Sunday, March 21, 2010

Dream of the Poet or How to be a Poet in 140 Words or More...

The Dream of the Poet or The Kiss of the Muse 1859, Cezanne

January O'Neil (author of Underlife & blogger at PoetMom) received an interesting Twitter question--

What is the career path for a poet?

Here is her thoughtful response to it on her blog--

"Yesterday, I received a question on Twitter that I needed more than 140 characters to answer.

What is the career path for a poet?

I can only answer from my point of view, but I think the opportunities are wide open. But poets have to define for themselves what it means to be successful.

There's been a lot of talk of careerism and poetry on different Web sites. I think you have to be persistent and talented to make a career in poetry, just as in any field. With the many different ways to publish and the opportunities there are read in front of audiences, you can carve out a niche for yourself. However, the talent has to be there; otherwise, no one reads the books or comes to the readings.

I'd like to see more poets making money from the work they put into their craft."


I agree! I would LOVE *love* loVe! so see poets earn more for their poems. That would turn the Joe Jackson song ("What a wonderful world it would be, what a glorious time to be free...") into my permanent theme song.

I would love to see all writers and artists get paid more and be able to support themselves through their art. Can you imagine? Can you imagine if more people bought poetry books than Snuggies? They are about the same price (Snuggies may even be a bit more), but poetry warms you longer.

* * *

On Thursday, I talked a poetry lesson to my daughter's reading group at school. These were bright kids.

When we read Emily Dickinson's "I'm nobody, who are you?"

I'm nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there's a pair of us — don't tell!
They'd banish us, you know.

How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!

and I asked them what it meant, a little girl raised her hand.

She said, "I think it means that to be popular is so much work, it's so much easier to be yourself." She was in 4th grade and she pretty much nailed it! And they said, to be somebody you have to keep croaking your name like the frogs. Croaking your name. Now that, I want to use in a poem.

They asked other questions, if all the poets we read from were dead. Nope! I shared Maya Ganesan's book. Everyone was impressed. Someone their age writing such wonderful poems, the Vice Principal was especially impressed. I read a couple poems from my book (because the asked). This was harder because some of my poems aren't really appropriate for the 4th grade world. But some are and those I read.

They asked more questions-- what were Emily Dickinson's last words? (My daughter answered this-- "Let us go in; the fog is rising.")

What is your next book? Letters from the Emily Dickinson Room.

Are all the poems in your book about Emily Dickinson? No, I just wrote quite a few of them in the Emily Dickinson Room at the Sylvia Beach Hotel in Oregon.

And then, the young business man in the back, age 10 asked-- Is it hard being a poet? (I wasn't exactly sure what he meant as there are so many layers to that question, but I thought about it for a moment.) No, it's fantastic, I said.

He smiled and paused, then in a concerned voice said-- But it seems that it would be easy to go broke between books? Ah, the money question.

I told him-- poets and many other artists make their money various ways, but it's important for me to do what I love. Sometimes I teach classes or workshops at writer's conferences, sometimes I am paid for my readings, sometimes I work with individual poets and writers.

I told him--It's more important for me to do what I love.

He asked-- would you do it if you didn't get paid? (Ah, grasshopper, this is the magic question for anyone looking for what they should be doing.) Yes.

Another girl raised her hand in the back-- When your book gets published in October, will you still write poems? Yes, I said. In fact, I'm going home today to write a poem.

They cheered. Happy creative 4th graders. All of them want to follow their passions, no matter what they are. I hope they keep that. That is the career path to whatever you want to do-- listen to your heart and head in that direction. There are no maps in this world only a borderless land for you to enjoy.



  1. Absolutely beautiful. The seeds of inspiration you planted during your visit with those brilliant children will continue to grow for quite sometime.

    Funny enough, your words inspire me as well.

    Thank you...and here's to replacing all Snuggies with toasty, yummy, poetic art.

  2. When I taught a group of 5th graders, they were surprised to hear poets don't live in mansions! Ha!

  3. I think you are living the poet's life. You've found a way to make poetry work for you, which is an added bonus to the act of writing poems in my humble opinion.

    Loved hearing about your classroom experience. Yea you!

  4. I love this post! The kids sound just darling. And so smart!

  5. i agree that you really are living the kind of poetry life i so admire! and what a fantastic group of kids ;)

  6. What an incredible class :) I'm sure they'll never forget that day. And yes, like Writer Bug said, they're very smart.

  7. Thank you, Lisa. Appreciate that!

    Valerie--I love that about the mansions. Yes, when they saw my book they said, "You're famous" and I thought of Naomi Shihab Nye's poem, "The river is famous to the fish..." ;-)

    Thanks, January! It's nice hearing that.

    WB & Jessie- Thanks for your notes! I was surprised how smart these kids were. A good time!

    Maya-- yes, it was a great class and they loved your work. They were really impressed by your book!


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