When I first got serious about writing poetry (2003-ish), the measures of success seemed relatively simple: delight in the writing process, publish poems in journals, win a book contest and find a poetry community. While all have been elusive at various times and in varying degrees, the only one that’s entirely evaded me (to date) is “win a book contest.” And since the current manuscript was a semi-finalist/finalist in five really great contests this year, I hope even “win a book contest” isn’t too far fetched. (And please, let it be not too far off. LOL)
So why is it so easy to feel like a failure?
Part of it, admittedly, is personality. Patience is not my strong suit, I’m my worst critic, etc., etc. But part of it is also that the traditional measures of success — fame, fortune — aren’t at play in poetry. Even the measures other kinds of writers use aren’t entirely relevant to poets, as detailed in a 2013 piece by poet (and Writer’s Digest Senior Content Editor) Robert Lee Brewer. In it, he questions the real value of publication credits, money, fame, artistic achievement and immortality. When poet Kelli Russell Agodon wrote about measuring success as a writer in 2015, she also warned poets against using bank accounts and publication credits as guideposts.
The age of social media teases another measure of success: virality. Typically, that measure doesn’t apply to poetry, either. Except when it does. Maggie Smith’s “Good Bones,” for example, shattered the sound barrier in 2016 and made its way to primetime television in 2017. Social media has made us crave other kinds of attention online, too. Currently on Twitter, for example, catching the eye of Kaveh Akbar can help a poem make the rounds, as with this beautiful poem by J. Jennifer Espinoza, which has hundreds of likes and retweets.
Neither kind of viral attention is pursuable, of course. They occur on their own and for reasons outside anyone’s control. (And sometimes, as noted in a blog post by Sandra Beasley, it can be “bittersweet.” When a poem — like “Good Bones” — about coping with atrocity is popular, it means we’re coping with atrocity.)
So with the impracticality of traditional measures and the happenstance of social media measures, it’s no wonder it’s difficult to feel successful or identify the outcomes that define a poet’s success. A pessimist/realist may adopt a version of the X-files creed — Trust no one — and say, Count on nothing. Still others would insist, Just stop worrying about success. There’s wisdom in both of those approaches.
However, it would be disingenuous to say none of it matters to me. It does. It matters deeply. And perhaps I should be embarrassed to be so earnest. But I’m not. And so I return to those success markers I recognized back in 2003: I want my poems to find readers, and I want my book to find a publisher. The unabashedly earnest poet says, Those accomplishments will help me feel like a successful poet.
Regardless of the kind of work any poet puts in or how shamelessly she does it, there’s no guaranteed way to resonate with readers and magazines/presses. And anyway, neither will happen every day. Name a poet you deem “successful.” I’m willing to bet that poet doesn’t *feel* successful all the time. And so, poet friends, it’s a good thing we also value other aspects of the writing life.
Via trial and error — and often through the great example of the poets and friends around me — I’ve found happiness and satisfaction in poetry activities that do not revolve around notices of acceptance. Here are some of them: 7 ways to cope (thrive, even!) when you get stuck thinking in terms of success and failure. As a bonus, they make you both a better poet and a better literary citizen.
1. Make and keep commitments to yourself.
I’m a big proponent of setting writing goals, things like “draft a new poem every week” or “set aside ‘office hours’ on weekends to tackle submissions.” These are tasks you can complete on your own without any outside endorsements or approvals. One of my most instructive models is the Poetry Action Plan from January O’Neil (Poet Mom). Here’s her latest. It always feels good to accomplish something you set out to do.
2. Live your own best poet life.
Avoid comparing yourself to other poets. This is a hard one for me, but comparison never inspires me and it never makes me try harder. Falling short makes me ask, “Why bother?” I am more likely in that moment to host a pity party for myself than to write a poem. There are plenty of people who question the value of creative pursuits in this world: don’t be one of them. Instead, focus on the work. My friend Sarah Freligh reminds herself (and me) of this “on the regular,” as the kids say. Drop down into the writing. Honor your muse. Practice your craft. As Kelli says in her post on success, “Creating art is a hopeful, optimistic act.” That’s the way forward. That’s the juice.
3. Challenge your limits; push your boundaries.
Take on a creative challenge: poem-a-day for 30 days, share black and white photos for 7 days, complete a multi-day streak of daily free writes, write 1000 words about a topic that scares you. The details don’t matter. Entering new territory isn’t just invigorating: it also builds confidence.
4. Celebrate the little things.
Don’t wait for the green light from an editor before you celebrate your work. Celebrate attempting a sestina, finding the right metaphor, jotting down an opening line, getting up to read at an open mic. Recognize the moments when you show up to be a poet.
5. Cheer on other poets.
What makes Kaveh’s Twitter feed so appealing isn’t just that he’s sharing terrific poems. It’s that he’s sharing poems by other people. He admires the work of his contemporaries, and he’s letting everyone know. The generosity is a clear antidote to the political sniping that often happens on the platform, and people are gravitating to it. His network/platform is growing as a result.
Over at the Tupelo Press 30/30 project’s Twitter feed, we’re celebrating poets’ work in a different way, as are many journals and presses, by recognizing the publishing successes of the project’s alums. As the manager/author of that account, I can say it’s changed how I see the poetic landscape. I learn about new journals and presses all the time. There are good homes for our poems. Publishers are busting their asses, and fellow poets point the way to those outlets.
When we boost signals for poets and magazines, we’re lighting the path so it’s easier to follow not only for interested readers but also for ourselves. We’re gaining momentum, aren’t we?
6. Learn some stuff.
DIY a writing curriculum for yourself. In addition to reading as many poems as you can, talk to other poets about poetry and listen in on others as they have that conversation. Read interviews. Listen to podcasts.
One of my favorites is Rachel Zucker’s Commonplace podcast. Rachel’s conversations with poets sink down into craft and into poets’ relationships to craft. Discussions are deeply personal, and at the same time, they cultivate awareness of the responsibility each of us has to art, to community and to resistance. With this in my ear (instead of the 24-hour news cycle, instead of negative self-talk), I’m being exposed to new ideas and approaches. I’m learning how others get it done. I’m receiving gifts that inspire and motivate.
7. Be grateful for every reader.
When someone tells you they enjoy your work, take it in. Let yourself really feel it. In writing about viral poetry for Ploughshares, Dean Rader says, “Poetry makes everything less common, more reverent. And in times of the world’s night, we need—even just a little—the holy.” When we think about success, so often it’s tied to numbers and scale. We want many readers. We want to have a large impact. But when we count each reading of a poem as a sacred moment between a single poet and a single reader, we light little fires everywhere. Believe the reader who tells you your poem touched them. The first draft may be for yourself, but upon revision you’re trying to craft something that has value beyond the initial impulse. Knowing what it feels like when it works will give you energy to keep at it.
So those are some of my little tricks. What makes you feel like a successful poet? What’s your measure?