Advice to a Poet

Recently, someone emailed me and asked if I would write some words of advice on my creative process, my self publishing, and how to become a better poet. Normally, the only thing I’m qualified to give advice on is, “things you probably shouldn’t do,” so it was a nice change for someone to be kind enough to think me worthy of my opinions on something of actual merit. What follows is the work I sent back:

To whom it may concern,

Your friend was kind enough to call me accomplished. My definition of an accomplished poet is one who has looked at a poem they’ve written and said, “hey, that’s not a total fucking embarrassment.”

Regardless, she was nice enough to say such things, and also to ask me to give you some advice about things that I’ve done when it comes to writing, and some insight into how I walk through that minefield that is Trying to Make it in the Written Arts. I replied that I was happy to pass on anything I could think of, and what follows is what I cobbled together after the urge subsided to send an email that said simply, “fuck it, just wing it.”

Note: The advice that follows is focused primarily on poetry, as that is what I’ve recently been most successful in getting published.

1. Buy Elements of Style by Strunk and White.

If you’ve ever taken a university course on writing then you probably already own a copy of this book. However, if you’re like me, and a stubborn fool, then you’ve held off buying it for years and years, despite every single writer/professor telling you how essential it is. I am telling you that such stubbornness is completely unfounded, and that this tiny book will make literally everything you write better; from e-mails to short stories to poems about pink elephants, all will achieve a newfound clarity from reading Elements of Style.

Don’t be like me. Read the damn book.

2. Read Lots of Poetry.

Another tip that you’ve probably heard before, which means that at this point in the list you’re saying, “hey, I already know all this stuff, this Brady guy is a complete chump.”

Say what you will, but it goes without saying that to know how to write poetry, one of the easiest things to do is read lots of it to see how the form can work or fail.  I wasn’t convinced I was even capable of poems until I read Bukowski and learned that the genre could be something other than haikus and boring verse about trees and roads and bullshit.

Find your own Bukowski, and then work your way outwards to other influences. From reading the stuff on your blog, I have gathered that you seem to have a handle on your own voice, but hey, that’s no reason to stop the search.

3. Self Publish.

Waiting for people to publish your stuff sucks, which is why self-publishing has such a draw. I recently published a few chapbooks of my own, and the process was both educational and rewarding. Here’s what worked for me:

– Step 1: Write a couple poems that work well together. Edit them.

To begin, I wrote 20 poems that all fit around a theme of my muses being tired. 20 isn’t a lot, yet in the format of a chapbook it’s a solid enough base. I ended up cutting four of them that were complete piles of shit, and then worked through the remaining poems in an effort to strengthen them and make them as strong as possible.

For chapbooks, I like to have all of the poems fit a certain kind of style or theme. It makes it easier for people to get their hooks into the overall work, and each individual piece helps prop up the others through a consistency of theme. That’s more of a personal choice than anything though, you do you.

– Step 2: Find a place that will print your poems.

Most major cities will have some kind of printorium or copy center that will publish “saddle stich” chapbooks if you send them all of the files. Prices are usually not too bad. I ended up paying around $150 for 50 copies of mine.

– Step 3: Edit the hell out of everything.

I did line edits, I counted every word, and I read everything out loud six times, just to avoid that awful feeling of opening something I printed and seeing a glaring typo staring up at me and showing everyone that I don’t know what I’m doing and I deserve to die alone.

Step 4: Format

Most Word programs will be able to format all of your poems into whatever page size you’re going to be using. That way, you can see how your work fits. There’s nothing worse than having one line of a poem take up a whole page, while the bulk of the work sits on the other page.

– Step 5: Cover

Find a cool artistic friend to make you a cover. I don’t know how to draw, I don’t know how to use Photoshop, and I can barely use Word, so it was essential for me to contact one of my enterprising art friends, buy them lunch, send them the manuscript, and ask them to draw up a cover that fits the work. Most of them will know things about margins and formatting, which is helpful, because the mysteries of those two words are lost on my caveman brain.

– Step 6: The Proof

Going, “the whole hog,” and publishing 150 copies of something right out of the gate is never a good idea. Publish a proof copy and scour every inch of it to make sure it looks as good as you want it to. You’re doing all of this yourself, so only you can know when everything looks the way you want it to. Don’t settle! Your name is on it.

– Step 7: Publish Copies, Bring Home, Tell All Your Friends, Drown in Adoration

This is both the easiest and the hardest step. Picking up the copies is hopefully an awesome experience where you get to see all your hard work come into physical being. It’s in the aftermath of this great moment where the hard to answer question of, “what the hell do I do with all of these?” is asked.

In my experience, I ended up giving a ton of them away. The advantage of chapbooks being cheap and small is that you can fit bundles of them in you backpack and put them everywhere. I leave mine all over; airports, bus stations, in the “T” sections of bookstores etc. Chapbooks are about getting your name out into the world and hoping that people dig what they found enough to not biff it into the nearest recycling bin.

Which reminds me, always put your contact info on everything you put out into the world.

If you have any questions about this process (I have been kind of vague) don’t hesitate to grab my email off the site and shoot me a message. I’m always around.

4. Look For Advice From People Better Than Me

These are some pieces of work that have often helped me with a little extra kick in the ass.

Charles Bukowski – So You Want to be a Writer?

Career Advice – George Monbiot

Career advice

I hope that some of this has been helpful to you, and that I at no point sounded patronizing. As I mentioned above, if you ever want to bounce ideas off somebody, or just talk about black coffee, shoot me an email.

Good luck with everything you write. This life we’ve chosen isn’t always the easiest one, but as you know, it’s always worth it when you type a sentence that screams out and saves everything. From the work of yours that I’ve read on your blog, you don’t at all seem like someone who needs advice from someone like me, but if any of the above is new to you, then I’m a happy guy.

Cheers,

Brady Tighe
Victoria, BC

April 28th, 2016

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