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Pictured: a real poet. (Image: Archi Banal)
Pictured: a real poet. (Image: Archi Banal)

SocietyOctober 19, 2023

Help Me Hera: Am I a real poet?

Pictured: a real poet. (Image: Archi Banal)
Pictured: a real poet. (Image: Archi Banal)

I’m not published, I’m always coming runner up in slams, and I’m feeling left behind. How do I get my work out there?

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Dear Hera,

I’ve been sharing my poetry in slams for years now, never winning the big titles, always coming runner up. All the other poets I perform with are being published, either physically with their own books, or online. I feel like I’ve been left behind, and maybe this is due to the fact that I’m a very offline person, and don’t get to hear about these opportunities.

I want to get my work out there, and be established and considered a poet, but I have no idea how. How do I win the slams, be published, and get my work out there? Am I even a poet if I have no publications to my name?


Potential Poet

A line of dark blue card suit symbols – hearts, clubs, diamonds and spades

Dear PP,

Congratulations on choosing the one profession you need exactly zero qualifications for. Anyone can call themselves a poet, because there are poets everywhere. 

Koko the gorilla signing “comfortable hole, bye”: poet. 

The baby on the bus screaming: ‘I am NOT a baby!’: poet.

A dog barking at itself in the mirror? Also poet. 

The best poets in the world are children around the age of six, who make statements of blistering philosophical clarity and construct metaphors Nobel Laureates would kill for. After that, it’s all downhill, and we spend the rest of our lives trying to figure out how to make the world feel new again.  Or as Louise Gluck says: We look at the world once, in childhood. The rest is memory.

Publishing poetry doesn’t make you a poet any more than walking around with binoculars and a small notebook makes you a birdwatcher. Watching birds is what makes you a birdwatcher. Writing poetry is what makes you a poet. If anyone says you can’t be a birdwatcher because you’re using the wrong type of binoculars, you’re dealing with a hall monitor of the human soul. There’s a particular kind of person who would copyright the moon if they thought they could get away with it. But consider Emily Dickinson, possibly the best poet to ever live, who only published 10 of her 1,800 poems during her lifetime, and spent the rest of her time sitting indoors and preparing herself for death. 

Still, it’s all very well to go around saying public gratification is meaningless, but that’s not much of a consolation if you’re not getting any. After all, the heart wants what it wants. It’s hard to be the perpetual runner up, always taking second place in the Crufts pedigree dog show. You sound like you’ve been working hard, and for once in your life you’d like a win! But being runner up is still a big achievement. It means you’re doing something right, and your work is being recognised, even if you aren’t taking home the blue ribbon. You should be celebrating these victories as victories, not near misses.  

There’s nothing wrong with being ambitious. The trick is to be ambitious about the right thing. But you’ve got three distinct and totally achievable goals here, which is a great place to start.

If I were you, I’d concentrate on one of your goals. So why not start with the big one: completing a manuscript of poetry. Even if it’s not perfect, the process will teach you a lot, and you’ll have a ton of new material for journal submissions and poetry slams. You can then either send it out to publishers or burn it secretly in the middle of the night. 

The first thing I’d say is take your time. We don’t all have to be on the Forbes 30 under 30. 

I think there’s a balance to be struck. You can’t wait until your writing is perfect to publish, otherwise you’ll be waiting forever. And there’s a kind of energy you have when you’re young, which, like fancy bread, is better fresh. But you’ve also got your whole life ahead of you. You can only publish your first book once, and for better or worse, your first book is what people tend to pay attention to, so you might as well pull out all the stops, and make it as good as you possibly can. It’s a lot smarter than publishing prematurely and living to regret it.

A line of fluorescent green card suit symbols – hearts, clubs, diamonds and spades

 You say you’re missing out on opportunities because you’re not very online, but there are ways to circumvent this. Even if you can’t be bothered malingering on social media, you can subscribe to various literary newsletters like the International Institute of Modern Letters, or check The New Zealand Society of Authors website. You can create a spreadsheet with submission dates and competitions. Better yet, you can share the spreadsheet with friends, and ask other writers to contribute. You could also start a writing workshop. The best way to sustain interest and enthusiasm is by having lots of mutual support and encouragement. You could enrol in a writing course if you prefer. But the free version works just as well. It’s a good way to set deadlines, challenge yourself, and build community. 

But the best way to improve your writing is to ignore everyone and write for yourself. Or the dead. Or the kitchen drawer. It’s great to be ambitious, but your ambition is always going to feel empty if it’s contingent on the approval of others. It’s easy, in a moment of frustration and rage, to think “I’m going to create a POEM that is so COMPETENT.” But there’s no point making art that appeals to the greatest number of people, otherwise you might as well be writing copy for a bank. 

If you’re writing in order to seek acclaim, your poetry begins to sound like propaganda. If you’re busy trying to write something publishable, or god forbid, profound, it suddenly becomes a million times harder, like trying to ski downhill in handcuffs.

So how to unshackle yourself? I think you have to carve out a little cognitive dissonance and allow yourself to believe nobody is going to read it. Tell yourself whatever lies you need to accomplish this. If you can find a way to give yourself permission to get fast and wrong and ugly, to take off your beret and fling it into the sun, that’s when your writing starts to come alive. 

It’s easy to feel like publishing is a race and you’re lagging behind. But there’s a beautiful quote by Ocean Vuong about competition in the arts which compares writing to a racetrack. When you take away all the manmade contraptions – the fences, the jockeys, the finish line – all you’re left with is a group of horses running together in a field. 

I know you want to win. But the best way to get there is to forget about the finish line, close your eyes, and run for the feeling. If you can find a way to do that, you’ll be faster than you ever thought possible. 

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