Finding Success as a Poet

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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.

I 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.

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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.

Fame

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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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