When Being a Poet isn’t Enough: Accessibility and the ‘Business’ of Writing Poetry

I remember my time in college writing classes fondly. I enjoyed myself, enjoyed hearing what others wrote, and I certainly made connections that were fruitful and fulfilling. But what I also remember is the emphasis on writing as a craft. Those classes instilled in us the belief that if you wrote well enough, and if you were committed to it, success would find you. All you would have to do is write.

Fast forward twenty years, and I now understand that much of what I believed regarding what writers did wasn’t true. As a poet, a lot of what I was taught about writing does not apply to me. Poets don’t have agents (at least none that I know do). With little assistance from publishers, and with little hope of financial return on their investment, most poets have to do the heavy lifting on their own to market their books, book events, and distribute their brand. They have social media presences, email lists, and marketing strategies. In essence, to be a successful poet today requires a lot more than mere skill at putting words together.

Admittedly, I don’t mind most of it. Would I like to make more money doing it? Absolutely, but the work itself is fulfilling. It gives me as a creative a lot of agency over my own work. But all of this has had to be self-taught. While college taught me to be a better writer, it didn’t teach me what to expect from writing poetry as a profession.

What most poets do actually has more in common with being an entrepreneur. We are constantly on the lookout for opportunities to book a reading, do a workshop, sell books. When there are no or few opportunities available (like, say, during a global pandemic), we are forced to create them for ourselves.

I attribute most of this up to being ‘it is what it is,’ but I can’t help but think back to my education as a poet. Was I misled? Perhaps creative writing degrees should include entrepreneurial classes, website development classes, and even classes on how to write for the ‘industry’ (reviews, conduct interviews about their work, etc.). I often say that generations after me are more in tune with the business of writing, but is this a natural change in generational values, or are schools getting better at teaching these things more? This is a genuine question – I really don’t know.

I wonder if MFA programs do in fact better prepare writers for the ‘industry.’ However, if they do, that seems problematic as well. If that is the case, it means that writers don’t get a full understanding of what it means to be a writer until they are studying for an MFA.

Then again, is a college degree even needed in order to ‘be a poet?’

Limiting access to the skills needed for the industry of poetry to the college level seems awfully unfair, excluding poets not able to afford these programs, as well as poets who merely don’t ‘fit the mold’ of the types of writers that colleges accept and produce. Without these degrees, poets appear to be severely hobbled in acquiring the skills they need, but that is exactly what happens.

All of this creates more questions than answers, but I think it points to the fact that poets need to be given more access to the tools and knowledge to survive as writers, and these tools need to not be hidden behind high tuitions and college degrees. Poetic communities need to acknowledge this, and try to support poets in all the steps of writing, not just in publication.