Articles - 12th July 2019

Continuing the never-ending conversation: How to be a poet

Words by Tommy Sissons
Illustration by Jon McCormack

To be a poet you must inhabit the nucleus of experience. A poet does not look twice before crossing the road. A poet puts their work before themselves. If poetry is to be considered the most emotive art form, then a poet should not shy away from absolute ecstasy and absolute despair. Any life well lived should follow the frantic lines of a toddler scrawling on a knackered piece of paper. Soar and fall repeatedly and hopefully end whilst soaring. A life which follows a simple horizontal line is flat; in a hospital, a flat line on the electrocardiogram means the heart has stopped showing electrical activity. No poet should follow a horizontal line of experience. Leave that for philistines.

The poet must be (above all things) above all things. Transform yourself into a fly-on-the-wall and watch and learn from everything. You can never know too much, hence the advantageousness of habitual self-education. Nothing is insignificant and nothing is boring if, like me, you find even mundanity fascinating. Talk to questionable strangers in the pub. Listen to brash conversations on the bus. If you find yourself uninspired one evening, park yourself firmly on the nearest bench and scrutinise the intricacies of human experience as it parades before you.

One of the most important things about poetics is that no object is definite. The sky is not just blue nor is the sea. Nothing is fit for a single purpose and nothing is simple as it appears on the surface. A poet must be the same; multi-layered and ready to surprise or shock. Originality is the foundation of any poet worth mentioning. A poet is a window, not a mirror. I consider myself a humanist and so I believe (whilst collectivist in political thought) in the power and individuality of the ordinary human. I believe that whilst many may share an experience, no two individuals have enjoyed nor endured that experience in identical ways. Such an intimate and inward art as poetry can only find the Truth it seeks to uphold if that Truth is found in reality itself. You must be comfortable with your unrepeatable ego before you can pry yourself open.

If this is to deal with the mind, we must now deal with the body. To be a poet you must be resilient, and you must be relentless in movement. A slam is a fundamental stepping stone for any would-be poet. The ability to cut your teeth and face the constructive criticism of peers and mentors is vital or else you may find yourself sinking in your bathtub after your first rejection email with a bottle of lager where the shampoo used to be and even the rubber duck seemingly scorning you. Put yourself on the line and let it elevate or drop you, then push on to the next curve and don’t look back. To put it bluntly, shy poets get nowt. 

Additionally, the poet is no longer an anonymous figure. A poet needs no longer bury themselves at home under a snowstorm of metaphors and similes until they become an invisible icy hermit. It is important for the contemporary poet to be visible, particularly in the age of social media, and, therefore, you must make use of every visual opportunity. The poetry film is a valuable tool. It can reach those who do not think they care for poetry and change their minds. Allow it to compliment your work with physical aesthetics and do not shy away from presenting yourself as showman/woman. I try my utmost to carry myself like an unorthodox businessman and I have learnt to sell myself at the drop of a hat.

Where publishing is concerned, the poet must not rush. In fiction, a debut is an important landmark. If a fiction writer’s first novel is received poorly, it will be hard for them to claw a solid readership back. Many reviewers can be notoriously unforgiving. In the more liberal world of poetry, this is not the case as much (bear in mind that you can repeatedly sign up to open mics and force people to listen to your improvement), but the debut remains important. I have become very precious about the body of work I allow the public to see. I use my time writing, re-writing and fine-tuning. I work my way around a text like a mechanic around a beat-up motor. I will only push my work into the public eye if I am certain that it is to my best current standard. 

There is, with some poets (including my younger self), a certain rush to be published. Unless your writing is untouchable at such an early stage, it is best to tread carefully. Build a palace of verse brick by brick and then allow your contemporaries to make architectural suggestions. Move a brick over there. Tear up the carpeting here. Work yourself down to the profound necessities and discard of anything which does not serve the unfaltering purpose of the overall book. When you feel your debut collection is ready, research the most appropriate publishers and approach them. Aim for a publisher who speaks your language; one who not only knows your audience but can push your work to fresh readers and listeners and taste bud samplers and finger clickers and foot tappers. Immerse every sensory organism of the audience. Care for them and they will care for you.

Finally, a poet must recognise their value to society. The power to condense the seemingly unconquerable mass of modern life into a stanza is both a radical and liberating act. In a world in which people are increasingly pushed for time and desperate for an accessible form of transcendental Truth, a poet must be a poet must be a poet must be a poet.

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