how to tell people you’re a poet

louise carter

Being a poet, much like being gay, is not something you choose.

Despite this, “I’m a poet” are words I still have trouble saying (at least not while also maintaining a straight face). Even though I’ve been published several times and I’ve given public readings, I would still rather stick a fork in my eye than introduce myself to others as the thing that I am.

Which is weird and interesting. Why does the label ‘poet’ sound so absurd? Why have I spent the majority of my life trying to pretend to others (and myself) that I was ‘normal’?

In pondering the subject, I came up with three reasons why describing yourself as a poet is socially awkward at the best of times, and career limiting at the worst. The first and most obvious being:

Poets Don’t Make Money

In an interview for BBC-TV in 1962, Robert Graves (the prolific 20th Century poet) famously said: “There's no money in poetry, but then there's no poetry in money, either.”

Like any generalisation, there are of course exceptions to the rule – I was at a poetry festival last week in which a gentleman in the crowd claimed to have made $2 million over the course of his career. This may be true, but when you consider the fact that most of the world’s major publishing houses do not publish poetry (because there is, apparently, no market for it) you start to get an appreciation for why the trope of the penniless poet is an enduring one.

Looking (through my fingers) at my own bank balance, I’m forced to concede that it’s true – if you want to make it onto the BRW Rich List, you’d be better off skipping the doctorate in poetry.

However, the fact that poetry has absolutely nothing to do with money is the thing I love best about it. It’s a ‘pure’ art form in that it resists commodification. All the poets I know write because they love it and because they must – not because they want to buy a yacht.

Individuals within our current society are trained to derive self worth from material wealth. One of the first questions we ask when we’re introduced to new people is: “What do you do for a living?” Whether or not it’s intentional, the act of writing poetry is inherently political. If you’re engaged in an activity that does not create wealth for yourself or for the state, you are placing yourself in opposition with capitalism itself.

Poetry is Unfashionable

Telling someone you’re a poet is kind of like saying you’re a rag and bone man – it just sounds so hilariously antiquated. This isn’t helped by the way that the majority of poetry taught in schools is by ‘dead white guys.’ Whenever I ask people to name their favourite poets they invariably cough up the likes of Coleridge, Keats, Blake, etc. Which is fine because these poets are of course brilliant and important, but frustrating because massive amounts of utterly amazing poetry has been written in the last fifty years, much of it by women.

I also think that the way poetry is taught in school is one of the reasons why so many people claim, with astonishing vehemence, to hate it. Despite doing an undergrad in creative writing, I didn’t actually start reading poetry until I was about 26 years old – the joyless, dogmatic treatment it was given by my high school teachers almost turned me off for life.

All Poets are Insane

At a recent festival, spoken word artist Tug Dumbly described all poets as “damaged and mad”, and even Ivor Indyk – one of Australia’s few publishers of poetry – recently made no attempt to refute the cliché that all poets are crazy, instead declaring: “Thank God for craziness, where would our literature be without it?”

It doesn’t help either that a disproportionate number of history’s most famous poets chose to exit the world via suicide (although one could argue that a tragic death could be a contributing factor to prolonged fame).

And then of course there is the nature of poetry itself – it’s intensely cerebral, and therefore the perfect medium for the scrutiny of one’s own mind. Poets are not the only artists who are bonkers, but they are the ones with the requisite eloquence to articulate their own madness. As in this famous line from a Robert Lowell poem: My mind’s not right.

My Name’s Louise, and I’m a Poet

Despite the awkwardness which we’ve now established comes down to the generally held notion of poets being a bunch of impoverished, subversive, daggy nut jobs, I officially came out as a poet last year when I went back to uni to do my doctorate. To push forward with a somewhat inappropriate metaphor, universities are like gay nightclubs for the poets of the world – safe spaces where it’s okay to use words like “pantoum” and “trochee” without fear of ridicule.

The key here is community: it helps to find ‘your people’ to really come to terms with who you are. No man is an island , not even those socially maladjusted creatures known as poets.

I’ve found that the key to creating art is to take it to a level that is so embarrassingly ‘you’ that no one else except yourself could have produced it. It’s the key to social acceptance too – to be so comfortable within your own skin, no matter how strange or unattractive it may seem, that others relax in your presence.

Coming to terms with who you are is a wonderful feeling, and I’d recommend it to all the closet poets out there who are struggling to find their voice.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a hot date with a bag of wine, a Ouija board, and seventeen cats.

more by louise carter




image via chinnian flickr