I used to think, if you got paid for doing something, you were a professional. That was before I became a poet.
Ted Kooser remarked (in The Poetry Home Repair Manual) that most magazines will pay you as follows: two free contributor copies, one to keep for yourself and one to give to your mother. He was optimistic. I’ve had most of my successes in online journals, which don’t even provide copies. (I might have had a hard time giving my mother a copy of SCR anyway.) So far, the renumeration I’ve amassed from poetry amounts to one free magazine, a book prize, and a paid membership to a poetry site… total cash worth, about $80.00. It’s a good thing I like my day job.
Given that those are the working conditions of most poets, how exactly does one define “professional”? Or, since I can really only speak for myself, how can I claim that I’m a professional?
These would be some of my answers:
I claim I’m a professional because I take my art seriously. This doesn’t mean I’m all gloomy and Gothic, or even Byronic (“mad and bad and dangerous to know”). I’m as fond of a limerick as the next person (unless the next person happens to be Mad Kane), and there’s plenty of humor on these pages. It does mean that if people ask: “So, you write poetry?” I’ll answer “Yes.” I will not deprecate myself or my art: “Um, well, kind of.” “Oh, you know, it’s just a blog.” “Well, yes, but it’s not real poetry.” There have been times I might have engaged in such evasions, but they’re pretty much behind me now.
I claim I’m a professional because I take my craft seriously. I work hard at it. I revise poems that I think are worthwhile. I work at improving my poetry skills and seeking out new challenges. I attend Oregon Poetry Association conference workshops (private poetry workshops are pretty much outside my price range). I’m active in a couple of local critique groups.
Formal poetry is very important to me in this work, not least because it exercises the poetic muscles systematically in a way that free verse doesn’t. It’s like a structured weightlifting routine compared to an hour of improv dance, you may burn the same number of calories, but weightlifting gives you specific goals that you either reach or don’t. When I compare, for example, my recent sonnets with my early ones, the difference amazes me.
I claim I’m a professional because I seek professional advancement. That mostly means trying to get published. It doesn’t happen by itself, you have to go out there and get it. Besides submitting to both online and paper journals, I’ve given lots of poetry readings and I read at open mikes. I’ve had one book published and am working on getting the second one published.
I claim I’m a professional because I support the community of my fellow practitioners. I mentioned the OPA above. I’m a member– for what it’s worth, actually a board member (volunteer). I’m helping to organize the spring conference, which will be held here in Portland in April. I also go to local readings and participate at open mikes.
I claim I’m a professional because I accept the calling. I accept the responsibility of hearing a voice from elsewhere. I will do my best to be true to that voice; when it calls, I will listen hard and do my best to speak what it tells me. I will not betray it through laziness, self-absorption, or prejudice. I will make myself a radio, a trumpet, a megaphone, a hollow flute, a seashell full of whispers. I will be the best poet it’s given to me to be. So help me God.
NB: I wrote most of this in the fall of 2007. I’ve updated a couple of sections, reflecting the publication of my first book and my reduced involvement in online, but increased involvement in local, poetry communities.