5 awkward questions I’ve been asked about poetry.

A while ago I told you about my five most awkward poetry reading experiences, and how I dealt with them. It got me thinking about other weird and awkward poetry-related stuff I’ve encountered to date… and the first thing that sprang to mind was the many weird and wonderful questions people have asked me over the years. Here are perhaps the five most awkward questions I’ve ever been asked… and how I answered them.

1. “Why isn’t your poetry more scholarly? All you ever write are safe little narratives.”
This is a direct quote, and shockingly, it fell from the lips of a fairly good friend of mine. Fortunately for him, we were in a busy coffee shop and he was quite a long way away on the other side of a sturdy table, so I couldn’t smack him in the mouth, which was my gut reaction. Instead, I had to formulate a proper answer made of words, and since so many people were around, I felt it wasn’t really appropriate for any of those words to be expletives.
This wasn’t the first time I’ve had to “defend” my poetry, and it probably won’t be the last. If you’re in the business of sending your poems out into the world, chances are you’ll also have to do this at some point, too — perhaps you’ve already had to. It’s sad, but so many people in the poetry world are fiercely competitive and will always compare your work to their own, to the work of your collective peers, to the folks who get their stuff in the big journals. It’s very easy to feel undermined, particularly if the person who’s questioning your abilities as a writer also happens to be someone you like, respect or look up to — but the best response is to stick to your guns. I like to point out that, in order to succeed, grow and evolve, the poetry world should incorporate all manner of styles and voices, including mine thankyouverymuch. It’s also pretty tricky to argue with “so you don’t like what I do? No worries — no one’s making you read it!” I have a friend whose favourite response to criticism of his work is, “welcome to Postmodernism, baby.” Sure, maybe your poetry sucks — but some cynic coming along and being deliberately derogatory about it isn’t going to change that any. People who can’t be constructive aren’t worth your time.

2. “Why the hell do I have to read other people’s poetry to be a good poet?!”
This is perhaps the most awkward writing-related question you can really be asked. Why? Well, chances are, the asker’s poems are fairly terrible… and it’s very hard to answer without having to say that. My horrible ex boyfriend once asked me this question — he never read poetry, and his main inspiration came from Nine Inch Nails and Nirvana lyrics. Needless to say, his works were somewhat lacking in… well, most of the things poetry needs in order to be called poetry. We broke up soon after.
It’s a common question — weird as it may seem, so many just-starting-out poets are non-poetry-readers. When faced with this particular query, one of the best things to do is ask “why don’t you read poetry?” Some people will say they don’t want to be influenced by others or are worried about “copying”; some genuinely think that poetry stopped happening sometime around William Wordsworth and that they’re some kind of trailblazer. Then there’ll be people like my ex boyfriend who think that Kurt Cobain provides all the “poetry” they’ll ever need… and some people are just damn lazy. Unfortunately, these are all misconceptions and lame excuses. Writing good poetry is a fine and subtle art, like throwing a pot or tiling a roof or writing a symphony. Could you do any of those things without first seeing someone else do it, reading up on it, practicing? You could, but the results would probably suck. It’s the same with poetry… and the sooner your non-reading friend realises it, the better!

3. “When are you going to get a real job?”
If I had a penny for every time someone’s flung the “writing is a naive activity and you need to get a grip” argument at me… well, I’d have a freaking big handful of change to pelt the ignorant weirdos with. It seems that the standard response to “I write poetry” these days is “oh my GOD what is wrong with you?!” Everyone’s so keen to point out that it’s a pointless exercise, that it’s embarrassing, that it’s a waste of time, and most importantly… it doesn’t make any money.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again — why does this only seem to apply to writing and writers? Why does everyone seem to think we’re all ethereal weirdos who float around totally detached from reality assuming that some day we’re going to write the next “If…” and make a million off it? For most of us, writing is a hobby. Sure, we’d all love to win heaps of literary prizes and give up the day job to live off our five-figure advances, but we know that’s probably not going to happen (and if we don’t, we’ll get there eventually). Heaps of people play football on a Saturday afternoon or go running every day… but chances are none of these people believe they’re going to become the next David Beckham or Usain Bolt. Personally, I rather like to string the “get a real job” crowd along a bit — “I’m waiting for the Poet Laureateship to come vacant again” always works a treat.

4. “How can I make it big as a poet?”
Perhaps the only people more awkward than the “poetry is totally pointless” crowd are the “I’m going to make a living off writing poetry!” crowd. “How can I make a living writing poetry?” and “how can I make my poetry famous?” are by far the most common questions I get asked — they arrive in my inbox from writers of all ages and backgrounds, and they pop up with alarming regularity on Yahoo! Answers and such (here, here, here, here, here, here… though perhaps more alarming are the responses… “try Poetry.com”?! Argh!).
It’s easy to be angry and frustrated with these people. Firstly, they’re clearly not writing poetry because they love it — or if they are, that’s not enough incentive for them, what they really want is cash. Secondly, they’re obviously about as involved with the poetry community as I’m involved with NASA’s latest misson — they have no idea what’s going on or what contemporary poetry really is. Thirdly, a lot of them seem really very stupid indeed — anyone who can’t tell that a site claiming “YOU CAN MAKE $1000 PER LINE OF VERSE!” = huge con is surely a moron, no? And fourthly, their poems usually suck.
However, you need to be gentle. I always find responding to “how can I make it big?” emails very tricky, but honesty is the best policy. I tend to take the “here are some things you can do to make your poems better, but you should know that you’ll probably never make any cash out of them anyway” line… so at least I’m helping these people improve, even if I am crushing their million-dollar writing dreams. Be constructive all the way… even if it’s hard.

5. “How DARE you reject my INCREDIBLE poem you freakin’ moron?!”
Welcome to the wonderful world of Being An Editor. If you’ve ever had the unenviable task of making a value judgement about someone else’s work, you’ll probably know how it feels to be on the receiving end of a rejected poet’s wrathful scorn. If you’re thinking of taking up an editor-ing job at any point in the future, just bear in mind that this is what you get. Even the nicest “we’re really sorry, it just wasn’t quite right for us”-style letter can result in “OMG how dare you!” For my sins, I’ve been on both ends of the exchange. It is never, ever pretty.
Poets: to save the poor editors of this world from having to answer this particular awkward question, please just don’t do this. Yes, some editors are total dicks, and some of them really do ask for this kind of treatment. However, most of us really are doing our best — we really do have valid reasons for rejecting your poems and you’d do well to listen to them and make edits accordingly. Editors: when you’re on the receiving end of this particular awkward question, probably the best response is no response at all. However tempting it may be to a) grovel piteously to the poet in question to try and get them to see your point of view, OR b) tell them exactly what they can do with their god-awful little sonnet series in your opinion… just don’t. Chances are they just wanted to vent — we all know being rejected is never pleasant. Now they’ve done it, they can probably move on… and so should you!

A few more from my personal Archive of Awkward:
“How can I write poems just like yours?”
“Do you think your poems are male or female?”
“Can I borrow one of your poems to enter into a contest? It’s OK because it’s US residents only so you can’t enter yourself.”
“I got the impression from reading your poems that you’re in need of a mother figure in your life, is that true?”
“Will you write me a poem about my car?”

What’s the weirdest or most awkward poetry-related question you’ve ever been asked…?

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17 Responses to “5 awkward questions I’ve been asked about poetry.”

  1. Gareth Says:

    Hahaha, win!! This post just made my terrible day much better — cheers Claire!

  2. Matt Says:

    When I first got published, everybody’s first question was “Did you get paid?” Trying my best not to sound smarmy here, but I think in many ways it’s very difficult for people who are not creative to get their heads around the idea that something (such as poetry) could be done out of love, not money. Money seems to drive everybody. I sort of realized for the first time recently I’d most likely never reach a point where I could support myself through writing alone, and yet it didn’t put me off one bit, so I suppose that was the true test.

    This isn’t a question persay, but another thing I find very awkward is the way people can write off poetry as just being a silly little hobby, and how, if I try to explain it feels like much more than that to me, I often feel like I’m being some pretentious wannabe artist. Peoples’ reactions do make it quite hard sometimes, because I’m either feeling like a child with his little poetry toy, or some deluded git who thinks it’s his right that everybody take him seriously.

  3. Crafty green poet Says:

    I had one of my very early poems published in an anthology and a friend said to me - well I guess you’ve got several dozen spare of those books lying around haven’t you?

    People just seem to not have a clue about the poetry world. But for me the worst are that literary clique who reject poets who are writing something different from academic or fashionable poetry.

  4. T.C. Seward Says:

    “But what is this poem about?”

    Don’t you think that if I wanted the poem to be about a specific thing, I would have written it that way? Haven’t you learned from reading all my other work that this is something I like to do? Things that are very important to me are the universality and sheer amount of possible interpretations of poetry. I can’t stand this question.

  5. Regina Says:

    Oh, Claire- a wonderful post and fascinating read today. Thanks so much.
    One of the questions I get- especially from my husband- is, “why don’t you write more poems that rhyme?” Aarrgghh…
    I am really not a good rhymer and when I do, it just makes for a very awkward poem- so, that’s why I don’t write more poems that rhyme, Mr. Smartypants!
    The thing is, he can rhyme as quick as lightning! Aarrgghh…
    I esp. loved your No. 1 answer… well done!
    Cheers to you, hon. And I loved your poems in Masters…

  6. charlotte Says:

    recently somebody added me on facebook because of my “reputation” in the poetry world (which i wasn’t aware i had, but hopefully it’s a good one, not dodgy as putting it in quotation marks implies…) then proceeded to ask me a lot of questions about applying to my university. for medicine. which is about as far away from my lovely english degree as you can get, possibly.

    i just don’t understand why?! i mean, she was nice and it was flattering, but still.

  7. Bruce Says:

    I love this debate. For me the only rule of poetry (that they should rhyme) has been removed and as such there are now no rules to gauge good or bad poetry. Poems today, as possibly always, exist for the author. The reader and/or listener will have an opinion, and can voice it, but only the author knows the true value of their poem.
    I very much enjoyed Reading the article.

  8. Mark Says:

    I belong to an online community that is essentially a bunch of middle aged fourth graders. Which is great. Nice guys…very supportive and all. Except my poetry doesn’t rhyme and they won’t read it as a result of it not conforming to their expectations of poetry.

    But, the reaction I get most often when I bother to mention that I write poetry is, “Really? You?”

    I laugh at them. Out Loud. Then and there…

    They are usually at a loss for words. Which means, I win!

  9. Aditi Says:

    I’m with Matt and ‘Did you get paid?’ It’s the worst possible thing anyone can ask and really diminishes the pleasure one gets out of an acceptance. The first few times I went into an explanation about the poetry industry, if you can call it that, and how there isn’t much money, and that I’m not doing this for the money. Now I have a standard routine. I ask the person if they buy contemporary poetry in any form — collection, anthology, journals. As soon as they say no, I say, ‘When you start doing that, maybe I’ll get paid.’ That shuts them up.

  10. Aditi Says:

    Oh, and ‘How do I get published?’ It’s easy enough to give people a list of resources: duotrope, names of mags you like, how to write a cover letter advice, etc, but sometimes I just want to say, ‘Give it a couple of years and a lot of work, and then consider submitting.’

  11. Weston you-know-the-rest Says:

    Wow. In light of conveying the answers in a witty, charming, and incredibly funny fashion, you also answered some major questions!
    I thought that the poetry-reading-experiances took the cake on humor and necessity, but you done stole it from that one, and went and ate it.

  12. H. Says:

    I second the “what is this about?”

    If you have absolutely NO clue what this is about, then I have either failed completely, or your head is in your ass.


    But seriously, I hate explaining it, especially if I am dealing with a touchy subject. Yes, this is a poem about rape. No, this is not a poem about myself being raped. Yes, I was trying to convey a message that does not just have to do with rape, but also other things. And then I have to list these things. And then everyone still walks away looking confused.

    Sorry - I don’t have any friends who read poetry or into literary work hahaha, so I get frustrated with this!!


  13. Rachel Fox Says:

    You seem plenty scholarly to me! It’s all relative…

  14. Marie Gauthier Says:

    “I ask the person if they buy contemporary poetry in any form — collection, anthology, journals. As soon as they say no, I say, ‘When you start doing that, maybe I’ll get paid.’”

    That = Awesome!

    Really love these posts, thank you.

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  16. Makeda Turnpaugh Says:

    I really like when people are expressing their opinion and thought. So I like the way you are writing

  17. Joycelyn Morgas Says:

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