It has happened to me, and I imagine it has happened to many of you: an aspiring poet is ready to “do something” with his or her work but needs a little help in knowing how to get it published (or “publicated,” as I have heard it called). Sometimes it is difficult to respond to such a request, but I have stumbled onto a few points that could be useful to others in giving direction to the emerging poet.
If the poet begins with an explanation that he has never written for anyone but himself but is now ready to share his poetry with the world, the consultant (you or I) might explain that publishable work needs to communicate as well as express. Purely expressive writing has an audience of one (the writer), while communicative writing has an imagined audience of people other than the writer. If a poem does not have potential value to a reader, an editor will not be interested in publishing it.
At an early point in the interview, a person might ask what the poet’s motive is for wanting to bring out or do something with her work. Some people haven’t thought about why–and worse, some hope to make money. I try to encourage people to work toward self-satisfaction and to consider achievement as the main reward.
Getting into the poetry itself, I sometimes find poems that consist of abstract emotion without image, or images without any perceptible theme or emotion. In response, one might ask the poet what makes a poem. Why does the topic of a given poem deserve (or even demand) to be a poem? Then, what (other than the registry of an emotion or the description of a scene) makes the material into a poem?
Also on the issue of form, it will sometimes be worthwhile to ask a basic question about the difference between prose and verse. Many poems, especially with inexperienced poets, are essentially prose sentences chopped up into lines. One could ask: what is the difference between poem X and a prose rendition using exactly the same words? This is related to the question of what makes a poem, and asking the question in one way or another might give the writer a useful perspective from the outer world.
Sometimes I find it necessary to discuss traditional poetry. Many novice poets write rhyming poetry without knowing the basic rules or principles of metrics. A poet wishing to write this kind of poetry needs to know that rhymed verse usually has meter; he also needs to know what meter is and how it works. Sometimes, having the poet read the poem aloud can help him see and hear the importance of meter. It doesn’t take too long to explain the difference between stressed and unstressed syllables; then, it doesn’t take much longer to explain how the aspiring poet could scan a sample poem, reconstruct the meter, and write a few lines or stanzas in the same form. As with free verse, I think many beginning poets write in imitation and don’t know how much technique is really there to analyze and practice.
Somewhere in the session, the consultant (still you or I) might also need to explain that someone who has had a modicum of success is not going to be able to channel a beginner straight into publication. If the emerging poet really does want to “do something” with her work, she needs to be willing to work on several aspects of writing–improving her craft, submitting work, promoting work. A person who wants the world to read her work needs to take all of these tasks seriously.
Naturally, some poets will balk at one or more of the above points, and someone who was looking for a connection or a quick fix will probably understand before long that such a thing is not likely to happen. I think there are diplomatic ways of conveying some of the above ideas, and I am not sure that I know the best ways. Most people who come in off the street to see me do not come back. I remember in particular one person who came in, took up a couple of hours of my time, asked me to read about seventy pages of poetry (which I read and returned with comments), and then did not thank me with a note or even in person when we met at the grocery store.
It’s an odd encounter, most of the time, but I can’t imagine just telling someone I’m too busy. Because I teach at a community college, I feel it is part of my civic duty to help people; as a writer, I feel bound to the community of fellow writers, and I believe it is part of the code to share knowledge. A poet who is taking the big step needs encouragement and honest advice, and we should be willing to respond when we hear those words: “Hi. I heard you were a writer, and I was wondering if you could help me.”
I wrote the above article for the WyoPoets newsletter when I was president of the organization in 1996. I thought there might be a couple of points of interest for poets today.