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Chapter #9 - Can Poetry be a Career?

i. Who Is Your Promoter?

The commercially successful poet writes prolifically, promotes in all directions and seeks opportunities to read poems to others. First he reads a lot of poetry without pay while paying his dues. When asked what he charges for a reading he is not hesitant to name a price, nor is he hesitant to renegotiate, or do freebies.

ii. Do You Have a Literary Degree or a Handicap?

There are many poets who have no literary degree for each one who does. About 80 percent of American adults have finished high school. All of them know how to communicate in writing to at least a minimal degree. 25 percent of adults have at least one four year college degree. Only 3 percent or less of those are in communications and less than that in arts. If you have such a degree and a strong interest in poetry, you will have laid the groundwork for a more successful career as a poet, most likely teaching poetry, as well as taking your writing on the road and sending it to publishers. But poets can come from any interest area. If you start young, and learn writing skills in the universities, you will likely find many opportunities. If you are also talented and interesting, you will have the skills to take advantage of those opportunities. Many skilled academic poets have few promotional skills. Poetry is not generally considered a very lucrative field, but fulfilling for other reasons.

iii. Identify Your Hopes and Dreams

There are many poets who did/do not have academic degrees. It is possible in our age of literacy to have a lot to offer as a poet without having accumulated high honors in college. Each poet must consider his ambitions and goals. Many write for modest reasons and are satisfied to write for a small readership. Some have hopes of great acclaim or a best seller poetry book. Knowing what must be done to achieve a goal can help the poet along the road or make him realize that he did not want it all that badly.

iv. Editing and Distribution: The Real Advantages of Publishing

It may sound as if the prospects of commercial success for a poet are pretty dim unless he teaches college. Yet many poets continue to write, hoping for wider publication, and at least some monetary rewards. Few poets become fabulously wealthy from their writing; but a good poet with skills in writing poetry has a great number of related and marketable skills. He can therefore make a significant mark in writing by starting with writing poetry.

v. Learn To Appreciate Any Publisher Who Prints Your Work

This author attempts to point out some factors that will help the poet approach profit making in a rational way that can produce results. Learn the dead ends and the opportunities first. Persist in the right directions when you have learned them. Be very appreciative when you find publishers willing to publish your work or to pay for it. Such people can be of great value in helping you to steer your career wisely.

vi. Never Underestimate Your Editor

A reputable publisher will help you with editing and distribution. You must try to learn to write so well that editing is not necessary, and then utilize the skills of the best editor available, to make your writing even better. Even when editing is not necessary it can be helpful. An editor can help the writer understand better how an intelligent reader might misunderstand what the poet has written and therefore enable the poet to correct the problem before it gets into print.

vii. Learn More Than Writing: Let Your Readers Know You

Distribution also is partly the poet's responsibility. If you get a book published you must go out and promote it at poetry readings, book sales and signings. Even a small scale publication will sell much better when the readers have a chance to get to know the poet.

viii. Newspapers, Newsletters, and Readings are Opportunities for a New Poet: Reach Out.


If you want to promote your writing, you must try to become known at home as well as nationally or internationally. Until you try, you won't know whether your natural readership is the home crowd or a distant one. If you have time to spend promoting your work, definitely examine the local options. Newspapers look for poetry as filler. They have to fill every column every day. They must have a great amount of material that is flexible enough to fit any given blank spot in the page as it is being made up. Read the poems published in your local paper to see what the editor seems to prefer. Don't assume that he has no wider latitude than what you have seen in print.


There are likely many businesses who have small newsletters in your town. If you have a lot of writing that you think could have popular appeal to their readers, go to such businesses and meet their newsletter editors. Take some samples of your work with you. If you get accepted by one of these newsletters, learn more about their business and try to write a few poems specifically for them. Don't be too disappointed if they don't see the value in all of them. Always think a little about the rejections you receive and reexamine your first assumptions about the publisher. Take enough samples that the editor can see your range of skills. Just as you have to cull out the best he will also.


To get yourself prepared to do readings, first try to find a group of poets who meet to read their poems to each other. There may be a poetry club at a local school or college. Check to see if guests are welcome at their meetings. Start by reading one or two poems at a meeting and listening to the readings and comments by the other participants. If you can become accepted at such an organization, you may find that reading opportunities will come along with your participation. Offer to do readings locally at schools, colleges, senior centers, civic clubs and churches. When you think you are ready to start doing readings, select a group of poems you think is appropriate for each type of audience and read in front of a mirror. When you are ready, go to a school for example and take a sample of ten poems along. Talk to the principal about which teachers he/she thinks might be interested, or ask to visit with teachers of communications or English, then meet the teachers one at a time.

Reading for Senior Adults is a Valuable Opportinity

At the senior center, talk with the activity director about your interest and willingness to provide a presentation of poetry. Pay is likely to be low or none for such an event; but the experience of seeing the response of mature people to your poetry is of great value. Nursing homes are another option that may be even more demanding as there is a wider range of responses. Some people may seem completely unresponsive until you have finished and then surprise you with a favorable response. Residents may not waste their energy applauding, but will willingly tell you their impressions later. After you have finished, go around and talk with each of the residents who attended.

Colleges Have Budgets

If your poetry is ready for readings at colleges or junior colleges you may find a varied response from the students, but better pay, as colleges have budgets for such activities. You may read in a noisy lunchroom or an assembly hall. The pay may be the same for both.

Arts Centers and Arts Commisions

If you want to do poetry reading and writing workshops, check your state arts commission. They may subsidize your presentations by matching funds so you can charge the school or city arts center less, and still earn the same amount for your presentation. If your city has an arts center or an adult education center you may be able to affiliate with it.

Article written by Don J. Carlson. All Rights Reserved

For more information, please contact: Don J. Carlson

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