A Poet's Beginning Series:
III. So You Want to Be a Poet?
I would like to say that you can just start writing.
But I doubt that would be helpful. If you want writing prompts or an origin story of how I started writing poetry, go back up to check out the rest of this series! If you’ve already read the rest of the series and you’ve hit a wall, you’re probably asking questions like: How do I start? What do I write about? What style do I try? Does poetry mean only writing sad things? And these are all valid questions and unfortunately, the answer is it’s up to you.
That was one of the scariest things about starting with poetry; I had free reign over what I started with, what style I wanted to try, and whether I was writing about how happy my best friends make me or some deep-seated trauma. Becoming a poet is like becoming an adult; you become overwhelmed by the endless possibilities, and you have to learn the basics: working, how to better your credit score and how to move out of your parents’ house. Except becoming a poet is more like how to write a metaphor, how to create your style and how you get to the point where you can share your work.
I asked some of my fellow poet friends the question, “What advice would you give to someone just starting with poetry?” and I was amazed at how some people wrote their advice on the spot and how others needed time to curate the perfect answer. Neither of those is a wrong approach.
1. Don't Compare the Way You Approach the Page.
“My advice would be to just go for it!!! The beauty of poetry is that everyone has their own unique style and flavor of how they interpret the world around them through words. So just find a beautiful place or memorable moment and sit down and encapsulate it in a poem!”
-- Karina Huft, @kar.ma.h
“Experimentation and practice are key. Poems aren’t usually one and done, so look back with fresh eyes. I would highly recommend learning different literary techniques and forms of poems to help improve your overall ability.”
-- Anthony Amos, @for_the_memories13
The Scholar: I started with a class assignment. I was checking all the boxes: An acrostic poem, a narrative, one with onomatopoeia, a free-verse, one with a set rhyme scheme, and so many other qualities of a rubric. You are more than welcome to learn the different types of literary devices and figurative language the world has to offer before you start writing. You can start by reading poetry or writing, in general, to get a good grasp on the two as crafts.
Research and then write! But I know those who would take this route may be a perfectionist like me, so don’t get stuck on the first step. You’re never going to know everything and you will learn even more after practicing and feeling your way through.
For resources on this approach, I would recommend:
Reading poetry (I have a list of recommendations from my fellow poets at the end!)
“Don’t be afraid to romanticize your own life, to fall in love with the intricacies and metaphors you see every day.”
-- Rachel Baxter, @rbaxter6
“Poetry doesn’t always have to be perfect or profound. It is a way for you to share your human experience. You can start off by being more present and observing your thoughts and feelings and how you react to your world so you can get ideas for what to write about. You can read or listen to others’ poetry to find inspiration! Above all, just practice writing in different styles and on varying topics to see what you like!”
-- Isaura Garcia, @smalls_umami
The Expressionist: Some of us will go straight into writing our feelings and it’s also a fantastic way to start. Researching along the way or even after starting your first journal, only knowing what you learned in school, is perfectly acceptable. Expressionism depends on the artist taking their emotions and raw experience and putting them into their crafts. Starting small and playing around with words or asking yourself questions like, “What am I feeling right now?” is more than enough to start. You just need something to write with and something to write on.
2. Your Hand is Steadier Than You Think.
”Ignore the little voices of anxiety and stage fright in your head (and beat them both with a stick if you have half a chance), be free with your thoughts, most importantly brutally honest with yourself, and don’t stop after the first thing. Which essentially should mean if the first thing you make sucks, or worse, if it’s really good, never stop making more and pushing yourself every time your pen hits the page.”
-- Sam Crane, @therealsamcrane
“Be OK with beginning!
Think of your favorite author, poet, or songwriter you admire. DO NOT EXPECT THAT TO FALL OUT OF YOUR FINGERTIPS OR PEN. When most babies first learn how to walk, many folks’ folks are happy and overjoyed at the crawl that turns into small stumbling steps, and expect that those would be accompanied with tumbles. Through consistent repetition, practice, and time, most of those babies learn how to add flourishes like running, jumping, skipping, even moonwalking to their repertoires. Some are good with maintaining a walk and just don’t need to think about it anymore.
So picture yourself as a kid in a sandbox, and go back to that magical space of learning through play, being where you are, and doing the thing simply for the doing.”
-- Nikole “Niko” Mendoza, @nikodoza
When we start out with anything, I’m sure we get a bad case of imposter syndrome. We think that because we aren’t good at something yet, we don’t deserve to do it. I love how Sam pointed out that whether your first work is “bad” or “really good,” “never start making more and pushing yourself.” You have more power and potential than you think you do, always.
Before you write, set a goal or intention. When I used to go to slam competitions, one of the most common phrases of encouragement was, “Remember why you wrote it!” Did you write to express yourself? Did you write it to change someone’s mind? Did you write it because you were happy, sad, or confused?
Whatever the reason, it is your reason. No one else’s. So when you put your pen down to the page, keep it steady and remember why you’re writing it. That resolve will carry you through the rest.
3. Write What You Know. Speak Your Truth.
"I used to think you needed to have a huge vocabulary to write poetry, but you don't have to be fancy with your language. You just have to pay attention to the way the world makes you feel, really pay attention. Tell us something that only you can tell us. And it doesn't hurt to have a sense of humor, either."
-- Jason Chun, @penguins_are_dinosaurs
"Write your shame, pain, and joy when ready. Read about nature, biology, technology, etc. so you have concrete details to draw from to create metaphors. Pay attention to people and describe them. There is so much source material to write poetry from so pay attention to the world.
-- Ignacio Vargas, @_ivrjr_
"Don’t hesitate to call yourself a poet. There is no threshold for entry. Poetry comes from the Greek ποιεν which means to make, do, create. In that sense poetry is not a profession we seek but something that we do. For as long as humans have been able to, they have been making art and writing poetry. It is already your birthright.”
-- Rachel Baxter, @rbaxter6
Jason is one of my favorite people to get advice from when I’m starting to write anything. He helps me remember not only the beginnings of my poetry journey but also that there is always something a person can write about that no one else could. Ignacio has pushed me to write about personal things I never thought I could write about. And Rachel echoes a belief I have always had: Anyone can be a poet.
You are your own person with your own thoughts, experiences, and dreams. You sleep a certain way and have your own method of waking up. The way you manage your emotions can be through writing or a phone call. You may avoid writing about the harsher things in life to create balance or you may deep-dive into shadow work because you need to learn to love every part of you.
Whoever you are and whatever background you come from, your truth is unique. Becoming a poet may seem overwhelming because of phrases like “the market is saturated” or “it’s been done before,” but those are said if your sole purpose is to make your story marketable to the public. What if you wrote because you wanted to? What if you wrote because you couldn’t imagine doing anything else? Speak your truth because it is a part of who you are.
4. Write For Yourself.
“Czeslaw Milosz muses in Dedication, ‘What is poetry that does not save?’
This phrase has stuck with me in my personal poetry journey. What IS poetry that does not save? In truth, all poetry saves to some extent. The vulnerability that emerges from extending oneself into written verses, the immortalizing of current and remembered experience, has the capability to save and even cure. But what the new poet must remember is that it’s not about saving the world, or a country, or even a broken city. It’s about saving oneself. Write to save you. Create a place of sanctity in your penned art. Make it your armor, so that no matter what people say about you or your work, you keep writing. When you dare to create, make a pact with yourself that will save you, and because YOU are as needed as anyone else in this universe, be at peace that your saving you — and possibly you only — is more than enough.”
-- Kathyrine Hankin, @kathyrinesonya
There have been moments in my life where I let my anxieties about saving the world or making an impact lead my pen ink to run dry. I couldn't bring myself to write a single word because I was so caught up in being influential like the poets who have come before me, I had shocked myself into place. But Kathryine is absolutely right–you have to “write to save you.”
You are under no obligation to anyone on this Earth to share your writing. You can write poetry and never have to share it. It can be a sanctuary for your heart and mind. You can create a space you absolutely love and only share it with the closest people in your life. That is okay. You can write to save only you.
I think we put so much pressure on sharing everything because we live in the age of social media, where a tweet can go viral and be seen by millions of people. That isn’t a bad thing, and neither is you closing your notebook and stuffing it underneath your mattress.
Write for you because it brings you peace.
5. Don't Apologize.
“Write without apologizing or fear of judgment. Then reflect. Notice strengths and weaknesses of your own writing and others. Finding a style can take time. Pull from what you know and enjoy. Then when you have the courage, ask for feedback.”
-- Andy Le, @andydapoet
In Poets’ Club, one of our very few rules was “Don’t apologize.” I don’t know about you, but I have a fear of conviction. I have a fear of trusting my gut and the words that come out of my mouth. After I recited a poem of mine out loud and I stuttered from nervousness, I wanted to apologize right away.
But when we apologize for stuttering or saying “like” or “um,” we apologize for giving our mouths the chance to speak. We apologize for the words we came up with and for speaking our truths, and that is nothing to apologize for. We can recognize the things we need to work on without feeling sorry for ourselves. We can practice and learn without dwelling on the mistakes we made.
Andy has seen me write poetry. He listened to one poem that came from 11 drafts and when we stood in the lounge area of my apartment complex until 2 a.m. practicing our poems, we reminded each other not to apologize. We were in practice mode and we deserved to give ourselves, and one another, patience and encouragement. Maybe when you are ready, you will be able to share your work and reflect on it with others, but for now, be your own cheerleader. Chant, “I believe that I will win.”
6. Don't Be Afraid to Reach Out For Help.
Whether it’s asking your poet friends for their advice to a beginner poet or needing feedback on a new poem, don’t be afraid to ask others for help. Maybe it’s different for you, but I’ve never found it easy to only write alone or to research my feedback. It’s different when you involve others who write and edit in your own process.
It’s also so eye-opening. When you see vulnerability as a strength, you’ll see the potential of your words in a different light. And you can process, express, and reflect on emotions and experiences with other people.
If you need further support and you struggle with mental health, seek professional help. Text the Crisis Text Line. I’ve used the Crisis Text Line before and the counselor’s compassion and understanding helped me ground myself and calm down.
Having a therapist, along with a creative outlet and poet friends, has done wonders for my well-being, mentally and spiritually. I’ve even shared poems that I would never share with others, with my therapist. It helps to have a third party on your journey, especially if you are working through any sort of trauma in your writing.
So I encourage you to reach out for whatever you need, whether you need to write on your friend’s kitchen counter or join a club. Or write alone and share with your closest friend.
7. Write! Have Fun!
Now that you have the voices of poets behind you, go forth and write my friend! Go buy a journal or make a dedicated folder in your google drive. Make a space for yourself because your words are important and you deserve to immortalize them in the way you see fi
Having all of it up to you can be scary but exhilarating! Think of the worlds you can create! Think of the people you can make cry! Then make them laugh! And make them cry again! Not in a bad way but in a here’s-a-reminder-that-we’re-all-human kind of way.
There is nothing more human than wanting to tell your story, and by all means, do. We’re here to listen.
What The Poets Recommend To Read
“No poet’s shelf is complete without Ted Kooser’s The Poetry Home Repair Manual!”
“Right now, I’m reading Consolations by David Whyte. It’s a collection of essays exploring the nuances and meaning of words and their associated experiences.”
“T.S. Eliot. ALL T.S. Eliot. He saved my life.”
“Read and listen to as much as you can. I like Button Poetry for watching/listening. And just see what styles they admire and want to emulate. But to play with it all. You can pull lessons from haikus and epic poems, rhyming couplets, and internal rhyme.”
For queer poets, this one is a must-read: Neplantla: An Anthology Dedicated to Queer Poets of Color
Remember. Poetry is in you. It's up to you to listen and to keep yourself open to writing it down.
Also, a special thank you to all of my friends for sending me their advice after a random, last-minute DM from me. I appreciate you all. You have all made me a better person and a better poet. I am so happy that readers will be able to see your wisdom and talent <3. I wish I had been able to fit in more people, but you know who you are. I love y'all.
About the Author
Mei-Mei has worn many hats since joining LYF: Executive Assistant, Event Manager, and Editor-in-Chief, but before anything, she is a human who loves to write and make art. She graduated from UC, Santa Barbara with a B.A. in English and a minor in German. She was the President of UCSB Poets' Club. She has traveled to 12 countries and counting, feeling lucky and cursed as an Army brat. In 2019, she moved for the 9th time from Santa Barbara to Las Vegas, where she put her love for writing, performing, advocating for mental health, and building communities into the Love Yourself Foundation.