Advice to a Young Poet



I don’t hang out with a lot of artists these days.  It makes me all melancholy (and I really don’t need their help with this) when I figure out that it’s just a look and smell they wear.  I’m all lonely grumbling, “Where are the real mofos at?”  Questioning myself, like, maybe I’m being a little smug for deciding somebody’s else’s version of real is fake because it doesn’t fit my model.

This essay kind of lays out one of the curriculum sheets some of them seem to follow.  (There’s also the spoken word curriculum–see How to Be a Poet).  I liked it because it validated my isolation from these “artists,” but I’m gonna add an essay that challenges my notions (when I find the essay). 

Still frowning,
Ya Girl… 


Advice To A Young Poet  Richard Kostelanetz  (Penmiccan Magazine 2006) 

“Being a good man, he has character enough to make enemies. So has Frank Harris. So have I.”
–George Bernard Shaw, advice to a Young Critic: Letters 1894-1928  

First of all, my dear young person, you must take an MFA degree in poetry writing. Know that a BA won’t be enough in poetry’s increasingly competitive world; you must have “professional credentials” as well, just as lawyers must, especially if you want to get a job teaching poetry, even to prepubescent children.  Try to get into the Iowa Writing Program, because it is the oldest and still among the largest, with enough alumni respecting their “old school tie” to give you the practical equivalence of a Harvard MBA for working in international finance. Given roughly equal applicants for any writing job, most former Iowa MFAs involved in making a hiring decision in, say, academia or publishing will nearly always favor a supplicant advertising an Iowa degree. Should you be less fortunate and matriculate into another, less powerful MFA writing program, be sure to take classes with the most prominent poet on the staff. If this star be “on leave” for a year, as such stars are wont to be, wait for his or her return; be warned in advance that the name of any unknown instructor on your resumé simply won’t be noticed. Once you receive your degree, you can answer “poet” whenever asked what it is you do in life.  Don’t forget that poetry is far more competitive than business or law, superficial platitudes about the “community of poets” notwithstanding. Should you have a law degree, the odds that you might live off your receipts as a lawyer ten years from now are better than 50 per cent. Likewise if you have an MBA, even from a school less prominent than Harvard. Almost everyone with an M.D. will be employed forever in medicine. When you have an MFA in writing, the likelihood that you might in ten years earn your living from poetry or even the teaching of poetry is less than one per cent. The economic truth, obvious to everyone wise, is that any situation so competitive is necessarily more cutthroat. You must be no less ruthless than the most competitive turf warrior.  Dress like a poet. Advertise through your clothing and hair style, just as models (or streetwalkers) do, or else other poets will think you an apparatchik with pretensions. Have a veteran literary photographer take a picture of yourself looking earnest. No matter how much orthodontia you’ve had, don’t smile at the camera. However, don’t deceive yourself into thinking only these moves toward an appropriate appearance would be enough to establish your career.  Be sure to flatter famous poets whenever possible–send them appreciative letters, remind them that you’ve read not just their books but poems other than those titling their books (remembering that John F. Kennedy impressed Norman Mailer by citing not his most famous novel but Barbary Shore). Attend their poetry readings whenever possible, introduce yourself especially if you look sexually desirable, dedicate individual poems to them, and review favorably their latest books anywhere you can (because even the most prominent poets pay more attention to reviews than sales). You should learn to quickly and surely distinguish those prominent poets who are susceptible to copious butt-kissing from those who, alas, are not.  
Attend a summertime “writers’ conference,” even after you’ve begun to publish, not only to meet aspiring colleagues whose friendship might later be useful but to impress the faculty. Isolated from their homes and families for a week or two, these senior poets become more personally accessible than they would normally be. To facilitate faculty-student contact, the conference organizers often sponsor social hours during which alcohol flows freely and everyone with a drink in his or her hand can be approached. Never forget that a poet drunk has fewer resistances than a poet sober.  Give as many public readings as possible of your own poetry; teach “poetry workshops.” However, don’t advance the careers of any of your students and particularly don’t help them publish, because your superiors in the poetry biz will think less of you if you do. Never forget that poetry as an industry is not only highly competitive but very hierarchical–those positioned below you must be treated differently from those above. Your failure to observe this last rule can ruin your career.  
Develop a professional tag based upon something exotic in your background as, say, a black Icelander, a one-sixteenth American Indian, a Sudanese lesbian, a veteran of Soviet jails, a deaf fashion model who was sexually abused. Write poems about your exotic experience, if not purportedly representative of other people like yourself. Portray the experience of your ancestors in familiar contemporary terms, regardless of whether they thought as you do. If you can get publishers and publicists to acknowledge your exotic tag, you’ll be forever known as the umpty-ump poet, rather than a mere writer. The market value of such a tag, especially a currently fashionable tag, even if others have it, cannot be exaggerated, because it can be recalled where poems cannot.

Try to persuade the publisher of a literary magazine to let you select the poetry for its pages and, once you get such power, be sure to publish the work of other poets who double as poetry editors. They will then feel obliged to accept your own poems in return. Organize a series of poetry readings at your university or a nearby venue, such as a café or a literary bookstore that thinks it wants more customers than it would otherwise get. The poets invited to participate in your series will not only be impressed by your good taste, but they might later invite you to perform in their own reading series. Move to New York, San Francisco, or at worst Buffalo where you can make personal contact with “the main roosters and roostresses,” as my colleague Bob Grumman calls them. Join poetry societies and clubs that bestow prestige, while avoiding those that don’t–the easiest way to measure the former is the presence of people you feel are positioned above you. (Conversely, avoid those filled with people below you.) Make yourself conspicuous at poetry festivals and gatherings devoted to poetry; consider yourself successful when you’re invited to work the other side of the dais. 
In writing your own poetry, don’t do anything too conspicuously alternative either in content or form, for your poetry will be judged “acceptable” only to the degree that it resembles what other people are doing. Don’t express any sentiments that might be unacceptable to most poetry readers. Piously oppose war, rape, parental abuse, homelessness, AIDS neglect, etc.–be politically correct shamelessly, not only in your poems but whatever prose remarks you write to introduce your poems or yourself. Especially on the last count of political correctness, don’t make Ezra Pound’s mistake–your poems will disappear from public view unless they are great enough to overcome the obstacle you have needlessly placed in their path.  Avoid formal departures that would make anyone stop and wonder about what you might be doing technically. Poetry must look correct before it is read, especially by people in power, whose eyes instinctively turn away from anything that, as they say, “looks funny on the page.” Do not confuse the values of poetry with visual art or even concert music, where ambitious aspirants know they won’t get anyone’s attention unless they do something uniquely different from their predecessors. Writing poetry with character or a stylistic signature, as the great early moderns did, is definitely old-fashioned; it’s strictly for “wild men” nowadays.  Avoid activities that your colleagues might consider infra dig, such as working in advertising or finance, exhibiting your visual art, performing your music, or producing books about anything other than poetry. (Or should you need to do any of these ancillary things to make money, consider a pseudonym and don’t let your poetry colleagues know.)  Even when you have enough good poems to make a book, do not self-publish. Sooner spend your money entering book contests, no matter if hundreds are applying for a single prize, for even if you don’t succeed, older poets especially will think better of you for trying. Don’t forget that the worse thing your superiors can say about you is that you’re “no poet,” which means not that you fail to publish poems but that you don’t play your career by the standard rules.  Though measuring a poetic career is hard, consider yourself somewhat successful when you’re asked to write blurbs for other poets’ books (and expect favors in return), when you are asked by poetry editors to review new collections for their literary magazines, and when you are asked to judge contests to which entrants pay a fee (some of which money will be channeled to you). Consider yourself more successful when you receive a prize or grant for poetry writing.  


The truth you can’t forget is this: Because only small money, if any, can be made from publishing poetry per se, you must strive for power more than for the admiration of your colleagues or even a large readership. Only when you gain a position incorporating professional power will you ever earn a bourgeois salary as a “poet” and enough respect and leverage to get additional monetary rewards.  Do what I tell you, dear aspirant and you might even be rewarded with a university position in poetry, even though you’ve never published a poem that anyone especially likes or remembers.  ###

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