Friday, October 12, 2007

"Professional poet"?

I used to think, if you got paid for doing something, you were a professional. That was before I became a poet.

Ted Kooser remarked (in The Poetry Home Repair Manual) that most magazines will pay you as follows: two free contributor copies, one to keep for yourself and one to give to your mother. He was optimistic. I’ve had most of my successes in online journals, which don’t even provide copies. (I might have had a hard time giving my mother a copy of SCR anyway.) So far, the renumeration I’ve amassed from poetry amounts to one free magazine, a book prize, and a paid membership to a poetry site... total cash worth, about $80.00. It’s a good thing I like my day job.

Given that those are the working conditions of most poets, how exactly does one define “professional”? Or, since I can really only speak for myself, how can I claim that I’m a professional?

These would be some of my answers:

I claim I’m a professional because I take my art seriously. This doesn’t mean I’m all gloomy and Gothic, or even Byronic (“mad and bad and dangerous to know”). I’m as fond of a limerick as the next person (unless the next person happens to be Mad Kane), and there’s plenty of humor on these pages. It does mean that if people ask: “So, you write poetry?” I’ll answer “Yes.” I will not deprecate myself or my art: “Um, well, kind of.” “Oh, you know, it’s just a blog.” “Well, yes, but it’s not real poetry.” There have been times I might have engaged in such evasions, but they’re pretty much behind me now.

I claim I’m a professional because I take my craft seriously. I work hard at it. I revise poems that I think are worthwhile. I work at improving my poetry skills and seeking out new challenges. I’ve been to one poetry workshop and will probably go to more as I can afford them, and I’ve been active (intermittently) in some online workshops such as Sonnet Central and Desert Moon Review.

Formal poetry is very important to me in this work, not least because it exercises the poetic muscles systematically in a way that free verse doesn’t. It’s like a structured weightlifting routine compared to an hour of improv dance, you may burn the same number of calories, but weightlifting gives you specific goals that you either reach or don’t. When I compare, for example, my recent sonnets with my early ones, the difference amazes me.

I claim I’m a professional because I seek professional advancement. That mostly means trying to get published. It doesn’t happen by itself, you have to go out there and get it. Besides submitting to both online and paper journals, I’ve given lots of poetry readings (been on hold for a while due to some health problems, but I’m going to try to get rolling again after the New Year), and I’m in an ongoing process of getting a book together.

I claim I’m a professional because I support the community of my fellow practitioners. In an online setting, that means participating in communities like (just for instance) Sunday Scribblings and Writer’s Island. Check my sidebar: I don’t contribute regularly to all the communities there, but I do most of them. More importantly, I host such endeavors: I’ve hosted the Ringing of the Bards several times, the Sufi Poetry Carnival once, and I’m one of the co-hosts of the new Totally Optional Prompts site (our homage to the late, lamented Poetry Thursday).

I claim I’m a professional because I accept the calling. I accept the responsibility of hearing a voice from elsewhere. I will do my best to be true to that voice; when it calls, I will listen hard and do my best to speak what it tells me. I will not betray it through laziness, self-absorption, or prejudice. I will make myself a radio, a trumpet, a megaphone, a hollow flute, a seashell full of whispers. I will be the best poet it’s given to me to be. So help me God.

14 comments:

tumblewords said...

Nicely done! I respect the respect you give to this important calling! I admire both your work and your contribution to others' words. If I had my way,...

Russell Ragsdale said...

Great commitment is found in these words. Have you defined your poetic aims and made a statement of how you think poetry works? Thoses are good personal activities and you have probably already done them.

Well Done!

paisley said...

i do feel that you are an accomplished poet,, and if that is what a professional is,, then i must agree that you are one.. that is why i come here read what you have written and take note of the forms you use.. i often try them out and find joy in having done so.. i wouldn't mind if you stopped by my sites and commented on occasion especially when i have used a poetic form i have seen worked so lovingly on your site...of course i say this on a day when my post is trivial.....

tom said...

Gary Mex Glazner has written two books about being a professional poet: "How to Make a Living as a Poet" and "How to Make a Life as a Poet" that both contain stories, anecdotes, and other ideas on how to make a living off poetry, though most do not involve publishing.

I cannot consider myself professional, I've not made any money from poetry, but I will go with the more nebulous title of "poet"

Jo said...

I will make myself a radio, a trumpet, a megaphone, a hollow flute, a seashell full of whispers. I will be the best poet it’s given to me to be.

As you demonstrate here and every day, you are a very good poet indeed.

Russell Ragsdale said...

Tiel, I've put a new post on my blog that refers to this. I like very much the concept that we are just writing down what the secret world tells and shows us. Jack Spicer called it "taking dictation" and I believe in it.

Crafty Green Poet said...

Excellent post, your comments are very true and I love your poetry so in those terms you're certainly a professional

Patois said...

"I claim I’m a professional because I accept the calling." Beautifully put.

Dale said...

Wonderful post. I have one in the work that hits somewhat at a tangent to this -- I'd love to know what you think of it.

I have very mixed feelings about poetry as a calling -- it occupies, it seems to me, an uneasy, equivocal space between entertainer and priest in our culture (when its given any space at all). And poets are read, so far as I can tell, almost exclusively by other poets. (Which may actually be a good thing, in many ways. The exception of course is the lyrics of popular songs, which reach huge audiences, although they're usually -- to be polite, er, let's say hackneyed.)

arch.memory said...

I came to this post from something katy via Yuckelbel's Canon, leaving a trail of comments behind, and I am glad for this network. First, allow me to say that I love that Rumi quote that heads your blog. As for your post, it is so refreshing to read something this lucid, and to see someone asserting, with such simplicity and conclusiveness, that they are a poet.

The "professional" bit, however, I am not so sure about--mostly because a "professional poet" sounds like an oxymoron to me. I thought the whole point of being a poet is NOT being professional. I can think of a lot of things when I think of poets, but professional is not one of them. And I am not putting poets down, as I consider myself to be one. Rather, I always thought of the distance between "professional" and "poet" as one of the things I like about being a poet. See, I am a professional, for a living, and a poet, for another level of living, but separately--I don't care to bring one realm into the other. I think there is something almost perverse about this (modern?) notion make a living out of poetry (or art, or..). After all, aren't these things so precious precisely because they are such essential luxuries?

Perhaps it is needless to say that, as much as I agree with the premise (the assertion of being a poet) I do not agree with most of the justifications (perhaps because I do not agree with the "professional" part). They make poetry sound like such an.. industry. And poetry, for me, is anything but. I think it should be a pleasure, even at its most somber.

One more thing that I have to say about the last paragraph: as much as I believe in poetry as a calling, I do not believe it is "a voice from elsewhere". If anything, it is that voice "knocking from inside".

Rethabile said...

You're a poet...

goenchi said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
goenchi said...

Beautifully put - an assertion that helps every poet (professional or otherwise) who reads it. Very interested in the sufi poetry carnival and your views on the practice of formal poetry.

Poetry and Photography said...

I would call you a professional too.

"Professional" is a place one comes from. It is a commitment. It requires working with a poem until "right", until the quality of communication is high, taking craftsmanship as far as one is able. A professional poet grows as a person with his art, not separate from it.

You've put the boots on and are walking in them.