"Don't wait for your publisher to promote you!" This is the best advice I could offer a fellow poet, whether seasoned or starting out. There are numerous ways you can promote your work. The following suggestions can help you make a splash in your local literary community:
MAKE BUSINESS CARDS. When I first started writing poetry for publication, I made business cards using the title of "writer/researcher," my name, telephone number, e-mail address, and regular mail address. (Although I'm mainly a poet, using "writer/researcher" kept my options open for other writing opportunities.) I distributed cards at poetry readings, social events, pretty much everywhere.
Once I got an e-mail from a radio host with a talk show about writers and artists. He'd been given my card by a woman I'd met at a college alumni reception. The talk show host asked if I was interested in being on his show. Not only did I do a 50-minute interview, I returned several times to promote events and talk about new writing projects.
Another time I gave my card to an old friend who was working for a local cable television show. She passed my card along to the producer, and in less than a month I was on the air. All that from a tiny business card and a little bit of friendly conversation. Which leads me to my next point--networking.
MAKE CONNECTIONS. Networking is vital to a poet's career. You may be saying, "It's talent that will get me published," but persistence and networking can make the difference and get you the coffee house gigs, radio and TV appearances, newspaper write-ups, and so forth. The exposure you get from these various media outlets can lead to more demand for your work in print. I've been approached by several editors and publishers who heard me on the radio, saw me on TV, or read about me in the newspaper and asked me to submit poems to their journals.
Not sure how to start networking? Why not ...
Join a local writer's group. This is the best way to make contacts in your literary community. Getting together with others who share your passion for the written word is helpful and motivating and a good way to keep informed about what's going on locally. Also, such groups may offer workshops and public speaking opportunities. My writer's group often arranges poetry readings at local bookstores and occasionally publishes anthologies. If you have few or no publishing credits, appearing in your group's anthology can be a good start to building publication credits.
Join your state poetry society. You'll stay better informed about what's happening around your state. These groups often put out a monthly newsletter with publication and grant opportunities as well as information about which members are publishing and where. If you get a poem accepted, win an award, or schedule an appearance or reading, inform your newsletter editor--it's a great way to keep your name in the public eye.
DO A PUBLIC READING. This sounds a little scary, but it can really boost your reputation. If you suffer from stage fright, try reading at an open mic event (usually at bookstores and coffeehouses). Open mic readings are easy, and there's no pressure to read unless you want to. Usually there's a sign-up sheet at the door, so go, sign up, read a poem or two. It's fun, and there's always the possibility that an editor is in the audience. Check your newspaper for listings, and keep an eye out for flyers and bulletin board notices at coffeehouses and bookstores. And when you go, don't forget to take along your business cards.
Once you've braved an open mic reading, consider going solo. Let the manager of a local coffeehouse know you're a poet and available to do special readings. Suggest that you could be their featured reader with an open mic to follow. If you've published a book or chapbook, show the manager a copy. If you don't have a book but your work has appeared in journals and magazines, inform the manager (you could even make copies of the printed poems to show him). Volunteer to prepare flyers and write a news release. Remember to be polite, not pushy.
You could also offer to do a reading at your local bookstore. (This can be a little tricky to maneuver, but it's worth a shot.) Contact the bookstore manager or events coordinator, if they have one. Show her your book or copies of your published poems and explain that you've given successful readings in other venues. Maybe the bookstore would be open to hosting a local poets night; you could gather fellow poets, perhaps from your writing group, to stage a reading. I've participated in such events and they've always been a great success. (The bookstore will probably handle the news release, but when in doubt you can send one out yourself.)
CONTACT YOUR LOCAL NEWSPAPERS. Whether the newspaper is a big urban daily or a community weekly, send them a news release. Most papers have a calendar or similar section where they announce various events of public interest. Contact the paper for the name of the section editor to whom you should submit information. Follow the paper's guidelines and respect deadlines! Your release should be brief and to the point. No fluff--just the "who, what, when, where, and why" of the event. And remember, if the deadline is Tuesday, make sure the editor has your release on or before Tuesday (the earlier the better).
While you're at it, why not contact the appropriate editor and let her know you're available to be interviewed? Tell her about your publication successes and any other information she might find unusual and interesting about you.
It worked for me. While living in Japan, I decided to keep a daily journal in which I wrote poems that eventually grew into a book. I thought my story was unique and hoped the editors of my local newspaper would think the same. One thing led to another, and much to my pleasure, The Kentucky Post ran a half-page article about my life in Japan and my poetry book.
CONTACT YOUR LOCAL RADIO AND CABLE STATIONS. This sounds like a big step, but if I can do it successfully (and I have), so can you. When you schedule a poetry reading, let your radio and cable stations know. Find out if the station has a program that might be interested in having you come on and talk about your event, maybe even read some of your poems (public radio and television stations are more likely to have such shows). Don't be afraid to ask! The worst they can say is no.
Another idea: Local PBS stations often have annual televised auctions where merchants donate goods to be sold on air. This is a fantastic way to get some free publicity. Does your writing group publish an anthology? Suggest they donate some copies for the auction. Do you have a book or chapbook of poems? Donate some to the station; or better yet, ask your publisher to contribute some. My publisher donated copies of my book to our local PBS Action Auction, and they did a great-looking on-air display. If you don't have a book but still want to tap into this free publicity source, why not donate something else and attach a note "donated by local poet [insert your name here]"? Every year I donate items I've purchased from my travels abroad, and I always meet someone who heard my name announced on TV or radio as a result of my donation.
Self-promotion is an art that can really open doors. There's nothing sweeter to a poet than to see his or her poems in print. The promotional work you do to further your writing career is meant to spark people's interest in your poetry. So keep writing and submitting your work to keep up with your public's demand. And remember that exciting possibilities will open up for you when you promote yourself!
Each edition of Poet's Market includes advice, interviews, and helpful information about writing and marketing poetry--not to mention over 1,800 publishing opportunities. Watch for the new 2004 edition due out in August.