Amy Woolard took 10 years off from writing and got a law degree. Now she balances dual careers as a rising-star poet and child-welfare attorney (with a little help from Siri). Writers who have day jobs outside the literature industry aren’t a new thing. Oscar Wilde wrote, «The best work in literature is always done by those who do not depend on it for their daily bread and the highest form of literature, Poetry, brings no wealth to the singer.» Essays at The Millions, Ploughshares, and elsewhere feature stories of folks who have made the double life of writer and Joe or Jane Worker fruitful and rewarding. Short story writer Lorrie Moore wrote, «First, try to be something, anything, else,» in her short story «How to Become a Writer.»* Poet Amy Woolard, named one of the 50 Best News Poets of 2013 by Best New Poets editor Brenda Shaughnessy, has tried “something, anything, else”—including, most recently, working as a child-welfare lawyer. But she has also kept writing. I spoke with her about what it’s like to maintain a career in poetry while also maintaining a demanding, white-collar day job. A condensed, edited version of that email conversation follows. When did you first consider yourself a «poet,» and what was your job at the time? This is one of those moments that kids face in a spelling bee when they’re unfamiliar with a word, right, and they furrow their brows and ask, “Poet. Can you use it in a sentence?” It’s a title I’ve never really taken on or have been comfortable with, but it has been used on me in different contexts. For example, at Iowa, we were often called poets but only really to distinguish us from the fiction writers, viz.—“The poets are going to the Foxhead for drinks, and I think some of the fiction writers will be there, too.”
Shorter story—I don’t think I’ve every really considered myself a poet, just someone who writes poems, I suppose. One moment that stands out, though, as a moment when I thought the writing of poems would certainly come to define me in some significant way: as an undergrad at the University of Virginia, when I’d applied, via portfolio submission, for Charles Wright’s Advanced Poetry Workshop. Charles is someone who came to mean a great deal to me and still does. I’ve often called him my “poetry dad” because of the way he took an interest in me and supported my work early on. But in this moment, the first day of that workshop, nearly 30 or 40 students filled the room—we did not yet know if we’d been accepted into the class. And Charles came in, welcomed everyone briefly, and then without another word began writing names on a chalkboard: the 12 or 15 students he’d admitted. And when he wrote out my name, mid-list or so, it was one of those rare occasions when you know something will stay with you forever. That class was also the true beginning of a writing community that I’ve been tied to ever since—other students in the class included Mary Szybist, Heather Derr-Smith, Rebecca Dunham, John Casteen, Jen Scappettone, and I think Sam Witt might’ve been in there too. It was a great crew, many of whom went on to join the crew I was lucky to be among at Iowa. Tell me about some of the jobs you’ve held while writing poems between that time and today. Oh, lord. Well, I’ve always considered Shakespeare’s Henry IV to be one of my favorite plays—most specifically Hal’s dilemma between life at the Tavern and the Court. My own years have played out similarly (sometimes quasi-literally), with an overindulgence of grad school thrown in. During and since my undergrad years, I’ve bartended and managed restaurants a lot—probably a total of seven or eight years’ worth of that time. I love that life, but it definitely takes a physical and mental toll that just became unsustainable. I’m definitely drawn back to that scene again and again, though. I do love a good bourbon. In between and amongst those jobs, I went to grad school for advertising/copywriting, worked as a writer and editor for a San Francisco dot-com (during the boom and just before the bust), did a financial journalism gig, taught online English Composition courses, did some project-based freelance writing and editing for a few organizations (including a company in SF who gave me “naming gigs,” where I had to come up with names and URLs for new companies. There were all these rules to watch out for. You had to make sure a phrase-based URL didn’t end up unintentionally reading as unsavory—like, oh I don’t know, if you’re doing a site for a therapist named John Smith, you don’t want a URL that’s www.therapistJohnSmith.com, that kind of Arrested Development-type humor). This was years ago, however, when the internet was really starting to multiply, and quickly. People are much more savvy about those things now (I hope). And of course, law school. I’ve been a lawyer/policy wonk for about five or six years now, and it seems like (especially given my financial investment in it) that this is the one that will stick. Tell me about your current job. Right now I’m a policy attorney for a statewide non-profit research and advocacy group called Voices for Virginia’s Children. I’ve been there for a few years, and before that was a legal aid attorney representing kids with education and school discipline issues. The subject areas I cover now include child welfare and foster care, juvenile justice, child homelessness and some general child poverty issues—most recently child hunger. Essentially, I write, research, analyze data, advocate, lobby, and attend a hell of a lot of meetings in order to bring to Virginia good laws/policies and fight bad laws/policies around children’s issues. I absolutely love it. It lets me tap into my journalism background to write articles and op-eds, use my legal background to actually write laws and regulations at times—and I totally thrive off of the lobbying part. A lot of people find lobbying for social justice issues, especially at the Virginia General Assembly, to be frustrating, annoying, and painful—which it is—but it’s an amazing study in human behavior and the power of persuasion—my favorite part of the job, by far. How does your current work affect your writing? I’d like to say that it doesn’t, but I think whenever you have to perform a couple of different identities within your life, each is affected by the other in some way. My job provides a nice counter-balance to the anything-goes world of poems—it’s still a persuasion-based job, but definitely in a rational, intellectual, responsible, real-world sort of way. This may sound terrible, but in my day job, I have to be a good person—and don’t get me wrong: I want to be and like being a good person, but poems give me a path to wrestle with the terrifying, difficult, absurd, imperfect, uncontrollable parts of the world in a much different but incredibly important way. As an attorney and a policy advocate, I can focus on actual change for the better. In poems, I can kind of tear a hole in that continuum and play around more with the scaffolding of it all. In policy, “good” is always the desired outcome. In poems, “good” rarely has anything to do with my goals—and sometimes it’s just desire itself that I want. What do your co-workers think about your writing? They don’t. I mean, for whatever reason, I just don’t tend to share much about that side of my life at work. The two versions of me–work self and writing self–seem like such different entities that it almost feels too vulnerable to share that part of my life in an environment where I need to have a kind of commanding presence, you know? Or else, it plays into my superstition that the more you talk about something, the less likely it will go the way you want it to. I know—it’s the least rational thing about me, but I think I’ve always been that way. I remember not even telling any family that I’d applied to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop until I knew I’d gotten in. Ditto with law school (control issues much?) And aside from that, I just think that there’s something a little too incongruous between law and poetry. In the legal world, it tends to make sense to others that someone would be a fiction writer, but no one really knows what to do with a poet (although that’s probably true everywhere outside the writing community/academia). When do you do most of your writing? I’ve persistently had a terrible writing schedule. By which I mean, for the most part, I have no schedule. I’ve never been a “write every day, even if it’s crap” kind of writer, and I’m a slow producer—ridiculously slow. Part of this, I think, is because I used to think about writing the way you’re supposed to think about credit card debt: Pick the highest interest rate card, and pay it down until it’s done. Then move on to the next. But in writing, that strategy was leading me to a kind of paralysis—getting hung up on the most challenging, wrenching piece was keeping me in a persistent stall mode. Finally finding a way to allow myself to move between projects was completely liberating—it was the best thing for my overall process to learn how to jump between work-writing, lighter poems, other essay ideas, and those heart-sucking poems that won’t ever leave you alone. Once I did that, it felt less excruciating to make time to sit down and write, and I stopped creating all the procrastination traps to keep me from the hard work of it. I actually stopped writing altogether for about 10 years, for various reasons, beginning with the unexpected, sudden death of my closest friend, which led into the creative purgatory that is law school—a place that can kill both time and any adventure the mind might want to wander into. I’ve only picked it up again in the last two or three years—which, I think I knew I’d always come back to it, but needed to feel ready and able. Luckily, I think it’s been worth the wait—I feel much more confident in what I’m doing now than I ever have. And now that I’m writing seriously again, with an eye toward a cohesive collection, I do some kind of writing work every day, whether it’s reading or dreaming or just chiseling away at a piece that’s in progress—I give myself more permission to see different kinds of work as writing. I usually write early in the morning, which is also kind of a revelation, because before my decade hiatus, I was mostly doing night shifts at restaurants, which meant I never really experienced mornings for the productive times they can be. I also write a lot on weekends, at all times of day, depending on my energy level and how close I am to finishing something. Have you ever written at work? (I won’t tell anyone.) Well, as long as it stays a secret just between us… Sure, I have, but only in the sense of jotting down a line or word or image I want to work on later. The paid job I do and the job of writing poems require me to be in two totally different brains, so it really only happens when my neurons slip a gear every now and then and something will stick with me enough that I just have to type it out so that I can get it out of my head for a while and get back to doing my job. And since I have an hour commute to work and back most days, sometimes I’ll turn on Siri on my iPhone and just talk some ideas out in the car as they happen. And sometimes it turns out Siri is a better writer than I am. What would be your ideal job while writing poems? I’m nearly there, I think—or else it doesn’t actually exist. Someone asked me this question recently, and I think my answer took the form of something like: having six months out of the year to just write, say April to September, with no other work obligations, and then the remaining six months to work on policy campaigns during the legislative session (which in Virginia runs from January through March). I’m not sure there’s a joint-advocacy/poetry foundation out there who would fund that, though. Is there? Call me. A version of this post originally appeared at Bull City Press. * This post originally misidentified Lorrie Moore’s «How to Become a Writer.» By TACP Staff on July 22, 2019 Poets are literary artists who express emotions, ideas and thoughts through the use of verse; a creative writing technique typically characterized by a certain rhythm and style. The modern poet wears many hats: they can write song lyrics, devise commercial jingles, author books of poetry, write for greeting card companies, work for websites and compete in competitions; just to name a few.
1. Learn the Basics of Poetry
A poet is someone who communicates thoughts and emotions to others through the written word. Although many people associate poetry with words that rhyme, a poet may choose one of many different writing styles to convey his or her message. For instance, poets often use metaphors instead of direct language to create strong imagery for readers. There are haiku’s, limericks, free verse, and ballads, plus many more styles of poetry. A poem may be as short as a few sentences or as long as a few pages. The brevity of a poem is one of the things that can make it a more powerful experience for the reader. The other is the poet’s choice of words. As a poet, you would need to choose strong descriptive words so your reader can envision the message and feel the meaning behind your words. Unlike other types of writing that try to inform readers about a topic in the realm of their everyday experience, poetry often speaks to the need to escape the logical world. And, poetry is highly subjective, meaning that individual readers determine its value. What one person finds emotional and moving, another may find pretentious. Poets with sophisticated skills know how to capture images vividly and in a manner that is refreshing and original. Their poems build tension while inspiring profound reflection and complex emotion. A poet is a creator whose art form is the written word. Some publish books of their poetry, a feat made easier with the growing popularity of self-publishing. You could also work for an advertising agency or publishing company as a poet to write greeting cards, songs, or advertising jingles.
2. Earn a Degree & Develop Your Creative Writing Skills
Some people know they want to become a poet from early childhood. They have a different way of viewing the world and expressing their thoughts that family and friends often encourage and appreciate. Others come to the realization later in life and begin writing extensively to make up for lost time. No matter where you find yourself on the spectrum, you could benefit from post-secondary education to improve your skills and learn how to market yourself. Most two-year and four-year colleges don’t offer degrees focusing solely on poetry. However, studying liberal arts in general or enrolling in a creative writing or a humanities degree program can provide the background you need to grow as a poet. These programs aren’t as intensely focused as other writing degrees such as English, public relations, and journalism. Rather, the broad focus is on teaching students practical skills to improve their communication style no matter what profession they ultimately choose to pursue. Creative writing degree programs provide education on both the technical aspects of writing as well as developing an individual style. Technical skills you may learn include syntax, vocabulary, spelling, and grammar rules. You also learn how to set a tone, choose metaphors in your writing, create visual imagery, and perfect a style that stands out as uniquely yours. While formal education can improve the quality of your work and open doors to additional career possibilities, some people choose to develop poetry skills on their own and pursue self-employment. But, knowing that you want to become a poet is just the beginning. It’s important to envision what you would like to do with your interests and skills in the future to help plan your own career path. If you choose to pursue a degree, it’s a good idea to keep in touch with your classmates after graduation. Not only can you provide each other with networking opportunities, but having people in your social circle who understand the unique lifestyle of a poet can be essential to your well-being. This is especially true if you pursue self-employment and end up working alone all day. Some other things to consider in making connections with poets and other types of writers include joining social networking sites of poets who you already admire. This allows you to follow their work as well as make connections with other writers. Reading other poet’s blogs and commenting on them when something particularly moves you can help you grow as a poet and appreciate differences in styles. Signing up for a poetry forum can be invaluable because it provides you with tips for your trade and connections with other writers. Some also sponsor poetry contests where you can submit your work or publish leads for writing-related jobs. Signing up for online poetry seminars to learn from more experienced poets and becoming part of a community of people who appreciate this written form of art can further boost your career. Equally important is remembering that you need offline connections as well. Poetry workshops, a dramatic reading, or a book launch are all good examples of community activities that allow you to become part of a local poetry network.
3. Build a Strong Portfolio & Personal Brand
Most colleges that offer writing degrees require students to compile a portfolio while still an undergraduate student. While this may not be the one that you present to prospective employers, preparing a portfolio in college allows you to see the progression of your work and gain valuable experience in creating a professional portfolio later. When the time comes to create a portfolio for job interviews, it’s important to tailor it to the specific occupation. For example, include a series of jingles if you want to work for an advertising company, or poems displaying strong imagery if you want to win a publishing contract. A common mistake new poets make is trying to build their author brand too soon. It’s important to know who you’re trying to reach and identify your goals and purpose first. Some people try to jump right in to create their personal brand on multiple social media channels or in the community without understanding their work won’t appeal to everyone. This can cause you to burn out quickly because you may find yourself trying to fit into a mold you assume your readers want. You can attract more people to your personal brand by understanding your purpose and narrowing who you try to attract with your work. Beyond an education, portfolio or personal brand, there are a number of skills all poets should have in order to make a living. First and foremost, poets must be good writers who are able to communicate effectively to a wide audience, and have a good grasp of the English language (or other native language). They must have a “poetic voice,” and understand style and structure. They must also have critical thinking skills, be able to convey information clearly, and be socially perceptive; aware of other’s reactions and why they think as they do. It’s important that poets understand human behavior, what moves them emotionally and motivates them day-to-day. Since many poets are self-employed or work on a contract basis, they must be flexible, yet able to meet deadlines. They must be dependable and have an innate ability to handle the stress of a hit-and-miss paycheck. They must have attention to detail, be creative and innovative, and be willing to take the initiative when necessary. These traits are also important if hired by a company or publishing firm. But, if poetry is more of a hobby, you may also consider a career as an editor, a technical writer, a copywriter within an advertising agency, an author, or a publishing.
Helpful Organizations & Resources for Poets
- Poetry Foundation
- Academy of American Poets
- The War Poet Association
- The Poetry Society
- Poetry Society of America
- National Association for Poetry Therapy
- Australian Bush Poets Association
- How to Become an Art Dealer
- How to Become an Art Director
- How to Become an Art Professor
- How to Become a Journalist
- How to Become a Novelist
Writing Written by MasterClass Last updated: Aug 9, 2021 • 5 min read If you think you’re ready to try your hand at writing poems, it may help to have some general parameters as guideposts.
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11 Rules for Writing Good Poetry
There are no officially sanctioned rules of poetry. However, as with all creative writing, having some degree of structure can help you reign in your ideas and work productively. Here are some guidelines for those looking to take their poetry writing to the next level. Or, if you literally haven’t written a single poem since high school, you can think of this as a beginner’s guide that will teach you the basics and have you writing poetry in no time.
- 1.Read a lot of poetry. If you want to write poetry, start by reading poetry. You can do this in a casual way by letting the words of your favorite poems wash over you without necessarily digging for deeper meaning. Or you can delve into analysis. Dissect an allegory in a Robert Frost verse. Ponder the underlying meaning of an Edward Hirsch poem. Retrieving the symbolism in Emily Dickinson’s work. Do a line-by-line analysis of a William Shakespeare sonnet. Simply let the individual words of a Walt Whitman elegy flow with emotion.
- 2.Listen to live poetry recitations. The experience of consuming poetry does not have to be an academic exercise in cataloging poetic devices like alliteration and metonymy. It can be musical—such as when you attend a poetry slam for the first time and hear the snappy consonants of a poem out loud. Many bookstores and coffeehouses have poetry readings, and these can be both fun and instructive for aspiring poets. By listening to the sounds of good poetry, you discover the beauty of its construction—the mix of stressed syllables and unstressed syllables, alliteration and assonance, a well placed internal rhyme, clever line breaks, and more. You’ll never think of the artform the same way once you hear good poems read aloud. (And if you ever get the chance to hear your own poem read aloud by someone else, seize the opportunity.)
- 3.Start small. A short poem like a haiku or a simple rhyming poem might be more attainable than diving into a narrative epic. A simple rhyming poem can be a non-intimidating entryway to poetry writing. Don’t mistake quantity for quality; a pristine seven-line free verse poem is more impressive than a sloppy, rambling epic of blank verse iambic pentameter, even though it probably took far less time to compose.
- 4.Don’t obsess over your first line. If you don’t feel you have exactly the right words to open your poem, don’t give up there. Keep writing and come back to the first line when you’re ready. The opening line is just one component of an overall piece of art. Don’t give it more outsized importance than it needs (which is a common mistake among first time poets).
- 5.Embrace tools. If a thesaurus or a rhyming dictionary will help you complete a poem, use it. You’d be surprised how many professional writers also make use of these tools. Just be sure you understand the true meaning of the words you insert into your poem. Some synonyms listed in a thesaurus will deviate from the meaning you wish to convey.
- 6.Enhance the poetic form with literary devices. Like any form of writing, poetry is enhanced by literary devices. Develop your poetry writing skills by inserting metaphor, allegory, synecdoche, metonymy, imagery, and other literary devices into your poems. This can be relatively easy in an unrhymed form like free verse and more challenging in poetic forms that have strict rules about meter and rhyme scheme.
- 7.Try telling a story with your poem. Many of the ideas you might express in a novel, a short story, or an essay can come out in a poem. A narrative poem like “The Waste Land” by T.S. Eliot can be as long as a novella. “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe expresses just as much dread and menace as some horror movies. As with all forms of English language writing, communication is the name of the game in poetry, so if you want to tell short stories in your poems, embrace that instinct.
- 8.Express big ideas. A lyric poem like “Banish Air from Air” by Emily Dickinson can express some of the same philosophical and political concepts you might articulate in an essay. Because good poetry is about precision of language, you can express a whole philosophy in very few words if you choose them carefully. Even seemingly light poetic forms like nursery rhymes or a silly rhyming limerick can communicate big, bold ideas. You just have to choose the right words.
- 9.Paint with words. When a poet paints with words, they use word choice to figuratively “paint” concrete images in a reader’s mind. In the field of visual art, painting pictures of course refers to the act of representing people, objects, and scenery for viewers to behold with their own eyes. In creative writing, painting pictures also refers to producing a vivid picture of people, objects, and scenes, but the artist’s medium is the written word.
- 10.Familiarize yourself with myriad forms of poetry. Each different form of poetry has its own requirements—rhyme scheme, number of lines, meter, subject matter, and more—that make them unique from other types of poems. Think of these structures as the poetic equivalent of the grammar rules that govern prose writing. Whether you’re writing a villanelle (a nineteen-line poem consisting of five tercets and a quatrain, with a highly specified internal rhyme scheme) or free verse poetry (which has no rules regarding length, meter, or rhyme scheme), it’s important to thrive within the boundaries of the type of poetry you’ve chosen. Even if you eventually compose all your work as one particular type of poem, versatility is still a valuable skill.
- 11.Connect with other poets. Poets connect with one another via poetry readings and perhaps poetry writing classes. Poets in an artistic community often read each other’s work, recite their own poems aloud, and provide feedback on first drafts. Good poetry can take many forms, and through a community, you may encounter different forms that vary from the type of poem you typically write—but are just as artistically inspiring. Seek out a poetry group where you can hear different types of poetry, discuss the artform, jot down new ideas, and learn from the work of your peers. A supportive community can help you brainstorm ideas, influence your state of mind as an artist, and share poetry exercises that may have helped other members of the group produce great poetry.
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