I recently received a question on Facebook, and I thought I would answer it here.
Question: How does a person become an established poet or writer? Is it necessary to first publish a book and have it recognized by established organizations?
So, this is one of those questions with many possible answers. I can only respond with what I know, and with what I have tried to do.
First, let’s question what “established” means for a writer. Does that mean a certain number of books? Does is mean a certain number of journal and anthology credits? If so, what’s the magic number? I actually don’t know the answer.
Becoming an established poet or writer is a years long (lifelong?), ongoing process of working. For me, work is continually producing writing, and sending it out for publication. Work also entails sharing your written words with a community. Publication is part of this sharing. Participating in writers’ events is also part of this sharing. Writers’ events can be public readings, including open mics. Public readings are easier to come by if you have some publication. For example, if a journal or magazine accepts your work that you have submitted to them, then there’s the possibility that they will have some kind of “release party” or launch. They may invite you to participate as one of the feature readers. The same would be true for anthology publication.
For writers still finding their legs, and for writers needing prompting and stimuli, classes and workshops are another way to share work with a community. Here, the kind of sharing you do will result in feedback on your works in progress (and you will be doing the same for your classmates). Ideally, you will find colleagues who are astute readers of your work. Ideally, you will also find mentors this way. They will support you through the completion of a written work, or even a body of written work, and you will support them. Perhaps to mark the completion of a weeks-long class, the instructor and students will create a publication and organize a public event. As a participating student, you will now have a venue to share your work with an audience. Ideally, in this community, you will learn about other reading series — where else may you share your work with a live audience? You will also learn about publication — Who is editing which journals and magazines? Who is accepting submissions? To whom should you be submitting your work? What are certain publications’ and editors’ preferences? Where does your work fit? This is the trade talk or industry talk that helps immensely. You’ll find social media groups where writer conversations and sharing information happen.
I write all of the above with the caveat that you must also be reading. A whole lot. So many different things. In your classes and workshops, I hope that is happening, reading recommendations, discussions of what you are reading. How that reading is helping you sort through your own writing, and your formation of a voice that will always be a work in progress. How that reading is sharpening your eyes and ears for language and form and genre.
I also write all of the above trying to qualify what I understand as working towards being “established.” It’s another way for me to say, a writer in the grind, in the hustle is making moves, on her way towards being “established,” however you decide to define that word.
I also write all of the above to talk about the process by which a manuscript is born and grows , from a few poems into a chapbook or full-length collection with some amount of cohesion. The more you write and workshop, the more you come to understand what that book is you’re going to write. What is its shape and character. What are its concerns. What story is it telling.
Focus is important; what are you writing, what’s important for you to be writing, who is your community, to/for whom are you writing? But proliferation is also important; how far outside of your circle(s) can your work travel, or how far outside your circle(s) are you willing/able to let your work travel? Thinking about how to answer these questions may help direct you towards where you want to send your work (individual pieces and entire manuscripts).
You may choose to submit your book manuscripts to a publisher within your own (local, ethnic, political, etc.) community. You may choose to submit your book manuscripts to more nationally recognized publishers. You may choose to submit your work to manuscript contests, and post-publication awards, big and small. You may choose to find yourself an agent and have that agent try to sell your manuscript to one of the big five. You may hire a publicist. You may make a lot of money. Or you may not. There is no single, correct way. The only thing I am certain of here is that in order to become an author, you must write a book, and it must be published. Having a good editor makes for a better process and a better book. That’s my opinion and experience. You may disagree.
You may join writers’ orgs, and speakers’ bureaus. Or you may not.
And it’s true, that once you have garnered a certain amount of publication, a certain amount of critical attention, perhaps some amount of recognition and awarding, then folks may seek you out, contact you seemingly out of the blue, invite you to speak, read, submit work, teach, and whatever else. They may offer you honorariums, some being simple tokens of appreciation, and some being amazing chunks of money. None of this is ever guaranteed.
I have so much more to say about writing and growing the book. But I have to go back (again) to the question of being “established.” What do we think is supposed to happen when we reach the point of being “established.” For me, there is no stopping and resting on whatever laurels we have. I keep grinding. There are always more poems to write. There are always more books to write. Long ago, I was having this great conversation with an elder poet, and either he told me explicitly, or I got the sense from him that he was going to keep writing books and performing until he just couldn’t do it anymore, until he was physically unable. That’s what I am going to do, until the day I am beyond infirm, until the day I die.