Why Poetry Can’t Find Its Public, Part Two

A couple months ago, my blog, “Why Poetry Can’t Find Its Public” nearly caused a riot. Teeth were bared! F bombs thrown! I wanted readers to learn from pop music’s ability to connect with more people. Readers translated this as a suggestion that poetry be like pop music, sell like pop music, sell out like pop music, and compete with pop music. But actually (gasp!), none of these is necessary for one to learn from pop music. So, dear poets, you can climb out of your bunkers.

I can’t help but think this ruckus was inspired by the very Myth my post was blasting: that merely discussing “audience”—particularly one as large as pop music’s—will cause all poetry to suddenly and irrevocably mutate into “California Gurls.” 

We’re afraid that if we admit we want (more) readers, we’ll start writing what we think they want… or measuring the validity of poetry by its sales. Dear poets, this doesn’t have to be. Yes, writing-for-sales spells creative death. But once a work is completed? Perhaps the gracious thing then is to put it where it can be found.

Unfortunately, here we often encounter a similar myth: that wanting readers isn’t a noble enough desire for “real” poets—that we should instead write strictly “because we must,” or because “the muse has us.” Nobody wants to actively seek a readership and thus prove herself a disgrace.

But as George Orwell has famously illustrated, there are (valid!) motivations for writing that actually require a readership. And if our work is driven to any degree by its potential human impact, as Orwell’s was, it’s irresponsible to eschew the work of reaching out. This was what I wanted us to translate from pop music: Its gritty determination. Its insistence on being heard. Its put-our-stuff-where-folks-will-find-it creativity. Its refusal of insularity.

It’s time for writers to stop feeling shallow or guilty for wanting what only makes sense: to be read. It’s time we stop policing each other’s motives and frowning on self-promotion, and instead empower each other to explore where our poetry can go. Why? Because if readers are required to want and seek poetry in order to find it, we’ll never get beyond each other. If the wider world’s not reading poetry, it’s at least in part because it rarely encounters it. That’s what we can change.

In Which Poetry Goes Looking for Its Public

Part One of this blog ended with a list of questions to get us thinking more imaginatively about where our writing can go. Below, I dive into 3 of those Q’s… and I’d love your help! Please continue these brainstorming lists in the comments. Poetry is bigger—and better—than its status as mysterious fringe art. Let’s get it out there.

I. How and where can my poetry get read, apart from journals only my peers read?

Note that this isn’t about poetry in general. It’s about your poetry. Where can your work go? Don’t be too precious. Think like a musician, a visual artist, a dancer. How would you share your work if you lived in their worlds? (Note to established poets: this isn’t just for poets who can’t get published in traditional venues. Even poet laureates should be asking: how can my work get in front of people who aren’t looking for poetry?Continue this list in the comments!

  1. Publish a poem on business cards; ask to place a stack by cash registers at local shops.
  2. Publish a poem as a mural in a local office or coffee place (or have an artist do this for you).
  3. Record yourself reading a poem; publish it on Soundcloud. Post links.
  4. Send a rant (or other) poem as an editorial to the local paper or weekly zine.
  5. See about starting a local version of Poems On the Underground. Think beyond transit.

II. How might my poems be inserted into existing public conversations? OR: Given the stories, messages, or truths my poetry communicates, where might it help? be relevant?

Brainstorm the topics, characters, issues, questions engaged by your various poems. Don’t get too Poetry-Student about it; think broadly. Then ask: where else are these things being engaged? Continue this list in the comments!

  1. Send your poem to a website, magazine, or (non-lit) journal that addresses a similar topic. (For example, if a poem’s about domestic violence, see about posting it on the website for a local crisis center, or publishing it in a violence-against-women newsletter, journal, or pamphlet.)
  2. Approach a (non-poetry) blog that regularly discusses similar issues/concepts, and ask about including your poem as a guest post. (Don’t think too small. Don’t limit yourself to bloggers you know.)
  3. Read or discuss your poetry with a local class or seminar that addresses the same topic. Not to perform for them, but to come alongside—to participate in their work. Consider community classes, a high school, college, library, church, wherever.
  4. Create postcards featuring one of your poems, then allow a local nonprofit to use them for their mailings, or for giveaways at events. (Collaborate with a graphic designer!) 
  5. Write a commentary to go with your poem. Explain how the poem works and why you’ve chosen to address its concept/topic via poetry as opposed to other means. Publish the result as a guest blog (as in #2), in a local paper, weekly zine, website, etc.

III. With what artists, studies, organizations, thinktanks, products could my poetry partner?

Many poets are connecting their work with other genres and outlets. How can the rest of us got more intentional about it? Continue brainstorming in the comments!

  1. Give a reading in a local art gallery, and/or schedule a performance at which you and a musician alternate “sets.”
  2. Ask musicians and/or videographers to create work for or with your poetry… For example, they might set your poem to music or video, or simply create something inspired by your poem. Publish the results on SoundcloudBandcampfacebook, or YouTube. (For inter-genre ideas, check out what what poet Kevin Barrington’s doing with “albums” of poetry.)
  3. Send a poem to be illustrated by a local high school or college art class. Help them coordinate a local opening (at which you can also read, if you like), or post their work on your blog/site and send them the link to share.
  4. Wonder about things like choreography.
  5. Enlist local actors to read your poem(s) at a local reading, and advertise it as such. (Poets suggested this in the comments of my first blog. Great results. Great idea.)

In Closing…

Because I want to reach beyond Poetry Land, some readers have suggested that I want poetry to become simplistic, transparent, or otherwise easily consume-able. This says a lot about what we think of “the public” and their artistic intelligence! But also, it’s rubbish. We don’t have to write “down” to anyone, or convert poetry to ad copy and greeting cards. By brainstorming connective possibilities, we’re changing how we think about where poetry can go—not about what it is.

Meanwhile, poets lose little by “showing the trick.” If your readers are subscribers to a nonprofit or political newsletter (and aren’t also tenured poets), they may need extra info to know how to read your work—and that’s ok. Provide some context or commentary. Have fun with it. And finally,

Dear Poets, lend us your brilliance!
Add your ideas in the Comments.

Here’s to your work, and to getting it read.

Might we be so bold as to suggest that you subscribe to Ploughshares?

About Tasha Golden

Tasha Golden is the singer and songwriter for the critically-acclaimed band Ellery. Her songs have been heard in major motion pictures, TV dramas, radio in the US & the UK, and Starbucks stores throughout the country, and her albums have been featured in national publications such as Paste Magazine and M Music. Her poetry and prose have been seen or are forthcoming in The Humanist, Gambling the Aisle, Luvah Journal, Pleiades, Ploughshares, and Patrol Magazine. She tweets @goldenthis
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21 Responses to Why Poetry Can’t Find Its Public, Part Two

  1. Justin Bigos says:

    Terrific article. Another way to reach more readers, aside from publishing poems in unconventional places, is to write poems that care very much about the reader and clearly want to be read by the larger culture. I think of Alex Dimitrov as a great example of this kind of poet. There are, of course, many others.

    • Tasha Golden says:

      Thanks Justin! Would love to hear more of your thoughts re “poems that care very much about the reader” – In your experience, how has this manifested?
      Thanks again!

  2. C.A. LaRue says:

    Consider getting involved with your local middle school or high school, many of which as part of the Writing Across the Curriculum initiatives are not only teaching poetry writing in general, but math poetry, science poetry, etc. This is a great opportunity for poets like Gregory Pincus (math) or Katherine Larson (science) to discuss work that crosses over into these subject matters.

    Also think about collaborating with groups you might not normally associate with poetry, such as gemologists, meteorologists or actuaries. It opens new opportunities for both groups and can make for fun projects for National Poetry Month and beyond.

    • Tasha Golden says:

      Yes yes – love these ideas… Great additions to the more general high school/etc ideas above. Have you seen poets connecting with gemologists/meteorologists/etc? Would love examples! These fields wouldn’t have been first on my brainstorm list- so I love that you mentioned them.

  3. Good piece Tasha. Bang on. Now let me be ‘crass’ and hustle for an audience; the full collection of digidelic delight – ‘I Love The Internet’ – .referenced above can be picked up for a mere five euro at the bookshop here http://www.itsapoeticalworld.com. Hope you enjoy it. You can also check out the title poem on the Maddow blog or catch my work on YouTube.

  4. Ken says:

    Very cool article. It’s amazing how people who think they hate poetry can easily be brought around when they discover that poetry doesn’t HAVE to be what they think it is. In addition to my site (Great Writers Steal), my version of fun and outreach has been to write poems about Ohio State athletics and to post them in a blog on the best (in my opinion) site on the topic:

    I’ve only been doing it for a few weeks, but I absolutely love that my work inspired some of the folks on the site to write THEIR OWN poems.

  5. John says:

    –Posting a poem on Facebook during important times, like I did during Sandy Hook (“It is not growing like a tree” by Ben Jonson)

    –mentioning, quoting, using a line or two of poetry in your daily life/toasts/comments. This requires being “out” as a writer which may annoy some people which is why people may feel uncomfortable doing it

    My main point is, poetry and it’s insight into life should be on the tips of our tongues. I mention scenes in novels which remind me of things, like when they tip the cake truck over in Johnny Got His Gun and the manager takes a second to register what he just saw. What poems mean those things to us? For example, the aftermath of a parade always makes me think of “an insubstantial pageant faded” from The Tempest. All this of course requires wide, wide reading.

    • Tasha Golden says:

      Hello John, such great thoughts – Thank you!
      Love your reminder here that the presence of poetry in a given situation can be quite organic, and so very apt — If we have our eyes/ears open, and if we’ve ingested enough of it to feel it at the backs of our necks in the right moment.
      I also appreciate your reminder that a poetry “readership” could include those immediately around us… And that engaging poetry with them doesn’t have to mean self-promotion or sharing our own work, but rather bringing poetry we love into the conversational/social-media mix when it’s relevant.
      So yes yes to wide reading… & to an immersion that allows them to be on the tip of the tongue

      thanks again!

  6. Suellasuzan says:

    This is very helpful information for poets like myself. I can see what you that to reach more readers we have to think out of the box for once an be different. Allow people to see the beauty in the written verse.

  7. It was a joy to read your blog, I agree with so much of what you say, which is why we built PoetryZoo. There are plenty of places to do poetry on the internet but they all seem very isolated. Our view was that if we built a platform like YouTube then, just as people who make videos go there, people who write poetry might go to PoetryZoo. Where we’re different from YouTube is that we’re not owned by Google so working on limited resources, but hope the first iteration brings some tools which haven’t previously been available. Unlike a journal or a magazine, which reflects a particular style, the all-comers-welcome nature of PoetryZoo will provide a place for anyone, which will result in search engine optimisation benefits for everyone! But just as people can tell the difference between cuddly animal videos and TED talks, so we are building architecture (anthologies, groups, search) which will allow people to find what they want at the level they want! e.g. there’s plenty of room for Ploughshares groups/anthologies where you can reach out to readers who are also writers!

    The flip side is that the whole site is geared to face outwards, to fit into people’s online presence, rather than replace it. We actively encourage people to link to their (poetry)blogs/websites to create a knot in the web called poetry. We expect that just as some people took a while to appreciate YouTube, there will be people who don’t want to try PoetryZoo in the first instance. But hopefully, over time, the idea of a platform which is not driven by game mechanics, advertising, money making competitions or offers of book deals will find a way.

    Currently we’re beta testing everything and bringing on a few developments so hopefully you’ll be seeing more of us as we move towards launch in mid August. (Would be delighted to write a longer piece if that seemed good because there are a whole bunch of issues here.)

  8. Pingback: Why Poetry Can’t Find Its Public, Part Two | Astigmatic Revelations

  9. Suellasuzan says:

    After such wonderful advice and tips I decided to put what I learnt into practice. It was the most joyful experience and actually brought back the fun into the work. I woke up early and went ahead to the local book shop only to discover it was a library. Speaking of false advertising but hold on it was a gold mine in that I found a section they display for local poets. They have a workshop for poetry reading every Thursday. I didn’t even have to venture far to show off my work so I will joining the group tomorrow. Secondly I checked poems on the underground, very interesting for someone who had no clue that you can have your work displayed on there. I am still looking how to upload my work on there but glad I checked it out. Third I am now considering stationery with my poems at the back such as postcards and business cards. This will be good for handing out to the local shop and strangers on the streets. At number four I also joined a forum and went on poetry.com where I got some work reviewed instantly by fellow poets. It was a nice site to interact with poets whose work was also amazing. I was in poetry heaven and in my element reading and reviewing other people’s work so much fun. I also recorded my audio of poems and will be posting that on sound cloud. This article was a great discovery for me as a poet who was at first struggling to promote her work but with all these tips am on the road to adventure and love it. Poetry is not only about writing but also sharing your work with others. You are right saying that poets need to think like artists in order to sell their work.

    • Tasha Golden says:

      You rock, Suella!
      This is a lot of work – and inspiring to hear behind it a love of what you do. Thanks for putting it out there – Let us know how it goes!

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  11. Pingback: Why Poetry Can’t Find Its Public, Part Two | Ploughshares – Joshua Keiter

  12. e b bortz says:

    There have been occasions when a few poet friends have come together on a street corner in Pittsburgh and just did an open reading…several round robins…sometimes just for the poetry…sometimes as a free speech exercise.
    Gets an audience that doesn’t normally go to readings.

    Anyone else tried this?

  13. Khabi says:

    Very Inspiring! Thank you.

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