Earlier this week, I received a long e-mail from an anonymous Poetic Asides reader who asked important questions I'm sure all poets have asked themselves at some point or another in their poetic development. Here's some of the e-mail:
"I want to put together a book of poetry. I have the subject already in mind. Here's the thing. I am a fly-by-night poet. I have a hard question for you. Do you think I have what it takes to make it as a poet from having read some of my work?
"I sent in six poems to a local competition this year and didn't make it even as an honorable mention. I also sent in five or six to the Writer's Digest competition in December. I haven't heard anything, so am assuming that I didn't make the cut. Now we are talking 100 poets who made it, and I didn't get there.
"Anyway, I turn to you in a moment of despair. I am feeling low and just want a crumb to pull me out of this mist. However, honesty is what I need."
And my honesty is what this poet will get.
First, I don't advise poets to try thinking about putting together books of poetry until they've published some individual poems. It's not that a poet can't do this, but by entering competitions, I'm assuming that a poet wants some kind of recognition, and publication is a great form of recognition.
Second, contests are great, but they are competitions, which means there are several other poets battling it out for the top poem(s). If Writer's Digest recognizes 100 poets, for instance, then they must receive thousands of entries for the competition. Keep in mind that most competitions produce a minority of winners and a majority of losers.
Third, I'd suggest spending less time entering competitions and instead submitting to online and print publications that publish poetry that fits your style. Yes, this means you should devote time to reading online and print journals to see what fits. (Note: This is also a great way to learn from what works and doesn't work in other poets' poems.)
Fourth, it sounds like you need involvement with other poets, whether online or in person. I would suggest trying to get a small critique group together, either by contacting other poets online or trying to do so locally--either through your local library or bookstore. You'd be surprised how many poets are all around us.
Finally, only you can say if you have what it takes to be a poet. Do you feel compelled to write poems even facing the possibility that no one will ever read your work? If so, you are and will always be a poet. Poetry is not a form of writing that will earn you much fortune and glory, so using recognition as your "poet worth" gauge is probably not the best idea.
However, recognition can be a powerful fuel for the poetic motor. So get involved with some other poets; read and submit to publications; and keep writing. The rest will take care of itself.