How to Make a Living as a Poet (advice from people much better at it than me)

Last week, I made my annual trip north to StAnza International Poetry Festival. This was my third festival volunteering for StAnza, and as well as my usual job of looking after poets, I had the responsibility of being the festival’s in-house blogger.

Amongst all the wonderful talks and readings and performances, there was one event that stood out as being not about the art (at least, not in its purest form), but about the practicalities of making that art pay.

‘Making a Living as a Poet’ was an event sponsored by the Society of Authors. Chaired by Ken Cockburn, poets Sarah Hesketh and Harry Giles talked about how to make money from being a poet – although, as Harry qualified, ‘You can make a living from poetry, but it’s a crap living.’ 

That aside, I thought I’d share with you some of the wisdom learned during that event.

Reading April De Angelis, 'Playhouse Creatures'
April De Angelis, ‘Playhouse Creatures’

HOW TO MAKE A LIVING AS A POET:

  • Find cheap rent. Poetry doesn’t pay well. Unless you have some uncanny luck or you’ve made a deal with the devil to bag a big prize every couple of months, you’re not going to make it onto the Forbes rich list through writing poems. So living somewhere where the rent is a bit cheaper, and living costs are more affordable, is going to be vital.
  • Turn up to stuff. Like so many fields of work, poetry and writing are all about making connections. I don’t mean this in a kind of ‘old boys’ way, but if someone recognises your name on an application, it’s a good start. If you get to know people, they’re more likely to think of you when it comes to work. This goes for organisations, arts councils, collaborations with other artists… The good thing is that poetry networking isn’t nearly as scary as big business networking; it isn’t about striding into a room in a sharp suit, killer heels and blood-red lipstick, then bowling everyone over with with that cut-throat marketing pitch. It’s actually just about hanging out with other lovely artsy people and having interesting conversations.
  • Say yes to everything. Become known as the person who will do the work, rather than the person who refuses the work. Sarah Hesketh started the event by saying that, by accepting any work she could in the field of literature, there’s now ‘a touch of poetry’ on everything she does. Or, as Harry Giles said: you can’t get a full-time job just making art, but you can stitch together enough arts jobs to almost make a living.
  • Be nice. People don’t re-employ people who are rude to them. It’s just common sense.
  • Be professional. Same thing. If you never meet deadlines, or you constantly bitch about your colleagues (which will get back to them – it’s a small world), or you don’t do the work you’ve agreed to do, then people are unlikely to come back to you when the next employment opportunity comes around.
  • Seek out funding. Don’t wait for the work to come to you. Go out and find it. A couple of people seemed surprised by this – isn’t it pushy to ask for work / funding when it hasn’t been offered? But let’s use a more quotidien analogy: grocery shopping. Let’s say you’ve run out of food. Your cupboards are empty, there’s nothing but that mouldy bit of cheddar at the back of the fridge, and all you have in your freezer is half a bag of frozen peas. There are two options. Option 1: sit at your kitchen table twiddling your thumbs and hope someone knocks on your door with a trolley-full of food. Option 2: go to the supermarket and do some food shopping. Obviously, the most obvious and effective of these is option 2. You go out and get some food. It’s the same with work and funding. Instead of waiting for someone to come along and offer you a residency, get in touch with the organisation where you’d like to be poet-in-residence and work together to put together a funding bid. Instead of wishing someone would pay you just to write poems, apply for PhD funding: 3 years of effectively being paid to write a collection of poems. Of course, this all means more admin, but as Harry put it: ‘Making art is also the amin of making art.’ Which brings me onto…
  • Do an apprenticeship. As with any industry, you need to learn how it operates, and have the skills to operate within it. Sarah Hesketh spent a few years working for small arts organisations, in the kind of admin role where she learned how to do everything: events planning; marketing; press releases; funding bids; working with artists; evaluation… All the arts admin skills you need to operate as an individual artist. Of course, this isn’t everybody’s cup of tea. Some artists can’t think of anything worse than having to spend half (or even most) of their day doing admin. Which is fine. There are plenty of other ways to support your writing. Get a job in a cafe or a bar. Work in a funeral parlour. Drive an ice cream van. As long as you’re doing something that you enjoy and that still leaves you at least some time for the writing, then that’s fine. Living as a writer can be as individual as the writing itself.
  • Don’t rely on publishing a book as a way of getting rich. Harry Giles: ‘You make beer money publishing a book. Think about a book as a business card.’ The sad fact is that you don’t get 6-figure advances for poetry. Most books and pamphlets are published by small independent presses and a run of 500 is generally considered pretty good going. So just because you’ve got a book- or pamphlet-deal, it doesn’t mean you can’t start shopping for a luxury yacht. Although the actual writing of poems may be the biggest thing in terms of importance, it’s probably going to be the smallest in terms of actual financial income. But…
  • Make really good art. Although it might not make much money in and of itself, it’s still important that you write really good poems. If you’re applying for residencies or academic positions or running poetry workshops, then the people you’re teaching or applying to will want to know you’re competent in your art form. It isn’t a financial goldmine, but it’s still the thing around which all the rest of your work centres. Which is good, because the poetry is probably the reason you’re doing all this in the first place.

Other than that, just keep your fingers crossed you win something big, like the National Poetry Competition. There’s always an element of luck in life – do you meet the right person who’s going to love and champion your work, or do you write that poem which happens to speak to the personal experience of the editor selecting work for a magazine? But the more you go to things and meet people and put your work out and apply for opportunities and get involved, the greater the chance of those things happening.

The more nets you throw out, the more chance you have of catching a fish.

Read why I’m aiming for 100 literary rejections this year.

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