Today, I had the honor of serving as a guest lecturer in my friend D’Arcy Randall’s poetry class at the University of Texas. D’Arcy asked me to address my editorial work, my efforts at Borderlands, and my own writing. When I thought about how I balance those, and how each feeds my creative life in different ways, the following essay came forth. Many thanks to D’Arcy for letting me be part of her class!
How many of you work on your poetry every day?
How many of you struggle to balance your creative practice
with the rest of your life?
How many of you feel guilty if you don’t work on your poetry
How many of you narrow definition of what it means to work
on your poetry??
How many of you have a number of shoulds around your creative practice, such as, I should write X number of lines per day,
or I should have published a book by
Where did those beliefs come from? Where did you learn them?
Where did you hear about them?
What convinced you to believe them?
I’ve wrestled with questions like these for much of my adult
life. I wrote reams of poetry in middle and high school (with maybe one poem a
year worth remembering), but when I got to college, the demands of academic
life changed my relationship to my work. At Kenyon College, you couldn’t just
sign up for creative writing courses; every semester, you had to submit a
writing sample and be selected for workshops. Workshop sections only had 10
slots, and as you’ve probably guessed, there were way more applicants than
available seats. By the time I was a junior, I in the midst of my first bout of
creative burnout from the stress of having my ability to earn a creative
writing concentration determined by constant auditions. I focused on literature
instead, and as I moved toward honors courses, poetry became something I worked
on in the summers, if at all.
What I didn’t realize then, what I wouldn’t learn until
years later, was that the narrow way I defined my creative life—through
publishing credits, through the approval of professors, through comparing
myself to my peers—was a self-limiting way to go about creative practice. That believing
the only way I could call myself a poet was through generating fresh,
publishable work on a regular basis was causing more anxiety than inspiration.
That being hyper-focused on my own work was cutting me off from the benefits of
immersing deeply within a literary community.
When I was 26, I challenged myself to write a new poem every
day for a year. I managed this not just for one year, but three. Part of the
reason I kept going was because I was so inspired by poet Nathan Brown, who has
been writing a new poem every day for well over a decade. However, there came a
point where I gave the practice up not because it was too hard, but because it
was no longer helping me create the work I wanted. Focusing on creating a
brand-new poem every single day didn’t give me the space for revision. Nathan’s
practice serves him, but just because it works for someone else doesn’t mean it
has to work for you. You do not need to be a slave to the writing.
Don’t worry if your writing practice changes over time. Some
people will find one practice that works for them through their whole lives.
For most everyone else, our practices will evolve as we evolve. I think most of
us will actually benefit from being adaptable in our writing lives. Try letting
creative practice fit around your life, rather than trying to adapt your whole
life around creative practice. Changing doesn’t mean that you’re lazy, or that
you’re not committed. It means you’re willing to meet yourself where you’re at,
and adjust so that you can be creative in the midst of life’s inevitable
Don’t worry if you go through a phase of life where you don’t
seem to attend to poetry at all. I think the idea that we must engage with our
craft the same way every single day is unhealthy for most poets. Yes, there
will always be a small number of people in the world who do that, and good for
them. That’s not the reality for all of us, nor should it be. There are times
when we need to step away from our work completely in order to recharge.
Times when I went through long stretches without writing
poetry: the second half of college; my first graduate program; my first
full-time job, in which I worked over 60 hours a week; after I got hit by a car
and had a brain injury; after one of my closest friends died of cancer at 36;
after finishing my MFA in poetry.
You don’t have to stop writing in response to difficult life
situations. But sometimes, you will want and need to push the pause button. And
there are other times when you will want, in fact you will need, to write
through stressful situations. Poetry was my lifeline during the months when I
was going through a divorce. That was one of the most productive times of my
If you get an MFA, there’s a good chance that you will want
a long break once you’re done. It happened to me, though I went into my program
believing that it couldn’t. After three years, though, I was creatively exhausted,
and needed to turn my attention to any and everything else. It took me about a
year to recover. Some people need even longer.
Not that you only need to take a break after an MFA. There
may simply be times in your life when poetry doesn’t speak to you. That doesn’t
mean you’re no longer a poet. That doesn’t mean you’re not a failure. The whole
world is full of ebb and flow. If the soil in the Midwest didn’t freeze every
winter, farmers would have a tough growing season the next year. The Earth
needs to freeze. On the surface, you see a field lying fallow, covered in ice
and snow, nothing growing. Beneath the surface, however, as the soil rests,
there’s a flurry of microbial activity that we cannot perceive. During the time
of freeze and rest, the soil regenerates and restores itself, preparing for the
spring and the next planting season. Sometimes, our creative lives are like
that. Sometimes, we need those fallow periods, and it doesn’t do us any good to
compare ourselves to someone else’s publication record, writing practice, or
While I’m back to writing new work and submitting a
manuscript, these days, makes up a small portion of my creative life. While I was
ostensibly avoiding poetry, I became administrative director of Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review. Most
of my duties entail nitpicking over budget spreadsheets and applying for
grants. I don’t even work on the manuscript until it comes time to do the final
proof. If you want to help others share their work, know that it’s both immensely
rewarding, and that there’s a lot of unglamorous tasks. Both of those things
can be true. It’s not either/or. The work I do for Borderlands still feeds my creative spirit and my literary life. It
kept me connected to poetry when I could write.
I’ve co-edited the Texas
Poetry Calendar four times now. The work of an editor is quite different
from that of an administrator, and has been a wonderful educational experience.
Being on the editorial side of things made me more patient with myself as a
writer. Each calendar has room for approximately 100 poems. We usually get at
least 300 submissions, so roughly three times as many poets as we can even
include. Poets can send up to three poems. While some poets just send one or
two, most poets send three. My rough estimate is that we end up reading around 800
total poems. So we can only take an eighth of what we receive. I say this not
to leave you feeling either overwhelmed at the thought of reading, or
demoralized at your chances of getting published. As an editor, I’ve learned
just how simultaneously difficult and rewarding it is to read through hundreds
of poems and narrow it down to a small selection. The frustration of having to
turn down a lovely poem because you’ve just gotten too many focused on
hurricanes, birds, or Emily Dickinson (these were the three themes Zoë Fay-Stindt and I found
overrepresented as we edited the 2020 calendar). Some thematic confluences are
easy to predict: as Gulf Coast hurricanes get more frequent and severe, we find
more Texas poets working through their fears and traumas in their poems. But not
all of the manifestations of collective consciousness are easy to explain, such
as the plethora of poems invoking Dickinson.
After spending so much time on the editorial side, I’ve
learned that sometimes good poems get turned down because you can only have so
much work about one theme in any given issue. Those of us who still work in
print are bound by the limits of how big the journal can be—and some of that
consideration involves people on the management side thinking about how much
the print run is going to cost. Robert Graves said, “There is no money in
poetry,” and it’s true that most of us don’t make a living at it. That being
said, when you’re producing a volume, you are forced to reckon with ostensibly
unpoetic things such as finances. Being aware of those limitations,
experiencing them firsthand, has helped me take the submission process less
personally. I still get disappointed when I receive a rejection, but I’m also
aware of just how many factors went into making that editorial decision, so I
can handle that decline notification with more grace than I have in the past.
Side note: my biggest piece of publishing advice is to read
the guidelines, and then read them again, and then read them at least one more
time before you prepare your submission. Double- and triple-check to make sure
your work meets all the guidelines. Yes, sometimes
some editors will give you a pass. But if you’re editing for a publication
and can only take 1/8th of the poems you have to read, you’re
probably going to be a stickler. I know that I am. You increase your chances of
success by being fastidious about following directions. I’ve actually found
this to be true in most areas of life.
Yes, things like having a day job or doing errands take time
out of your day that you cannot necessarily devote to poetry. Yet I don’t think
it’s always helpful to think of these things as hindrances to poetry. Of
course, there are some really soul-sucking day jobs that leave you feeling
mentally and creatively bereft. I’ve had a few of those, and I still remember what
it felt like to put in an 8- or 10-hour day and then come home too worn out to
even think about my own work. Once I got out of those jobs, though, I began to
see the ways in which my day job, though it takes up a large portion of my day,
really frees me up to write poetry. Not all of us want to be a starving artist.
I found that my creativity flourished when I was financially secure, and dried
up when I was living through periods of unemployment, underemployment, or
general financial scarcity. Having a steady job that allowed me to meet my
basic needs actually facilitates my creativity, because I feel relaxed. I’m not
worried about making rent, and I have the income to go to festivals or afford
workshops. Yes, that’s 8, 10, or sometimes even 12 hours a day I don’t have
available for writing. It’s also a way to give me the stability I need to write
Wallace Stevens sold insurance. William Carlos Williams was
a doctor. Art is not a zero-sum game. Yes, you can go too far in either
direction. If you get too busy and deplete yourself, you won’t write. But once
you find a balance (which admittedly can take a few years), your rich external
life can inform your poetry in ways you never imagined. Wendy Barker’s
collection One Blackbird at a Time is
a book that draws inspiration from her years of teaching. As an educator
myself, I love this book, because I feel seen and understood by a fellow
educator. Phillip Levine wrote stunning work about his blue-collar jobs. Austin
poet Cindy Huyser has a chapbook of poems all about her time as a power plant
operator. If life itself is the source of poetry, than many of us are made
better poets by going out into the world and working for a living every day.
Early in my poetry education, I somehow got sold the idea
that a poet was someone who spent most of their time in isolation, the
proverbial starving artist against the world, all alone. Ultimately, the idea
of an almost monastic creative existence ran so counter to my personality that
I spent most of my college years wondering whether I should try to be a poet at
all. Yes, all artists do need their solitude. Impressionist painter Mary
Cassatt said, “I can live alone and I love to work,” and I agree that poets,
like painters, need to be comfortable with long bouts of solitude. I also
believe that the life of poetry is found within community.
You can be deeply immersed in your poetic life without
having to produce a new piece of writing. Former Texas Poet Laureate Karla K.
Morton wrote that she spends three to five hours every day working on poetry,
but that doesn’t always entail writing new work. She says, “If I have nothing
new in my head to work on, I pull out previous work and begin editing. I devote
some time to reading other poets’ work. Or I work on deadlines for sending
poetry out or on upcoming poetry projects. The administrative side of poetry
takes more time than we would like, but for those who want to be published, it
must be done.” I love Morton’s broad, all-encompassing approach to working on
her art. We need to make time for revision and for those administrative tasks.
We need to leave time to get inspired from other peoples’ poetry. I find also
great value in going to readings, and otherwise involving yourself in the
larger creative community. I believe that a creative life is best lived when a
poet is able to take a well-rounded approach: balancing their own writing with
appreciating the work of others, and balancing a focus on individual artistry
with an engagement with the rest of the world.
Nor does all community interaction have to take place in a
physical location. Emily Dickinson is famously regarded as a recluse, and yet
she had a rich life of written correspondence. As someone who remembers life
both before and after home internet, I can say that while I prefer face-to-face
interaction, I also have made some of my closest friends and had some of my
best collaborations as the result of online interaction. Whether corresponding
on paper or through a computer, your community does not have to be defined just
by your neighborhood, school, or city.
Of course, there’s no one-size-fits all approach to creative
practice, so take the parts of this lecture that resonate with you, and leave
the rest. Just remember that much of the writing advice you’ve heard works for
some people but not for others, you can change your writing practice whenever
you need to, and that your poetry does not have to have an adversarial
relationship with the rest of your life.
I believe the best gift you can give your creative life is
to find a way to be part of your literary community. How that works into your
life is up to you. Whether it’s in-person or online, whether it makes up the
bulk of your writing activities or just a tiny portion, you get to decide what
role you’re going to play, and how much energy you’re going to contribute. I’ll
conclude with a few suggestions that I’ve found useful in my own life.
Ways to Live in
- Attend open mics and read your work, even if you
- Attend open mics and just be an audience member.
- Challenge yourself to attend one reading or open
mic a week for a year. If that’s too intimidating, try it for six or three
- Go out for dinner or coffee with poets after an
event. Or share a potluck together beforehand.
- Be sure to tell people what you love about their
- Promote the work you love.
- When people compliment your work, accept their
praise with grace.
- Give fellow poets who don’t have cars rides to
and from events, especially those that take place out of town, when they can’t
rely as easily on transportation.
- If you have a spare room or couch, offer to host
out-of-town poets visiting for events.
new things to keep inspiration fresh. Attend readings or talks outside your
area of interest. Try a new art form. Get out of your creative comfort zone.