Hello poets and readers,
How does one become a poet? This perennial and intriguing question is in part answered by recent research in Australia. Interviewing 76 poets, Jen Webb, Paul Magee, Kevin Brophy and Michael Biggs isolated key factors which help to foster excellence in poetry. Although my research here emphasises process rather than end results, this group’s study has implications for process more broadly: it’s about the making of the poet rather than the making of the poems and can tell us much about what behaviour contributes to good writing.
The group received ARC funding for their project ‘Understanding Creative Excellence: A Case Study in Poetry’ (2013-2016), and some of the findings are summarised in Creativity in Context: How to Make a Poet, by Monica Carroll (who joined the project) and Jen Webb, published in Recent Work Press’ Pragmatics of Arts series.
The key factors they identify in the most successful group of poets are to do with age, community, education, geography and gender. Successful poets are defined here as ‘household names’ who have won international honours, are influential and published by renowned publishing houses.
The most successful group is rather older than the others, and the authors make the obvious but important inference that it takes a lot of time to become an accomplished poet. Perhaps the clearest finding of all is that successful poets are embedded in some kind of community of writers and most had been a member of a writing group at some stage in their career. The data from this research and a good deal of the literature discussed tends to dispel the myth of the solitary poet. The more successful poets are interested in the history and the future of poetry and are able to look forwards and backwards in time, conscious of poetry’s evolution and possibilities. Also characteristic is a high level of education (none had ended at high school). The findings relating to geography were intriguing, and somewhat unexpected. The most successful group had tended to be less transient; they had put down roots, and although they certainly travelled at times, especially for writing related events, they had not given over a great deal of their time to relocating, and therefore presumably had more time, energy and resources to put into poetic practice. The gender divide completed this varied portrait. Of the most influential poets, women had fewer opportunities, and comprised only 30% of the top group.
An important element identified in the research into the development of a poet is that the first significant exposure to poetry is well-taught, even if it comes as late as university; for many this exposure also formed a kind of epiphany, as the power of this particular moment was so strong as to convince individuals that poetry was going to become absolutely necessary in their lives. Validation, usually from a teacher who detected early promise, was highly significant.
Reflecting on this list of factors influential in making a successful poet, one may realise that some factors are related to past events and unable to be changed. Others, though, are under our control. Our ability to network and get feedback and advice from our peers and more experienced poets is an option to foster. Closely related, we can choose to see our education as ongoing and lifelong and taking many forms which expand our skills. The geographical element is more problematic and a matter of personal choice, though obviously the examples discussed by Carroll and Webb make recommendations of a kind. As teachers, we can seek to teach well and with dynamic and culturally representative examples, and to encourage and validate our students and those we mentor.
Making sure, especially in the role of editor or publisher, that women poets have a fair share of exposure to publishing opportunities is something we can actively promote, and blind submissions (where the identities of authors are concealed from editors) have sometimes had a significant impact on opportunities for women – I’m thinking of the example given by Westerly editor Catherine Noske when speaking at the Poetry on the Move festival in 2017. She told us that after adopting a blind assessment policy for the journal, content by women rose steadily to a high-point of 73% in issue 62:1 (roughly equal to the percentage of women submitting work), from a much more modest representation averaging 40% previously.
I recommend Creativity in Context: How to Make a Poet for the insight it offers us on what makes a poet, and for the internal dialogues it stirs about good practice and the wider concerns of the process of writing poetry.
Carroll, M & Webb, J 2018 Creativity in Context: How to Make a Poet, Canberra: Recent Work Press