I received less than $100, which doesn’t pay the bills or feed the kids. So I better not be writing poetry for the money, because I’d probably make more money and have more free time if I invested in lottery tickets.

famous_poet_robert_lee_brewerFame

Being a famous poet sounds cool, right? Everyone loves you and admires you when you’re a famous, don’t they? I mean, look at Billy Collins. A ton of people love him and his poetry, but…

…but then again, a ton of people hate him and his poetry–partially because he’s famous.

One of my fantastic mistakes as a teenage poet was to submit poems to one of those free poetry contests that offers a monetary prize and publishes all the poems in an anthology. They make a lot of money off poets by charging them to buy the anthology, attend expensive conferences, and even by selling nifty little things like coffee mugs.

Believe me when I say, I don’t write to be a famous poet.

Artistic Achievement

How is this quantified? Through awards and honors maybe? If so, I was nominated and then voted the 2010 Poet Laureate of the Blogosphere. That was a tremendous honor, and it helped open other opportunities for me, but I didn’t change one poem because of the honor.

In fact, I’ve found the same problem with artistic achievement as with fame. If you’ve found success as a language poet, there are going to be poets who tear you down for caring about the language. If you’ve found success as a prose poet, there will be people who tear you down for not breaking lines. If you’ve found success as a traditional poet, there will be people who tear you down for following forms. If you’ve found success as a narrative poet, there will be people who attack you for giving prose line breaks.

For me, I have an artistic vision for my poetry, but I don’t chase honors. I think it’s dangerous in the same way that chasing fame is dangerous. If I win honors in the future, I will be very happy, but awards are not what keep me up writing at night.

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Immortality

Here’s the thing about immortality: There’s absolutely no way any poet can control this. It’s something that shakes out over time, and it’s very common for the best known writers of any age to fade into obscurity or footnotes.

Since I’ve come close to dying before, I’d love to be remembered after my death, but I don’t write for immortality. It’s something so far out of my control that I can’t even begin to imagine chasing it.

So Why Would a Poet Write?

There’s nothing wrong with poets who write for the reasons given above. Each poet has their own force driving them, and I’m not in the business of telling people how to live their lives or break their lines. But it’s a question I’ve been wrestling with for years, why do I write poetry? And it’s a question writers in other genres ask me, why do you write poetry?

Maybe the best way for me to answer is by looking at how I got started. I was trying to impress a girl, plain and simple. Then, I kept at it–even after the girl left–because it gave me an outlet and a way to focus on things that were hard to understand: things like being sexually abused as a young boy, depression, anxiety over the future, broken hearts, and the other problems people have to confront every day.

I wrote then, because I had to write. I write now, because I have to write. I know I’ll continue writing poetry into the future, because that need will be there–to make words dance, to vent, to capture a moment, to understand why something is happening.

I am so thankful to everyone who’s ever helped me spread my poetry, but I know I’d continue writing poetry even after the zombie (or any other type of) apocalypse. Because it’s what helps me feel human.

What About Poetic Success?

And maybe that’s where I find the most success as a poet. It’s when I’m able to capture something that feels right to me. Sometimes, it might be capturing a moment or saying it in a way that is interesting to me. I find success (and failure) word-by-word, line-by-line, and day-by-day.

What might feel like success at night might feel like failure in the morning, but there’s always that need to write and search and explore, and there’s nothing anyone else can do to take that feeling away from me.

Why do you write poetry? And how do you measure poetic success? Share your answers in the comments below.

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11 thoughts on “Finding Success as a Poet

  1. Rosemary Nissen-Wade

    I started as a very young child. I lived ina household – and extended family – which valued poetry, and my Dad used to read it aloud. I thought it was the most beautiful thing a human being could make and wanted to spend my life at it. I am now 78, and I have, and do.

    In the days of print media only, I even earned a little money from it, maybe $20 or so when accepted by literary journals, which happened fairly often for a few years, plus getting something from sales of my books – of course, nit enough to live on, but it seems I did a bit better than poets do nowadays.

    Fame – well I had a small amount of fame within Australia for a few years, both as published poet and performance poet, but poetic fame is limited in any case. The man and woman in the street have never heard of me – and they probably also have not heard of poets far more famous than I ever was.

    I ran away from the poetry ‘scene’ eventually, rather disenchanted. I found most poets to be beautiful people, helpful to each other – but for some few there was nasty politicking going on, and it tainted things. I kept on writing of course, just not participating.

    Why ‘of course’? Because, like you Robert, I have to. I have always had to. And it has always been and will always be a very high priority in my life.

    And now – my goodness, for the past 20-odd years in fact – I have embraced the internet, where I find many absolutely brilliant and wonderful and largely unsung poets. I have a blog. I follow prompts from time to time, as well as still getting flashes of fresh inspiration. As I have always done, I experiment with forms, styles, voices, and I strive to make my art as well as I can. For it is indeed my art form, beyond self-expression (though it’s that too) – a making, a putting something new into the world that wasn’t there before.

    And all this begs the question of value judgments. It’s what I do. Some people will like it and respond; others won’t. Sometimes I will do it well enough to please myself; often not, no matter how I strive, how I tweak. I always find it worth the endeavour. It’s how I chose to live my life, and so far no regrets.

    When I was a little kid, I wanted to spend my life making poems. I could think of nothing better. How lucky am I? I fulfilled this dream and continue to do so. Thanks to the internet, I even get read; in fact my blog has a far wider audience than I received when published in prestigious paper journals. I feel greatly blessed.

    Is not ‘success’ achieving one’s dreams?

  2. Darryl Willis

    Well, I’m obviously late in commenting! What constitutes success in poetry? Validation is always nice through publishing–and that keeps us working on the craft. It also demonstrates that some with knowledge of the art form sees value in your material.

    I think, too, finding a unique voice and tone that connects with other people.

    Motivation for writing and success in writing are two different things. So while having to write can be great motivation, I don’t think it really constitutes success (it could be OCD!). My motivation is just the joy of playing around with words–and for validation I suppose it’s nice to get a few poems published.

    I also enjoy having a finished product that I like. But success? I just don’t worry too much about it.

    And as far as detractors? The only criticisms I entertain are from good writers whom I respect and who care about me enough to be honest. Unsolicited attacks are either demonstrations of jealousy or someone’s psychological dysfunction.

  3. Julieann

    It is such a pity that when we humans do not get the recognition we feel we deserve we also feel compelled to destroy someone else’s success and joy. The human nature is one thing only God understands, and especially not the greatest of ‘science’ minds.

    I applaud you on your past Poet Laureate of the Blogosphere, on your book publication, on your Poetic Asides blog, and for everything you do to help and encourage aspiring poets – and writers in general. You are obviously a people person and for that alone you need to be congratulated.

    My mother would say that if someone is criticizing me, they are leaving someone else alone; true, but not very comforting. I say they are just plain jealous and showing their ‘green-eyed monster’ in a hurtful and productive manner.

    I wish for you the greatest of future successes – whatever you feel success is to you – and hang the negatives. This is hard work and well worth the efforts.

    Congratulations!! of the highest order. You have earned them and many more.

    1. Julieann

      Slip of the keys, sorry. The word next to last work in the third paragraph should be destructive, for goodness sake, not productive!! Forty lashes with a wet noodle goes to my fingers and brain. Again, many congratulations on your book!!!!

  4. De Jackson

    Oh.My.Goodness. Jealousy abounds, doesn’t it? Idiocy, too. I’m so sorry. As Marie shared above, there is no bigger class act in the business than you and your beautiful wife. Folks need to get a life.

    CONGRATULATIONS on a well-deserved achievement, Robert.

    In response to the rest of your awesome post…

    Publication:
    This is fun, but a whole lot of work. (Of course, I am deeply administratively challenged.) Thanks to the encouragement that started right here on this site, I’ve had 70+ poems published in print and (mostly) online journals in the past couple of years. I’m so thankful for that, but my next goal is to submit some kind of whole shebang somewhere.

    Money:
    Hahahahahahahahahahahahahaha!
    I made $1 once. And once I got paid in garbanzo beans. That was fun.

    Fame:
    Again, hahahahahahahahaha. I can’t even get most of my awesome blog followers (for whom I am infinitely thankful, don’t get me wrong) to leave a comment.

    Artistic Achievement:
    With very few exceptions, I write a poem every day. Every.Single.Day. And have, for almost 3 years. Since the poeming is the part I actually love, that’s enough of an achievement for me.

    Immortality:
    Do I hope some of my words live forever? Sure. But mostly I hope I’m remembered as a kind person who loved well.

    Why do I write?
    ‘Cuz I can’t NOT.

    How do I measure success?
    I don’t. I measure stanzas. I weigh words. I play with sounds, and hyphens, and the way phrases bump up against each other with that come-hither look. I scribble and spill, and assume the rest will (eventually) take care of itself.

    You’re an inspiration, Robert. Thank you for being you.
    de (current co-Poet Laureate or Whatever…but above all else, Lover of Words)

  5. priyajane

    Congratulations Robert and sorry to hear about the negativity.
    You are an inspiration to so many of us —

    I am just a rookie here, trying to make sense of life, and using poetry as a medium. I just discovered ‘poetry writing’ a few years ago. It came in unannounced, and , to my utmost delight, starting speaking out loud ! It is like a best friend that is always with me now, connecting me, with me.It has added a whole new dimension to the way I look at things, and I feel like a new person, –like a diver seeking deep in the ocean, discovering and exploring. I find myself wanting to write and honor anything and everything, especially the ‘simple’things.

    It is hard to define or measure success for a poet ( in my humble opinion). But if I can write, so as to radiate my inner heart to the reader and have my poem connect with them, stirring deeper feelings and awareness of simple and complicated things in them, I will feel successful. It is work in progress, one poem at a time. I am just working at it for now and who knows what the future holds-. Hopefully someday I will have some of my work published and maybe it will feel like a sense of validation of some sort, a different measure of success.
    I stumbled upon the Poetic Asides blog one day, and am thoroughly enjoying the community of poets there.

    Good Luck to you Robert, and thank you for all you do .

  6. Marian O'Brien Paul

    I did reply via Facebook, but wanted to say more. Congratulations on your poetry book. The only one I have is my PhD Dissertation, and those sure don’t garner fame : ) I have kazillion poems, but am not so good at marketing — much more fun to write then to “sell” (probably akin to a glitch in mathematical abilities). I’ve tried a couple of times to put together a book. My most recent one is the most cohesive, best revised and edited (in my opinion and that, of course, may be biased). It is making the rounds of submissions to various publishers. God willing it will land on the desk of someone whose vision clicks with mine.

    You say “I find the most success as a poet [happens] when I’m able to capture something that feels right to me. Sometimes, it might be capturing a moment or saying it in a way that is interesting to me. I find success (and failure) word-by-word, line-by-line, and day-by-day.” I heartily agree. If a poet feels s/he has written/shared something worthwhile in a unique way, that is a rewarding experience in and of itself. If other
    people read and find pleasure in what the poet has written, all the better. Here is a funny experience I had the other day:

    I found in my file cabinets a poem I wrote in the 1980s. I wanted to type it into my files on my computer, and as I did it, I revised it. Pleased with the revision, I continued sorting things in my file cabinet and discovered the same poem with a note written on it that it had been published in 1985 in a small Nebraska literary journal! A poet’s mind is always open to writing something in a better way : )

  7. PressOn

    Dear Robert,

    First, congratulations on Solving the World’s Problems. I imagine that merely seeing that book in the flesh, so to speak, is a thrill.

    Second, I am sorry to hear about the attacks you mentioned. I do not use Face Book or its ilk, so I haven’t seen it. That sort of thing sounds all too familiar, though: some people seem to get their kicks from tearing others down, especially others who have accomplished something. It is utterly discouraging.

    I appreciated your post on the factors that might constitute poetic success. I am old, and came to poetry late in life. I began writing poems in the late 1980s, after my first wife died. My inspirations were not other poets, save for a few (mainly Robert Frost and Ogden Nash), but songwriters; lyricists such as Johnny Mercer, Oscar Hammerstein, Lorenz Hart, Walter Donaldson, and many others. I knew of their work because I am hearing-impaired; I couldn’t understand the sung words, so I had to look them up. I began wondering if I could write like that, albeit with no knowledge of music. About 1990, I entered a small poetry contest in San Bernardino; I won a few prizes, and was pleased that some other folks liked what I wrote.

    By that time, however, I was writing poems mainly for the fun of it, and partly for the challenge of trying various forms. I write mainly in traditional forms, but enjoy playing with all kinds. I love laughter, so I write a lot of what I guess is light verse. I don’t write much free verse; I have little feel for it. I have published little, and virtually not at all unless you count printed versions of poems that won prizes in small contests.

    The various “success” factors you mentioned mean little to me. Certainly, at my age, money, immortality, and fame are meaningless. Artistic achievement means something, but that’s measured mainly by feedback from artists. Publication is something I didn’t think of until recently, when I put together “Little Bird Poems and Stories,” a collection dealing with birding as a deaf person. I am still working on that.

    Like you, I enjoy it when my poems touch something in people and they say so. I am a poor judge of what will touch them; often, the poems I like best seem to get little reaction, whereas poems I didn’t think were very good, do. Mainly, though, it all comes back to the fun of trying to write pieces that sing; that make some sense; that create pictures; that have a rhythm of sounds; and that produce a feeling of pleasure in me when I look at a poem and say to myself, “Ah, I think I’ve got it.”

  8. knbharathi

    I write poetry to share my experience and knowledge on banking, technology and process ; presenting the complex topics in simple poetic format to my readers. My e-book and free sample are available as ‘ business poems by nagendra bharathi’ at amazon.com and amazon.in
    Regards
    Nagendra Bharathi
    http://nagendrabharathi.blogspot.in

  9. Marie Elena

    Before I touch on why I write, I feel compelled to say this:

    Robert, you and your wife are a class act. While under unprovoked and continuing attack from someone I think surely must have addictions and/or illnesses we know nothing about, both of you showed extraordinary restraint. In fact, this is not the first time I’ve watched from afar as you’ve both returned attack with amazing calm. Normally I would think your style of response would diffuse the attacker. Not so with this particularly one from today. Thank you both for being flawless examples of how to conduct ourselves while under fire. You have my utmost respect.

    As for why I write poetry … well, I’m not entirely sure I know the answer. Certainly out of enjoyment, yet I can’t say fighting with a silent muse is enjoyable. At times I feel like a photographer who takes 1200 snapshots and finds fewer than a handful that he is entirely pleased with. But when the right words tumble in just the right way, it gives me great satisfaction and is worth the wait — for no one other than myself. And that’s okay.

    I love, love, LOVE sharing Poetic Bloomings with Walt. The poets that frequent our site (many of them from right here at P.A.) are extraordinary, gentle people of great poetic talent. They inspire me every single day as a “writer,” but even more so as a fellow human being. The funny thing is, as a poet, do you know what my favorite role at Bloomings is? It is my opportunity to interview and showcase extraordinary poetic souls. And that, I must admit, feels like success.

  10. Jacqueline Hallenbeck

    Poetic success to me is all of the above and then some…

    I have been published quite a bit. I was paid for featuring once and my books and ‘homemade’ chapbooks have been purchased at book events, but I do not recall ever been paid for a published poem (except for copies of publications my work has been featured in).

    I have a book, which is self-published, so there is no credit there (but I still recommend it because it is a lovely book) so I am still working on sending out my work and getting someone to publish my very first collection of poetry.

    I kid around all the time that I’m just waiting to be discovered. It is delusional (especially since I’m a ‘rhymer’ and rhyming is the dinosaur of poetry) but I’m a poet (in-transit) and poets are allowed to be nuts. It comes with the territory, I think. ^^

    Poetry is what gets me up every morning. What I look forward to. To read a poem, to write a poem. To do a reading. To be part of something. Life is too boring without poetry. I want to leave my mark on the world. Call me crazy (and I probably am) but the thought of someone reading a poem of mine 300 years from now brings a silly grin to my face.

    When a complete stranger approaches me after one of my readings and tells me how much they liked my poems, that puts a huge smile on my face. I touched someone. I made someone laugh. That is success to me.

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