How do I develop my skills as a poet if I cannot (currently) afford a workshop?
September 30, 2012 1:36 PM   Subscribe

How do I develop my skills as a poet if I cannot (currently) afford a workshop?

I've recently become very interested in pursuing poetry, and have been reading as many collections as I can get my hands on. I'm a grad student, writing my PhD in the humanities (though not Eng Lit related), and I've found that reading and writing poetry in the evenings and weekends has eased my anxieties in other aspects of my life, and has re-ignited something inside me, creatively. I'm all about it. This has been a solitary activity of course, mostly just me picking up as many volumes as a I can, and getting a handle on different schools and writing styles. Anne Sexton is currently at the top of my list, she knocks me off my chair every damn time.

I've started writing a bit of poetry, and used to write a fair bit when I was in my late teens and early twenties. I'm interested in being serious about this and pursuing it in a more professional way. I've looked into workshops in my city, and I found one that seemed legit, though unfortunately I can't afford the cost at the moment. It's a little too steep. Though, I may be able to afford it after the Xmas holidays.

I guess my questions are:

1) If I can't attend a workshop at the moment, how can I develop my skills as a poet? How do I know what I'm writing is any good and/or worth pursuing?

2) What are the best poetry magazines, websites, forums I need to know about? I follow the Poetry Foundation on Twitter, and found a few blogs that feature contemporary poets, but I'd be grateful if someone could point me in the right direction for good online sources.

3) Anne Sexton guts me every time. Are there other poets similar to her that I should know about? I've read a fair bit of Plath, Lowell, Snodgrass and Adrienne Rich... but please help me find similar poets to Ms. Sexton.

4) A few months from now, having worked on my poetry in a more studious way, what is the first step to putting it out in the world? Readings? Journals? I know how to go about publishing in the academic world... but how is this done in the poetry world?

Any and all advice is very much appreciated, Me Fites!! Thank you so much.
posted by hollypolly to Writing & Language (15 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
There are so many helpful resources (and so much good advice) over at the Poetry Free-for-all it's ridiculous. Read extensively before you post--it's a tough crowd, but doing your background research will pay off when you're finally ready for a critique. Good luck!
posted by doreur at 1:49 PM on September 30, 2012

I think "practice" is probably the best answer to this question, but if you'd like something approximating formal instruction, there is currently an online Modern & Contemporary American Poetry class taught out of the University of Pennsylvania through Coursera.

The focus is on reading and interpreting poetry, not writing, but perhaps you may find it useful or interesting.
posted by Asparagus at 1:49 PM on September 30, 2012 [3 favorites]

Find the writers groups in your area? a lot of those can be free. Also, poetry events and such. Open mike nights, if brave. Try seeing if you can audit writing classes?
posted by Jacen at 2:02 PM on September 30, 2012

Poets & Writers has great, pretty active message boards on a variety of topics, and might be a good way for you to make some writer friends to exchange work with. There are also databases for contests, scholarships, etc.

Duotrope is where you'll want to go once you get ready to submit. You can search for poetry markets and sort by acceptance rate. There are all sorts of different strategies for getting your work out there: some people will suggest that you aim high (The Paris Review) and then, after getting rejected, try less competitive markets; I, however, recommend submitting to magazines you're familiar with and/or magazines that are less competitive so that you can build up a publication record before you send your stuff to the most difficult magazines.

If you want to keep up on contemporary poetry in general, you might read Parnassus. You might also buy this year's Best New Poets anthology.

Some contemporary, post-confessional writers that might tickle your fancy: Anne Carson (maybe start with "The Glass Essay"), Louise Gluck (The Wild Iris, Meadowlands), Sharon Olds.
posted by munyeca at 2:13 PM on September 30, 2012 [3 favorites]

You might also investigate creative writing offerings through your university-- does your school offer an MFA in writing? If so, you might be able to talk to the instructors of their workshop about the possibility of sitting in on that class. If not, I bet there are undergraduate creative writing workshops you could sit in on. While that may not be the most professional option, it is a good way to get readers, and might be a good first step. If not, the creative writing faculty can probably still point you in helpful directions.
posted by dizziest at 2:18 PM on September 30, 2012

That said, it occurs to me that you may not want to bring this interest onto campus, especially if it's a stress reliever for you and grad school is (as it so often is) a major source of that stress. It might still be worth chatting with the creative writing faculty, as they probably know more about your local poetry scene than we do, and can tell you more about the reputation of the workshop you found, and perhaps recommend others.
posted by dizziest at 2:21 PM on September 30, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks so much, everyone! This is so helpful.

@dizziest Sitting in on a class was an option I hadn't even thought of. I'm currently writing up my thesis in a different city than where I'm pursuing my phd, so I'm not affiliated with the universities here. However, I'm an alma mater of one, so perhaps that's a bit of an in for me.

@munyeca Thanks so much for these recommendations! I just ordered the Best New Poets collection, I look forward to reading it. I'm actually a big Anne Carson fan, she used to teach at my alma mater (McGill), but sadly I think she's moved on elsewhere. I'll look into Gluck and Olds, thank you so much!
posted by hollypolly at 2:34 PM on September 30, 2012

Another option is to start your own poetry writing group and see what happens.

In addition to writing on a regular basis, don't forget to go back and reread your older work. Some poems may need light edits, others might be fine on their own.

Some of the places I've submitted to have time to tell me what didn't work for them about a poem, but that might be rare. One place that accepted a poem had me revise it three times. A different place thought my title might be offensive, so I changed it before publication. So I had my skills calibrated to a surprising degree by different editors.

I didn't know any better when I started out, so I just started submitting my best work after targeting markets that seemed like good fits for my genres. Duotrope has tons of listings. Good luck.
posted by dragonplayer at 3:20 PM on September 30, 2012

Anne Sexton is amazing. Google confessions list poetry for more of that stripe.

You might also want to check out Lucille Clifton, Mary Oliver and ohhhh Sharon Olds. My old creative writing teacher always told us that reading is really important to improving your writing skills.

If you are at a university, they should have lots of poetry anthologies and textbooks. This can be a great way to check out different writers and learn more about what you like.

I was going to also suggest online groups and in person writing groups, but that's already been covered. Good luck!
posted by bunderful at 3:35 PM on September 30, 2012

It's definitely possible that you can find a writer's group out there somewhere—I have a few friends that used to do this, although not with poetry. But, group or not, I think the short answer is keep reading, and keep writing. If what you're writing matters to you, then it's worth pursuing, whether it gets published or not. That's my opinion, anyway.

As for specific poets, I'll list a few that I've obsessed over at various points in time. They aren't necessarily exactly like Sexton, but Sexton, Plath, et al. (i.e., the confessional poets) are what really opened up the world of poetry to me, so perhaps you'll also enjoy some of my other favorites.

—Elizabeth Bishop
—T.S. Eliot
—Robert Frost
—Louise Glück
—Donald Justice
—Li-Young Lee
—Ranier Maria Rilke
—Wallace Stevens

As for confessional poets I didn't see you mention, look into John Berryman and Sharon Olds.

I am just so excited whenever I see someone else being excited about poetry. For me, it's the truest language of the soul. Best of luck to you!
posted by divisjm at 3:39 PM on September 30, 2012

Rainer Maria Rilke, that is. Yikes!
posted by divisjm at 3:43 PM on September 30, 2012

go to slams, open mics and readings; get exposure to what other modern poets are doing right now and how the crowds are reacting. Readings and open mics are usually free, slams are usually paid but cheap cheap. Don't feel obligated to participate if you don't want to- just get exposure.

Start hanging out with other poets. Then you don't need a workshop because you'll be informally workshopping and critiquing with one another fairly regularly.

Look for poetic prose; it shapes your writing in a totally different way.

Get a book that lists all the different poetry forms. Try all of them.
Get a book that lists a shitload of literary devices. Try all of them.
Go to the poetry section of the library or bookstore. Pick a few out that appeal to you based on the cover or title, and read them. Find out what works for you and what doesn't. You might find yourself surprised.

Look for the small poetry/literary magazines in your city/ county/ province/ country/ continent/ hemisphere/ language. Check them out. Submit. Get rejected. Repeat.

Find the poetry contests that you're eligible to enter. Enter them. Fail. Repeat.

Here is wikipedia's list of literary magazines. It's far from comprehensive and these things change really frequently, and not all literary magazines take poetry, but it's a starting place.

Here is a pretty useful site that lists a lot of different resources including contests, journals and calls.

Consider making a chapbook and performing; it's one of the easiest ways to get your stuff out there. Note, however, that if you go this route, you're not neccesarily going to get the academic respect or accolades that you might want. It's a different scene.

Lastly, if you really want to be a poet, you need to accept that almost nobody is ever going to give a shit about your poetry, and you will probably never get published and you'll almost certainly be forgotten. It's hard, painful, exhausting work and sometimes you might be overwhelmed with disgust at yourself, because you realise that you're mining your deepest and most painful and personal and sometimes, your most holy moments, for fodder to feed your poetry mill. And then you'll realise that you can't stop, because that mining process rarifies and defines those emotions and experiences for you, and that even if no one ever reads it or appreciates it, you have to write. So write for yourself first of all. But at the same time, writing is a form of communication, of touching others in a meaningful way, and it's precious. So write for your audience first of all.

Of course, it's different for everyone, so that advice might not even apply... YMMV.
posted by windykites at 4:11 PM on September 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

Also nthing Rilke. Rilke and e.e. cummings are my two favourite poets. Oh, and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
posted by windykites at 4:13 PM on September 30, 2012

How do I develop my skills as a poet if I cannot (currently) afford a workshop?

You write a shit ton of poetry. You write and write and write. Try filling a notebook with Bernadette Mayer's Poetry Experiments. That's a good start.

Also, my favorite poet, Ted Berrigan, wrote an exquisite book called On the Level Everyday, which is not only a deeply engaging discussion of his poetics, but a raw, honest assessment of how to live one's life as a poet. It's an amazing, loving work; I can't recommend it (or Berrigan) enough.
posted by deliciae at 11:02 PM on September 30, 2012 [3 favorites]

If I can't attend a workshop at the moment, how can I develop my skills as a poet?

Here's W.H. Auden's curriculum for an ideal College of Bards, much of which can be pursued at home:
1) In addition to English, at least one ancient language and two modern languages would be required.
2) Thousands of lines of poetry in these languages would be learned by heart.
3) The library would contain no books of literary criticism, and the only critical exercise required of students would be the writing of parodies.
4) Courses in prosody, rhetoric and comparative philology would be required of all students, and every student would have to select three courses out of courses in mathematics, natural history, geology, meteorology, archaeology, mythology, liturgics, cooking.
5) Every student would be required to look after a domestic animal and cultivate a garden plot.
posted by Iridic at 1:03 PM on October 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

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