Are you a professional or non-professional poet?

Read with interest this blog post by Charles Jensen, in which he wrote:

Over the last few years, I have encountered and had the pleasure to work with some amazingly talented poets who live entirely outside the academy. I’ve come to understand this is more common than many people think, particularly those who spend the majority of their lives and careers within the academy.

These “outsider” poets generally have no idea that poetry is so entrenched in higher education. They perceive poetry as open to everyone, not as a cloistered and privileged pursuit. They have less awareness of the inner machinations of what some folks call “pobiz” and are generally the happier for it. They may or may not have heard of AWP if they’ve attended it. They read many poets, focusing, perhaps, on what their friends in their poetry circles are reading, what has been nominated for national awards, or what their booksellers or librarians recommend. I think this community of poets is growing not more larger, but more visible.

There is this duality in the poetry community, although I tend to think of it as professional / non-professional, rather than academic / non-academic. The professional poets, in my mind, are the ones whose living is somehow tied to poetry — whether writing it, or teaching it, or both. Each hour of teaching, each publication credit, everything they read or write or do as a poet, has a potential or actual dollar value for this group, and all their decisions need to be taken with this fact in mind. (I hasten to add that I am in no way asserting that anyone is ever foolhardy enough to try and make a living actually selling poems. What money there is in poetry definitely does not come from selling poems.)

The non-professionals (people like me) earn their livelihood in some way completed unrelated to poetry and do the poetry thing pretty much as a hobby. (Although labeling poetry ‘hobby’ doesn’t seem right – in fact screechingly un-right – but I guess that’s a separate post.)

Obviously, the common factors that unite the two groups (addiction to writing and reading poetry, desire to be read and understood etc) are much stronger than those that separate them, which is probably why the separating factors don’t tend usually to get much play.

It’s funny – Charles’ sense seems to be that there are more ‘professional’ than ‘non-professional’ poets out there, and I always had it figured in my head the other way around completely. It has always seemed to me – based purely and vaguely on the evidence of anecdote, impression and interactions with other poets over the years – that most of at least the online poetry community is ‘non-professional.’

Am I wrong there? Are we mostly professional poets online, do you think?

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17 thoughts on “Are you a professional or non-professional poet?

  1. I am extremely aware of this divide, having come up through the academic writing programs (MFA 2003) and now finding myself outside that universe almost entirely, and yes, I think happier for it. And while I traditionally thought of it as academic/non-academic, I like the designation professional/non-professional better. Although, I should add, I don’t have a paying job outside poetry. Rather, I’m currently an at-home parent involved in editing a magazine, writing poetry, engaging the writing community in multiple ways, none of which pays, at least not too often.

    I think all of these definitions are blurry at best, with lots of us crossing back and forth, dipping in and out here or there. My major frustration at the moment is that the “professional” community of poets seems to ignore/be largely unaware of those of us outside that pond (Charles Jensen’s naive astonishment is exactly what I’m talking about). At times, this makes me defensive, or even maybe go a little on the offensive. At other times, on my stronger days, I can just hum and bumble along in my own garden and ignore the rest of ‘em.

    One anecdote that really struck me recently, when the Paris Review let go those number of backlogged accepted poems–someone wrote in that “one poem in the Paris Review could be the difference between getting tenure and not.” This just seems wrong to me–too much pressure, of the wrong kind, on our little poems. It didn’t make me want to submit to the Paris Review anytime soon. Partly because I don’t think any magazine should have that strong of a reputation to be a career maker, and partly because, if it does, I might as well leave it to those who need tenure.

    Fascinating topic. I’m looking forward to reading others’ responses.

    • Hey Sarah – great to hear from you. It’s too funny – here I was thinking that I would get a swamp of posts from professional poets bemoaning their lot and about how those fat-cat non-professional poets who don’t have to earn their livings via poetry can afford to be picky and/or luxurious about what they do in the poetry world or who they argue with and whether or not they go after publication or not etc etc. I think we have our cake and eat it, personally! But I do understand where you (and Helen and Susan in the comments below) are coming from. Hope we hear from some professional poets too! Best, Nic

  2. Preserving these comments from related Facebook post:

    Helen Losse It seems to me that these labels contribute to the problem rather than help alleviate it. They give fuel to the unknowing who ask questions like “Are you self-published?” as thought that were akin to heresy, not even know what the small press is.

    Nic Sebastian Hey Helen, thanks for commenting! I’m not sure that this is a problem at all – is it? I see it rather as an interesting phenomenon…

    Helen Losse It’s only a problem , when poetry snobs keep others at bay, proving they love position over poetry. :)

    Nic Sebastian down with poetry snobs!! as I said, I think there is much more uniting the groups than dividing them – I’m just fascinated by the demography of it all!

    Helen Losse Everyone must have money to live. So why is a Professor/ Poet better than a Salesman/Poet? On the other hand, I do think there are levels of expertise. And no one questions where Robert Frost or Shakespeare got their MFAs. LOL

    Nic Sebastian there definitely are levels of expertise, and the levels of expertise have nothing to do with whether one is professional or non-professional as a poet, in my view. one of the great things about poetry – it doesn’t care whether you make a living from it or not – if you’re good, you’re good!

    Helen Losse And every poet know that he/she hasn’t written the “perfect poem” yet. And…small time editors or even poets themselves can be the snobs. Sometimes we perceive snobbery where none exists. And sometimes publishers perceive that their poets are better than others. A lot of it has to do with money and power, as it does in everything else. Politics enter every aspecy of our lives.

    Susan Elbe A little anecdote, Nic, that I put forth without opinion or judgement: Many years ago at a party, I met a poet (one who was teaching at a university) who immediately asked me where I taught. When I said that I didn’t teach, she said “Oh, a real poet!” And she said it with admiration.

    Nic Sebastian that’s cute! altho I hope I am not sowing discord here – it’s been my experience that whether they teach or not, are’professional’ or not, poets are generally respectful of talent when they encounter it. I only comment because, as I said, it strikes me as an interesting phenomenon to have two camps with such different tactical objectives so united in their shared strategic objectives…

    Helen Losse Nic, the selling tactics have to be somewhat different. Large publishing companies can get books everywhere because they have huge staffs to do the work, but poets on small presses have to do much of the leg work themselves. This isn’t a value judgment; it’s just a matter of how much work one person can do.

    Susan Elbe Nic, I do not think you are sowing discord. I meant it when I said that my anecdote was posted without opinion or judgement. I don’t think “either/or” kinds of dichotomies are helpful. But I do believe that because of the MFA and emphasis on poetry as a job/business, there are definitely “insiders” and “outsiders.” And that makes me sad. So much depends upon who you know–true in the world in general so that’s not a critique, but a fact.

    Nic Sebastian Helen – the small-publisher/big-publisher difference affects us all – not just one group, I think.

    Nic Sebastian Susan – define ‘inside’! It seems to me that I am right inside and very cozily so, where I am….

  3. I don’t like dichotomies: I much prefer the apprentice/journeyman/master distinctions as they relate to one’s understanding of, and ability to craft, poetry. How a poet makes their living, and where they work, is largely meaningless.

    There’s an article in the most recent Rattle ezine (http://www.rattle.com/eissues/eIssue10.pdf – from page 20: “Are you a pixel poet”) which develops a dichotomy between ‘traditional’ and ‘online’ poetries, with the key distinction being that for ‘pixel’ poets the poem is all that matters whereas in the traditional poetry scenes it’s all about the poet, not so much the poems. I am without doubt a ‘pixel’ poet … though since the turn of the millennium I’ve been calling myself an ‘internet poet’.

    • Rik – I remember that Rattle piece and read it with interest. Yes, there are a million ways to slice and dice this cake – none of them worth too much heartburn, I think, but it’s interesting to note the different groupings (and then move on!). Best, N

  4. Is there some attendant anxiety, too, these days–because there are so many, many poets out there? (At least, it feels like it). How do we know who to pay attention to? Slicing and dicing the cake into some sort of segment, whether professional or non-, print v. pixel, us v. them… Does it make the poetry universe more manageable? I thought the Rattle piece painted with an awfully broad brush, and so was no more helpful or satisfying to me than any of these other dichotomies.

    • “How do we know who to pay attention to?” – a more urgent question for the pro-poets, since being ‘in the loop’ is a career necessity for them, but an interesting question for all of us. For me, I want to pay attention to those from whom I can learn most. How do I find them? Word of mouth/Facebook/Twitter/Goodreads, so far. Is that the ideal slice& dice mechanism? Probably not. I feel very lucky to have Whale Sound as an ongoing project, I have to say, because its submissions process brings me poems to voice there that I otherwise would not ‘naturally’ either come across or be drawn to.

  5. I feel like I’m in between two worlds: I have an MFA, but don’t teach (anymore); I run a fairly prominent (I like to think so anyway) internet journal, but rarely attend AWP and have little offline contacts with other poets. It’s a pretty happy place to be most days. I think with the increasing number of MFA and phD poets and the fact that there are few full-time teaching gigs out there will only lead to more poets in my middle-world position. Or, maybe they abandon po-biz entirely and just write and do readings in their own small scene, wherever that may be.

    • hi Rusty – I have to say that I wouldn’t change my non-pro poet status for the world – the non-poetry part of my life is hectic but deeply satisfying and is a great source of nourishment and inspiration for the poetry part of my life. But am quite sure most of us are happy with the way we have arranged our lives around poetry (or arranged poetry around our lives!) – there are a million correct answers to this one, for sure.

  6. I’m always wary of the difference between the professional and the amateur and it all boils down to money. An amateur is someone who does something because he or she loves it, be it running marathons or writing poetry. As soon as you smack money on the table then your services are being bought. And that puts a different complexion on things. This is why Haydn churned out symphony after symphony because he was on the books whereas Charles Ives, who composed as a ‘hobby’, was free to write exactly what he wanted and take risks. Now I’m not saying that Haydn wrote bad symphonies because he clearly did not but the question whether or not he would have written better symphonies if left to his own devices is one we will never know the answer to.

  7. There is a ‘professional’ pressure to produce and focus that those of us who are non-pro don’t face. But pressure is neither good nor bad in itself – it just depends on how you harness and leverage it. There are endless stories about poor and struggling artists producing masterpieces to make ends meet for hungry families, aren’t there? But yes, not having that career/financial pressure means you can take your work in whatever direction you choose, and how you choose, so yay for us non-pros!

  8. It is amazing actually that we live in societies in which it is possible to devote time and energy (and money) into developing skills that will not lead to substantial (if any) income. The whole concept of “professional” being tied to income rather than craftsmanship/artistry/skills may be obsolete.

    I have a PhD in Creative Writing and get royalty checks every year from my books and from collaborations with musicians, but my substantial income comes from teaching theater in a secondary school. But I am not a professional actor because I teach acting – so why would a person who teaches poetry be called a “professional” poet?

    I recently saw someone on facebook who had as their job description “professional poet”. It seemed to me that his label left the opposite impression than that he was after. It puzzled me so much that I went to his webpage, where I found a blog full of original poems and google ads. It is quite possible that he is “professionally” making money off the hits on his blog of poems. (I recently saw an article on what kinds of phrases you should stick in your blog posts to increase your hits to generate ad income. I know there are people who are professional bloggers.) While I may have always aspired to be a “professional poet”, that is certainly not what I had (or have) in mind.

    I fuss with myself over the distinctions between “artist” and “artisan” all the time. I admit to being one of the snobby types who does see a difference between people who feel themselves to be artists and write personal expressions in verse form to share with the world, and people who take form seriously and try to write with the attention of both an artist and artisan within an established (though evolving) tradition… I have no idea how to label the difference without seemingly placing a comparative value on it (like the word “professional” does). I think there is a social value in both, but one interests me more than the other – one is a community to which I want to belong, the other – not so much. A label besides “snobby”, “traditional”, “academic” or “elitist” might be helpful :-)

  9. Ren wrote: But I am not a professional actor because I teach acting – so why would a person who teaches poetry be called a “professional” poet?

    The teaching poet *is* a poet, and gains teaching credentials through poetry publication. The teaching and the poet-ing are inextricably linked. Agree this may not be the case for teaching acting (although I know nothing about it, I hasten to add).

    I’m not happy with either academic/non-academic or professional/non-professional – both sets of terms seem too loaded, in one way or another. But a key difference, when you drill down, does seem to be whether poetry is, or isn’t, a matter of livelihood and once that’s pinned down, it’s kind of hard to get away from, I am finding.

  10. I understand your point, but then that means that in the US really the only place one can be a “professional poet” is teaching poetry writing in an MFA program (as distinct from an MA in English or PhD in Literature etc.)? It seems to me that many of the universities hire poets with publications, but still require an academic degree (That is, I see there is a difference between getting paid to write poetry and getting paid to teach writing poetry – they are different skills. Not all good poets make good mentors), it seems to me that most universities are hiring academics to teach poetry – who also write – they are not paid for the writing part. I doubt very much that there ARE professional poets in the sense that there are professional actors or professional ceramic artists. Who actually makes a living from the writing of poetry (not the teaching)?

  11. The divide used to be labeled “academics” and “beats”. The beats were Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso, etc. and the academics — well I can’t remember any names. I liked some of the poetry of the academics, but the beats had an aliveness that trumped their work, generally speaking. Anyway, Joseph Sobran says (in his “The case for popular poetry” essay) that those who are considered “good” (by the academics) don’t write poetry that “sticks to the ribs” anymore and he misses that. Unfortunately, many of those who “write for fun” don’t pursue the craft or the art. They want to unload expressing themselves.

    For these reasons, implied and stated, I would like to define “the professional poet” as one who is committed to the art and craft of his work. He/she is not a hobbyist who dashes something off. He/she has made poetry his or her life. “Professional”, then, is a place one comes from.

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