This post has sat in my drafts for over a year while I’ve thought about whether or not to post it. It’s been rewritten and tweaked multiple times, but I think it is time.
Let’s have a discussion. (Long post ahead.)
I am not a teacher. I don’t work for education. I don’t edit a literary journal. I have no writing degree, graduate or otherwise. And yet I am a poet.
I write this because it seems like nearly all of the poet blogs, poet bios, and poet anything I see about poets mentions at least one of those things. Teaching, editing, and fancy degrees. And these are all noble things. I am thankful to teachers and editors. We need them. Degrees of higher learning can be very beneficial. But they do not define the making of a poet.
Poetry is a notoriously low (or nearly no) paying job. There is no harm or shame in keeping a day job when you are a writer of any kind. Only the lucky few get to have “making up words” as their only job. Having a day job that has nothing to do with the written word does not discredit the writer. Having a degree in something other than language or writing, or even no degree at all, does not discredit the writer. And yet, it is easy to feel like it does.
These thoughts are coming from just one person. Me. While my hands are on the glass of the shop window and I’m peering into the big world of poetry in which I don’t feel like I have a place yet. To someone who has no place and is looking to make one… this is a trend I’ve noticed.
The unfortunate side of this is that for a new poet (and many experienced poets too), writing is already daunting. Submitting your work is daunting. Going through bio after bio in a journal or blog after blog and seeing that you are the odd man out by not living a life of writing degrees or literary jobs is daunting. It’s a fast track to making a poet feel like they don’t belong. That they aren’t a real poet.
That seems to be a theme in the writing world, doesn’t it? What makes a “real” writer.
I’ve also noticed two breeds of poets. I’m sure we could break this down into many more types, but for the sake of this post I am looking at a generalized view. There are those who study their craft intensely, taking workshops and doing personal study, reading about craft and breaking down the poetry of others to feel like they understand the technique. Then there are those who just write.
One is not better than the other in my eyes.
For some people the study is extremely important to them. It’s how they create their best work. And especially if you want to follow a particular form or style of poetry, then I think study is a very good and important thing.
For others poetry is a feeling without textbook definition. If I am not following a specified form, this is the category I fall into. My study is almost solely reading the poetry of many, many other poets both modern and classical. It’s identifying in those readings what ‘feels’ like the flow of poetry to me, and what tosses me out of the story or mood. In some ways this is study, but it is not the diagramming and journaling form of study that I mentioned above.
I feel like I have learned a lot simply from reading the work of others. I have learned new ways of writing I want to try. I have learned ways of saying things that I had never considered. I have seen examples of poetry that are similar to the words bouncing around in my head that, prior to reading, were not sure how to form themselves and now are ready to give it a try. Reading the work of others makes me fall more and more in love with poetry and inspires me more and more to tell my own stories.
I don’t break down the poem in any form other than the conversation I have with it in my head. For me personally, it feels presumptuous to do otherwise. This is because this is the exact part of poetry I hated most in school. Who am I to say what the poet meant?
I have said before that for me poetry is truth. The truth that I mean when I write it and the truth that you glean from reading it may be very different, but that is okay and that is the beauty of poetry. Specific enough to translate a feeling, while often vague enough to not specify something so exactly the same way prose might. Of course there are exceptions to this. Poetry is often a wonderful land of exceptions. This is one of the reasons I think it can be so inclusive if we let it.
I’d already been thinking and working on this post for awhile when I started reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, “Big Magic”. When I saw that even she addressed part of this issue – validation of being a writer by having a literary degree – I felt like this post may be a good thing to put out into the world after all. It isn’t just me feeling this way.
I want to make something clear. I mean no ill will toward those writers who do have day jobs in the literary world or have literary degrees. We, as writers, need people in those jobs, and there is a lot to be learned from the right teachers. But I worry that other new writers who do not fit that bill, especially in poetry, will see the overwhelming list of credentials for the poets being published and rather than fighting for their art and their words and insisting on telling their stories… they will give up.
A writer is a writer because they write. No other facet of their life makes them a writer. The other facets of their life is what shapes and informs their writing. The other facets of their life help to create their stories and their ideas. And those facets are a combination of what the world gives us and what we choose to make of ourselves in the world.
No matter how you choose to shape yourself, if you write, you are a writer. Being similar to others who have come before you does not make you unoriginal. Being different does not mean you have no place.
Just write. As easy and difficult as that may be. If you want your words to find a place in the world, they have to be written first.
And then, when they’re written, write more. Don’t give up.
*Photo by user cromaconceptovisual at Pixabay, creative commons usage