There is a business side to poetry. John Murillo calls it the “po-biz”. It’s the stuff that poets, particularly American poets, talk about soon after a reading ends. “Po-biz” explores the journals where you’ve published, the retreats that you’ve done, the places you’ve taught on visiting professorships, the publishers you are courting or those that are courting you, the fellowships that you have had, the trips that you have taken to write, the people with whom you have studied, etc. All of that, and there’s a whole lot of name dropping, too.
In the end, all of that does not matter if you do not excel in your work. First is always the work. What happens after is only the result of good work.
Still, without a basic understanding of the business of poetry, your work may only see the light of day as the scribblings in a lover’s card or a sheaf of poems your children find someday after you’ve died. Beloved and belonging to a very small group of folk.
After you’ve written four poems starts in the day or 3000 words and you can’t even think of doing something creative, assemble the following things:
- a bio
- a recent, close-up picture
- a selection of your strongest 10 poems or 3 short stories (preferably published)
- if your work sample has been published, make a list of where and when
None of this requires you to be especially creative. Your bio may be the most taxing part of this, as we tend to labor most about how we appear to the world. That, and your work sample. I know it’s hard to pick just a small group of pieces to present to the world. In my case, I picked about 20 poems and did a few readings with them. The ones that received the most visceral reactions from the audience are those that are in my work sample. They are not my favorite poems; they are the poems I know speak to people. If you are a writer of fiction or nonfiction, I would recommend the same tactic. Find a venue where you can read your work.
On another day, assign your creative energy to writing an artist statement. Why do you do the work that you do? Who and what inspires you? What are your strengths? In what areas do you still want to grow? Write a one-page artist statement and a two-page artist statement that expands upon these ideas. When you are applying to residencies or fellowships, you will thank me for making you do what seems way over the top now.
On the third day, you are going to use ALL of your creative energy into writing about that DREAM project that you wish you had the time to do. If you’ve always wanted to write a short story collection, write about it. Take some time to dwell on what a short story collection might mean to you, how you even came to reading or writing them. If you want to create an interactive, poetic opera, well, dwell on that. Get all of your hopes onto the page. Talk about who or what inspires you. I’ll give you two to three pages on this. Write it all out.
Now, compile all of this together (plus a little extra) in this order:
- recent picture
- links to your website or blog
- links to any video or audio of you reading
- links to any publicity about your work (No problem if you don’t have any links to anything yet. You WILL, so this is where it goes)
- the list of those who have published the poems, stories, nonfiction to come (It is also alright to not have this. You don’t have to be published to have a press kit. You will update this all the time)
- your work sample (10 poems, 3 stories, 3 nonfiction pieces – for fiction and nonfiction, you will generally only use one, but I think it is good to have a few options)
- your artist statement
- your writing project statement
- reading proposal template (I’ll talk about this in a later newsletter. It’s a template that you create for you to send out to bookstores, universities, reading series and arts venues when you are trying to set up readings for yourself and others)
- list of all the places that you have read (I keep this on my CV. It helps to know where you have been to think about where you can return on the next book tour. Also, if you are going to a city more than once, you can reach out to those you know at a venue to identify other areas to read and other avenues to explore to further your career.)
All of this together makes a press kit. As you start reaching more and more folk through readings and publications, you will get requests for a bio, picture, and links ALL THE TIME. It will save you time – time you could be spending writing – to have all of this in one place.
How often do you update this? I update my press kit with different materials about every three months or so, especially if I have been creatively busy.
This is my strategy. Folks who are consistently working on getting their writing out to an audience may have other ways of doing this work. My advice is to ask them how they do it and adopt what’s best for you, what is most efficient for your time. No “po-biz” or any biz should take away from your writing time. It’s precious, because you have something valuable that only you can say in the world.
One last thing, I am a teacher and a poet. Neither world requires isolation. I believe deeply in collaboration among teachers and among writers. To that end, I believe in supporting others and receiving support in return. When I reach out to venues to do readings, I always reach out to other friends. A reading with four people is a much stronger event than a reading with just one person. I share my artist and writing statements with those who are interested. Sometimes reading the statements of another person can be just the push another needs to get to the core of what that person wants to say and accomplish. Our work is stronger when we support one another.