I’ve been running a poetry show for almost two decades. It’s an irreverent bit of nasty business, but we mean well and want the best for the poets who come through the door. That said, here are five things you can do to improve as a poet today, from one of the most sensitive hearts running one of the most insensitive rooms around.
1) Shoot for More Poems, Fewer Back Rubs
My 12 year old niece can write a poem. It will be a bad poem, but it will be earnest, and will describe the world as she sees it, which as it turns out, won’t be as unique as she thinks it is. And that’s okay because she’s 12. If she wants to write poems to get attention, then she’ll get every head pat I have to give until my arm slides out of its socket and onto the floor. She’s not trying to be a great poet. She’s trying to receive adoration. That’s what 12 year olds do. If your binary age starts with any number other than zero or 1, you should be shooting for a higher artistic mission than my 12 year old niece (who, for the record, doesn’t even like poetry).
2) Shut the Fuck Up and Listen
It’s easy to go to an open mic and pick apart why every poet is substandard. Try giving your inner critic the night off and see what the poets around you are doing right, regardless of what they’re doing wrong. We are surrounded by lessons. Whenever I’m struggling to get writing, I go to an open mic and listen. In about fifteen minutes (assuming one poet hasn’t hogged the mic that whole time) my wheels start clicking.
3) Shut the Fuck Up and Read
There’s a reason every published writer offers this same piece of advice: because it’s part of the job. Well, technically, writing is the job, but reading is sort of the job training. And while you might be able to convince someone to give you a job having expended only half of the necessary effort, do you think people won’t notice you’ve been sitting in the break room way past your lunch hour every day? Writing is like driving, and how much you’ve read suggests how far you’ll go creatively. Suffice it to say, there are a lot of tricycles in poetry being pumped by some pretty out of shape legs.
No one cares about the poems you plan to write, publish or make into a book someday. If you cannot execute, your work does not exist, and your idea is waiting to be picked up by someone else (and it will be). And really, how much ramp-up do you need to start these processes? It’s poetry, for god’s sake. Sit down and start writing, submitting or editing. Treat your words as clay instead of bits of found gospel and change them later as you improve the idea or your abilities. You know…practice the actual craft of your art. You want to know how many poems I’ve completed? NONE OF THEM. I reserve the right to improve them until I die, or until Kevin Young says they’re done. Don’t know who Kevin Young is? See the previous piece of advice about reading.
5) You Can’t Squad Yourself into Being a Better Poet
This one is only half true. Proximity to better poets coupled with something resembling a work ethic can make you a better poet. But there’s a big difference between proximity (shared space) and slavish devotion (fanaticism). You can like or tweet yourself into a lot of things, but becoming a better poet isn’t one of them. Quit being a sycophant and write more dope poems. It’s not 1950. You don’t have to wait to get published by Poetry magazine to be known or to develop an audience. I know it’s a scary world out there, but it only gets scarier when you hide your weaknesses behind someone else’s shine because eventually, you’re going to get found out.