Poetry is one of the most difficult things to write well, but as in any artistic pursuit, truly great poets are not born, they’re made.
Writing as much as you can and setting aside time to write are important if you want to become a better poet—but writing is only one piece of the poetry puzzle.
Improve Your Poetry Writing
If you want to improve your poetry writing skills, there are a few things you need to do.
1. Read Poetry
It may sound obvious, but I’m amazed how many poets I know who have only one or two books of poetry in their homes. The best way to improve and succeed as a poet is to read poetry—both good and bad—and think deeply about what made it good or bad.
If you’re not reading poetry consistently, and reading it deeply, you won’t succeed in this already challenging genre.
In fact, don’t just read poetry—read a ton of other stuff, too. Books, catalogs, online reviews, even Tweets have lessons a poet can learn from.
2. Accept Other Interpretations
It’s not just possible, but likely, that reviewers and teachers and friends and fans will read your poem and interpret a meaning or a message that looks nothing like what you meant to say.
The thing is, they’re not wrong. Art means different things to different people. The minute you put a poem into the world for others to read, you surrendered the right to control what people think when they read it. It’s aggravating, but it’s unavoidable.
In addition, try not to let bad reviews and other criticisms of your work get you down. If the review is constructive, try to use it to improve your craft, but don’t worry about bad things amateurs say about your work to make themselves feel clever.
3. Read Your Poetry Out Loud
The rhythm, voice, and tone of poetry is what sets it aside from a bunch of random lines scribbled on a napkin somewhere. Capturing, understanding, and perfecting that voice is exponentially easier if you get in the habit of reading your drafts out loud.
You can even record yourself reading your poems so you can listen to the poem spoken aloud for another take on what it sounds like. Once you’ve done it enough, compile the best recordings into an audiobook.
Keep in mind that reading in public is an essential part of any successful promotional effort, so getting some practice is a good idea.
4. Avoid the Comparison Trap
The temptation to compare your success, your fan base, or your words to other poets’ is strong. But it rarely helps make you a better or happier poet. Get inspired by the greats, but don’t beat yourself up because your sister-in-law turned a brilliant phrase in her last haiku, or because your ex’s new beau is selling a thousand copies a month. Look to your own work, your own happiness, and your own career.
It’s also important to remember that many poetry scenes are rife with social drama. Don’t take the bait. Just write your words and focus your energy on your career.
5. Learn Basic Marketing
If you’re self-publishing, no one is going to do your marketing for you, which means you will need to get comforable with (and good at) putting yourself out there.
Yes, you majored in English Lit because you hated the idea of sales and marketing. Yes, there’s a part of you that feels like overtly selling your work is somehow selling out. But that doesn’t mean you’ll sell your poetry without marketing yourself. Take some classes at the local small business center or community college if you have to, but learn this skill and apply it to your career as a poet.
Learning professional book and cover design will also go a long way in supporting your marketing efforts. Great design will significantly impact how your poetry sells.
6. Find a Patron
This almost certainly won’t be a traditional patron in the old Renaissance fashion (although Patreon.com and other crowdfunding models may be changing that). But a position at a school or college, a residency program, or even a recurring and paying gig at a local coffee house can do the trick.
The trick here is not being paid for your poetry, but rather being paid for being a poet. This will take time, focus, drive, and an established reputation in your field. But once you find a patron (or more than one), you’ll find everything else in your writing career becomes substantially easier.
In a similar vein, your “street team” is invaluable—that group of true fans and friends who will tell everybody about your poetry and bring folks to your readings. Serve them well, so they’ll continue to help you.
7. Invest in Yourself
Whether it’s a writing workshop, a marketing class, or a vacation to rest your muse and fill up your tanks of inspiration, spend the time and money to keep growing as a poet and a person.
Exercise, eat well, and foster the best relationships in your life. The better you treat yourself, the better your poetry career will be. Forget the romantic illusion of the tortured artist. Life will kick you in the teeth plenty without you doing it on your own.
Remember, true poets aren’t selling their words. They’re selling their perspective, which means they’re selling themselves as people. To really make it as a poet, you must make that person you’re selling everything you want her to be. Compelling experiences make for compelling poetry, so do what you must to make your own experience as compelling as possible.
8. Break the Rules
Very few people stand out enough to make it as a poet (or much else in the art and literature space) by doing what everybody else does. Very few people successfully break out with marketing themselves by following all the basic rules all the time.
Throughout your poetry career, break the rules. Shatter the conventions. Spit in the face of the norms. Go nuts. Most of these experiments will fall flat, but a few could help you make your name. Of course, you first have to know all the rules cold. Otherwise you won’t know which rules to break, and how best to break them.
9. Separate Business and Work
Many poets I work with have a problem with the business side of things. They’re turned off by taking an overtly commercial approach to their art. One way to overcome this is to simply divide the tasks. When it’s time to write your poetry, be nothing but a poet. When it’s time to sell your poetry, become a marketing ninja of the highest order. Do that exactly as well as you do the artistic part of the job.
A good rule of thumb, if you can manage it, is to outsource the hardest stuff. If you really hate marketing, hire a publicity firm or take on a business partner. You can also outsource some of your most hated errands and admin tasks to give yourself more time to write and market your writing.
10. Write Fearlessly
The best poetry says the things people are afraid to say, and explores emotions most of us want to pretend aren’t there. Your best poetry will come when you tackle topics, experiences, styles, and themes that scare you. That’s true of every kind of writing, but especially true of poetry. It’s how you make that little handful of words so powerful and compelling.
Don’t be afraid to fail. Too many poets never really “go for it” because they fear they’ll miss their shot. Forget that. It’s better to try and fail than to chicken out. Besides, it makes a great story. Or even great inspiration for your next poem.
If you liked this post, here are some other articles you might love:
- Introduction to Metaphors: Poetry in Motion
- List of Poetry Literary Agents Now Accepting Submissions
- List of Poetry Publishers Currently Accepting Submissions