I first met Elizabeth Barrette through her Livejournal. Elizabeth is hosting a poetry fishbowl today (May 3). Elizabeth is a talented poet and author. Her most recent poetry collections, which came out in December 2010 were Prismatica: Science Fiction Poetry Spanning and Hands: A Collection of Poetry. She also has had numerous short stories including “Seasons of Power” in The Lorelei Signal and “Othertongues” in Linger Fiction. Through e-mail, we discussed the differences between good and bad poetry, how a poet finds new markets and ways in which a poet can market him or herself.
I’ve primarily interviewed fiction writers for this spotlight, so my readers are probably more familiar with the creative process of writing prose. Can you tell me how the creative process for writing poetry differs from that of writing prose?
Poetry is more concise and more structured than prose. For me personally, I have more practice writing poetry so it is easier and faster than prose. (That’s not true for most people, so check your own results.) It’s simple for me to write poetry based on ideas that other people give me, as I do in my monthly Poetry Fishbowl — and poetry has a lot more forms than prose, so form prompts are welcome. I can also write poems based on things I see around me or things I read about; most of the poems in my book _From Nature’s Patient Hands: A Collection of Poetry_ were inspired by local or distant nature. Many of my speculative poems are inspired by science articles or mythology.
I can either start with a topic and look for a form to match it, which I usually do; or start with a form and look for a topic, which I do if I’m trying out a new form. For instance, poems in my Origami Mage series take place in an Asian-inspired fantasy setting, so they typically use haiku or tanka patterns for the verses. Free verse, ballad, or couplet forms will fit just about any topic. Once I know the topic and form, I start writing down the verses. For a rhymed form sometimes I use a rhyming dictionary. Most of the time, though, the words just pour out onto the page; after 30+ years of writing poetry, trying to catch it step-by-step actually slows me down.
After I have a rough draft, I go back and re-read the poem. If it’s free-verse then I check to make sure the line breaks put pauses in the right places. Those are really important in free verse because they help distinguish it from prose; the breaks must either be logical and unobtrusive, or used to create tension with less natural divisions. If the poem is rhymed, I check to make sure all the rhymes fit the pattern — so if they are perfect, they’ll all be perfect, or if they’re near-rhymed, they’ll all be near. I almost never mix the two unless the near-rhymes are buried in the middle, because it’s too easy for those to look like mistakes. If the poem is metrical, I count out the meter on my fingers to make sure it’s regular and that I haven’t added or dropped a syllable anywhere. Sometimes that means looking up syllable count in a dictionary. I proofread for spelling and grammar. Then it’s done.
For a more detailed description of how to write poetry, see my book _Composing Magic: How to Create Magical Spells, Rituals, Blessings, Chants, and Prayers_ which has two chapters on poetic forms along with a lot of other writing instruction. It’s aimed at alternative spirituality but can be generalized to other types of writing.
How do you find markets for poetry?
For conventional markets, I use online market guides now. I used to buy a paperback copy of _Poet’s Market_ every third year or so, but probably won’t bother to do that again. Since I write a lot of speculative poetry, I really like Duotrope’s Digest:
That one has a tab for poetry markets. Know what kind of poetry you write most often and look for market guides that list markets in your field(s).
However, I have found crowdfunding to be far more effective. I sell about 10 times as many poems direct to my readers compared to magazine editors these days. I’ll typically write 15-20 poems in a day during my Poetry Fishbowl, sell 8-12 of those to readers within a few days, then sell one or a few poems to magazines some other time in the month. So I’m focusing a lot of attention on ways to find new “markets” by expanding the size of my audience; people often watch the fishbowl for a while before they give me prompts, and if they enjoy what I write, eventually they are likely to donate. I have individual fans who are HUGE supporters of my work and some of them have bought far more from me than conventional editors have.
Don’t necessarily believe the saying that “there is no money in poetry” — but do understand you may have to go digging in some unusual places to find good markets.
What was your development process as a writer?
My parents started reading to me when I arrived. The earliest of my poetry that we have is actually in their handwriting because I started composing before I could write. I’ve always written and always enjoyed reading. The most notable “development” thing I did was deciding to practice poetry in junior high. I wrote a poem every weekday for several years. Even after I stopped doing that deliberately, my output has remained high. I’ll turn out between two and three hundred poems per year (full-size ones, as I don’t separately count the blocks of short-shorts like haiku). So basically, read everything and write anything.
How does the market differ for writing poetry? How do you market yourself as a poet (vs. marketing yourself as a writer)?
The modern mainstream culture doesn’t value poetry; some types of fiction do get respect, although many don’t. It comes and goes, fashionwise, in swings that span decades or centuries. So, the mainstream market is nearly nonexistent. Happily there are alternatives. Some subcultures love poetry; two of mine are Pagan and science fiction subcultures. There are many more markets for poetry in those areas. If you want to SELL your poetry, you have to compare what you write to what people are buying and figure out which markets to aim for. If you just want to SHARE your poetry, simply get a blog or a website; there’s no bottleneck anymore for free literature.
Poetry is just one subset of my wordsmithing. Much of my self-marketing is broad-based, for all the stuff I do. Targeted marketing is usually project-driven. So for instance, when my two new poetry books came out in December 2010, I focused on those individually. I contacted local newspapers for the “local poet” angle, and two of them did feature articles about me and my books. I also did some guest posts on popular blogs, where the theme of the blog matched something in one of the books. So I did an environmental-themed post for the nature book, and one contrasting science fiction poetry vs. mainstream poetry for the science fiction book. With the Poetry Fishbowl, I pitch the fact that I can write poems about darn near anything, very quickly, so that people can “watch” the project all day and see updates. If I’m trying to convince someone that I’m an experienced poet, then I trot out the list of awards and publications, which is essentially the same as any other writer-marketing but involves filtering for specifically relevant credits.
What is Poetry Fishbowl? How does it work?
First, a “fishbowl” is a generic type of writing exercise that is public and interactive. Usually it involves one or a few people in a classroom sitting up front and writing things based on input from the rest of the class — often ideas written on a board that everyone can see. I adapted this for online use in LiveJournal.
I set a theme for each fishbowl. Anyone is welcome to give me prompts that relate to the theme, or request a particular form (in case they aren’t very familiar with that month’s theme). Then I start writing. Some prompts lead to a whole poem, but often I combine two or more prompts from different people. Once a poem is done, I post a “thumbnail” description of it telling which prompt(s) it used, its form, a little about its content, then the size and price. (I have standard prices for short through long poems, then per-line rates for epics.) I post one poem for free. If there’s a new prompter or donor, a second free poem goes up; and there are other perks too. Beyond that, people can sponsor poems based on the listed price, in which case I publish the poem on my blog and the donor(s) will get nonexclusive reprint rights. They can also make general donations. So people get to watch poetry created live, influence what gets written and published, and crosstalk with each other during the process — sometimes that leads to more ideas and more poems. It’s pretty exciting.
After the fishbowl, I do a followup post with details about how the day went. It lists the published poems, a link to unsold poems, and usually a poll for deciding which poem(s) to sponsor out of general donations. I also write a brief essay that’s custom-locked for donors, typically relating to some aspect of poetry and/or the month’s theme.
The landing page for the Poetry Fishbowl, with details and samples, is here:
If you could give advice to young writers who are interested in poetry, what would it be?
1) Read as much as you can get your hands on. Much classic poetry is better than much modern poetry.
2) Write as much as you can manage. Mass practice makes a definite improvement in whatever level of ability you start out with.
3) Try to find a source of feedback, because that helps identify your strong and weak points, but …
4) … be prepared to take any writing advice with a grain of salt if it sounds stupid. Much advice about poetry these days is dead wrong and will make your work suck. Find poems you like and emulate those.
5) Learn to critique. It makes it easier to spot flaws in your own work. If you think a poem is awful, it probably is. Figure out how to identify WHY it is awful.
6) Good writing teachers are priceless. Bad ones can destroy your career before it even gets started. Learn to tell the difference. If they help you do better and feel good about your work, they’re good. If they make you not want to write or hate your work, or undercut its quality, they’re bad. You don’t necessarily have to say either of those observations out loud, but you absolutely need to be able to say them inside your own head.
Can you give my readers some tips for helping them recognize bad poetry? Does it all have to rhyme?
Signs of bad poetry include: it’s boring, it makes no sense, it sounds awkward to read or hear, and/or it fails to follow the parameters of its form. Poorly written free-verse poetry may also resemble prose with random line breaks added.
Poetry does not have to rhyme. However, if it does rhyme, then the rhymes must be consistent with the chosen rhyme scheme: all perfect rhymes (like “boat” and “moat”), all near-rhymes (like “pry” and “rise”), or a specific alternation. Dropping a few near-rhymes into what is supposed to be a perfect-rhymed poem is a flaw.
I actually wrote a whole post on recognizing bad poetry:
If a reader wants to get into reading speculative poetry, where would you reccomend that they start.
The best option is either subscribe to Star*Line, the magazine of the Science Fiction Poetry Association, or buy any year’s Rhysling Award anthology. Those are always full of excellent science fiction, fantasy, and horror poetry from many different authors. Visit the SFPA site here:
Another good starting point is a pair of books by Suzette Haden Elgin, who founded the SFPA. _21 Novel Poems_ is a collection of narrative SF poetry. _The Science Fiction Poetry Handbook_ explains much about how to write speculative poetry.
My LiveJournal also has a vast amount of my poetry visible for free. About every third month of the Poetry Fishbowl, the theme is something speculative. So you can look on the landing page that I mentioned earlier, scroll down to the list of past fishbowls, and click on the month themes that are speculative. Or you can just click the “poem” tag on my blog and scroll looking for the speculative poems. There are almost always a few speculative poems per month even if the theme is something else.
There is a lot of other free poetry online, but finding poetry which is free, speculative, AND good can take lengthy searching.
Promote thyself: What have you written recently? Where can readers find it?
Most recent outside publications of poetry:
“Seasons of Power” in The Lorelei Signal
“Othertongues” in Linger Fiction
“The Leader of the Rebel Drones Laments the Death of His Last Brother” in Sci-Fi Short Story
My two poetry books came out from Diminuendo Press in December 2010: _Prismatica: Science Fiction Poetry Spanning the Spectrum_ and _From Nature’s Patient Hands: A Collection of Poetry_. These are available directly from me or from the publisher. I also have some supporting materials for them on my website.
I’ve written a lot of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction for the science fantasy shared-world, Torn World. The forthcoming anthology _Family Ties and Torn Skies_ will include several of my pieces. Meanwhile these are some of my recent publications on the main site:
“The Sky Rangers” (fiction)
“The Flight of the Rose Butterfly” (fiction)
“The Sugar Mouse” (poem)
“Invincible Wisdom” (poem)
Let my readers know where they can find you. Where are you on the web?
LiveJournal: “The Wordsmith’s Forge” — writing, speculative fiction, gender studies, nature, photography, activism
Dreamwidth: “The Wordsmith’s Forge” — similar to LJ but lower traffic
Facebook: Personal page for Elizabeth Barrette echos links from LJ, Change.org, and other places plus some social activism and news-gathering on FB itself
Fan page for PenUltimate Productions Writing & Editing is my business page with only news about my writing, the publishing industry, and other things in the wordsmithing field
Goodreads: my author page lists the books I’ve written, upcoming events, samples of my writing, etc.
FriendFeed pipes content links from my LiveJournal, Facebook, YouTube, and other services
PenUltimate Productions is my wordsmithing website, with information about what I’ve written and how to hire me. It also has a big section of information about crowdfunding.
Torn World has a contributor page for me that lists all the poetry, fiction, and nonfiction I’ve posted there: