The latest article in my Business of Writing series in Writing Magazine.
The poet Robert Graves once claimed, “There’s no money in poetry, but then there’s no poetry in money.”
Generating an income from our writing can be challenging, but for poets, it can be even more so. However, that’s not to say poetry can’t play a profitable part in your writing business. It can, if you take the right approach.
This means getting involved with poetry-based activities, such as undertaking readings, doing school visits, running workshops and teaching, besides any poetry you may write.
One such poet is Chrissie Gittins, a National Poetry Day ambassador, who writes poetry for both adults and children. Her latest adult collection, Sharp Hills was published by Indigo Dreams last year. For her, poetry provides a variety of income streams, not just from the published poetry itself, but through the events that her published poetry gives her access to.
‘My income tends to come from poetry-related activities,’ she explains, ‘so from readings at poetry venues, school and library visits, appearances at festivals, and tutoring for universities and organisations, such as the Arvon Foundation and the Poetry Society. Anthologies usually pay a fee to include poems. And though highly competitive, public funding from organisations such as the Arts Council and the Society of Authors is available for projects and for personal work.’
While grant funding is under pressure at the moment, there are still schemes and programmes available that will consider supporting poetry projects. The Society of Authors administers the Author’s Foundation Award and will consider applications from any writer, including poets, who have been commissioned by a British publisher to produce a full-length work, or who stand a high chance of being published commercially by a British publisher.
Chrissie was fortunate enough to secure a grant from the Authors’ Foundation that enabled her to do the research she needed for part of her latest collection. The grant allowed her to travel to India and follow in her father’s RAF footsteps taken during the Second World War. Inspired by a series of black-and-white photographs he took while stationed in India, this trip was the impetus for a sequence of poems Chrissie produced to open her latest collection.
Building your poetry business isn’t just about travelling to far-flung places for inspiration. It’s about proactively spotting and making the most of any opportunities that come your way.
‘Be flexible, be connected and be persistent,’ Chrissie advises. ‘Submit your poems to magazines and anthologies, enter competitions and build an online presence. Once you have a body of work aim towards a pamphlet collection or a full collection. Make yourself known to organisations which promote poetry and poets. Regular poetry events often have open mic slots where you can try out your work and this may lead to an invitation to perform a longer set.’
Chrissie writes poetry for both adults and children, each giving her access to different markets and income-generating opportunities. ‘Poetry is read, written and enjoyed in primary schools so there is an audience there and openings for poets to visit schools. Schools stock poetry books in their classrooms and libraries, and children have the opportunity to buy books when a poet visits to perform and give workshops.’
While children’s poetry might offer more earning potential from school visits, the adult poetry market still generates a useful, if smaller, income stream for her. ‘Sales for adult poetry collections have increased in recent years but it is still a relatively small audience,’ she explains.
James Nash is another poet who, having worked as a teacher for many years, enjoys going into schools and running creative writing workshops. However, he considers himself a poet who’s also written stories, memoirs and articles, and always knew when he became a poet and performer in 1996 that any poetry income would need to be augmented in other ways.
‘Young people in schools always ask me if I’m rich,’ he says, ‘all those books etc. and I can feel my eyes rolling in my head like a stroppy adolescent. I sell quite well for a poet, but royalties are quite low and I knew quite early on that I needed to look at other ways of earning a crust. Several things happened. I was asked to work in a school by a teacher friend running poetry sessions with Year 7s, I found a part-time arts job and I started writing for a local listings magazine, with the occasional day working in the Leeds office of Metro newspapers when a lot of its material was sourced regionally. This all happened because I had started to get poems published and get known on the spoken word circuit in West Yorkshire. It all looked like I had a plan, but actually, it was more serendipitous than that, discovering how writers and poets have to develop a portfolio career to generate income.’
James agrees with Chrissie about getting your work out there and making the most of opportunities. In all genres of writing, it’s surprising how often a fresh opportunity presents itself because of something previously published or performed.
‘Embrace variety and try to keep your work in the arts sector,’ James advises, ‘and it can develop incrementally. School work leads to more school work, a greater presence as a poet leads to even more school work, and in my case to arts journalism – the kind of opportunity that a young journalism graduate would give her right arm for.’
James is also an advocate of performance poetry. ‘Reading at poetry nights can be terrifying. But you can learn so much just by going along and watching how more seasoned readers perform. Pick a few poems you know work, practice them, and think about how you might introduce them. Print them out in a very large font so you don’t stumble over your words.’
Part of being a poet is being seen to be a poet. That means producing fresh material and getting it out into the wider world, either in print format or as a performance. And you never know who may be in the audience, as James explains.
‘I think visibility is very important so as well as doing all the open-mic work, sending work off to magazines and competitions is hugely important. Looking at getting together a collection or pamphlet for publication can be part of this. Read lots of poetry, spot which publishers might be the ones for you, and then go onto their websites for their submission policies. I fell on my feet with Valley Press, a brilliant outfit in Scarborough, who seemed unworried by my “elderly” status, and has to date published four collections of mine. It has to be said that Jamie McGarry, of Valley Press, had already seen me read at the Scarborough Literature Festival a year or so before, so had a feeling for who I was as a poet.’
Networking with like-minded individuals is vital. Both Chrissie and James are members of NAWE (National Association of Writers in Education), an organisation that puts creativity at the centre of education by giving schools access to writers.
‘Initially, it was very important to belong to this organisation,’ says James. “It was brilliant at making me feel I belonged, but I would also suggest that you find a small group of like-minded writers to chat and meet with. Such informal support combined with kind and honest feedback on performance and writing is invaluable, for those of us who spend solitary, if privileged, days looking at a computer screen.’
National Poetry Day
If performing your work seems daunting, attend events as an audience member first. Watch and learn. Get a feel for how they work. October’s National Poetry Day (1st October 2020) is a fantastic opportunity to experience a handful of poetry events (although how Covid-19 will influence planned events and activities is yet to be seen).
‘I often get invited to read on National Poetry Day,’ explains James, ‘and perhaps work in a school during the day, so bring all that on. Otherwise, I look forward to some Zoom-related activities. Be assured some writing will take place on that day too.’
The pandemic has changed so much of our lives in 2020, but it’s vital that we learn how to adapt and look after ourselves. If we don’t, then we don’t have a business. And, as James explains, looking after ourselves is vital for any poetry business.
‘If Covid-19 has taught me anything it has been the need to get out into the open air, city or country, and rest my brain away from the computer. More ideas come that way! My ownership of a dog and a bike help me in these twice-daily activities. I always come back refreshed and full of virtue.’
So poetry can be a profitable income stream for a writer’s business if you make the most of the opportunities. Capitalise on National Poetry Day. Get involved with events and share your poetic creations with the world.
Robert Graves also said, ‘To be a poet is a condition rather than a profession.’ I think many will agree that both Chrissie and James are proving him wrong.
Business Directory – Poetic Pointers
Chrissie Gittins’ Top Tip: “Nurture your unique voice – it’s your most valuable asset. Keep faith with your work.”
James Nash’s Top Tip: “None of the above have any agency unless you actually write, so try to set up a daily writing regime, set yourself a weekly challenge, and read, read, read.”
NAWE (National Association of Writers in Education):https://www.nawe.co.uk
National Poetry Day: https://nationalpoetryday.co.uk
The Poetry Society: https://poetrysociety.org.uk
Society of Authors Grants for Works in Progress: https://www.societyofauthors.org/Grants/Grants-for-works-in-progress
Society of Authors Poetry & Spoken Word Group: https://www.societyofauthors.org/Groups/Poetry-and-Spoken-Word
Eric Gregory Poetry Awards https://www.societyofauthors.org/Prizes/Poetry/Eric-Gregory (Closing date for 2021 Competition is 31st October 2020.)