“[T]he trouble with poetry is
that it encourages the writing of more poetry” -Billy Collins
For many poets, the problem that looms larger than writing the poem is finding people to read the poem.
Events like the pandemic and Biden’s selection of Amanda Gorman as inaugural poet helped bring poetry more to the forefront of public consciousness briefly.
As the early 2020s fade into the distance though, more distractions have reclaimed their dominance, with even the most popular poets like Rupi Kaur unable to break into Amazon’s top-100 selling books any year this decade.
Fortunately, the avenues for reaching audiences have never been more varied for poets willing to experiment.
What Won’t Work
Traditional poetry publishing through journals will lead to credentials in the industry. This is helpful for typical reputation-building, but to the average person, means little.
Most people do not subscribe to poetry journals or check online publications. Residencies, fellowships, and teaching positions often similarly cater to an audience of poets rather than a general population. Online poetry readings sound more accessible, but again, are often attended by poets; additionally, online interactions engage the brain in weaker and potentially less effective ways for building relationships.
To Find Your Reader, Understand To Your Reader…
The better a poet can understand the person they want to read their work, the easier it is to find ways to reach them. The average person has:
1) not read poetry since they were in school; similarly, they have…
- associated poetry with grades/academics/analysis forced upon them by instructors or other demands that have led to…
- expectations of poetry that may not align with how poets themselves view poetry (e.g., viewing poetry as Shakespeare, as being dominated by rhyme schemes and meter, and even as a complicated puzzle to solve)
- less of a desire to appreciate poetry for its artistry than its ability to entertain
With these points in mind, it becomes clear that reaching a general public may benefit from approaching poetry less from a pedagogical approach and more from one that presents poetry as popular, fun, and accessible. This speaks to the popularity of poetry events like slams and open mics, the largest of which often boast audiences of poets and non-poets alike, and shows such as Def Poetry demonstrated in the past. Def Poetry, in its heyday, was even able to win a Peabody and a Tony, demonstrating poetry’s potential to attract more mainstream audiences.
And Go To Your Reader
By combining poetry with experiences people are actively seeking, it can become possible to introduce a wider audience to a poet’s work. Though many poets will probably prefer focusing on their writing alone, growing readership will require exposing the work to the public.
Attending poetry mics where attendees are a mix of people from various walks of life can be helpful to start with. These open mics are often found on college campuses and downtown areas—places where there is heavier, more transient foot traffic beyond pure poets. Taking part in poetry competitions can also lead to exposure, particularly if pieces are able to draw a reaction from the audience.
To really start expanding beyond writers though, collaborations with individuals, companies, and organizations may have greater impact. Organizing poetry events with local libraries, cafes, and bookstores can be one avenue to start with. Grabbing a booth at art fairs starts casting a bit wider of a net as well, as not all attendees will be writers. Similarly, collaborating with artists and/or musicians on projects (e.g., opening a concert with a short poem or mini-feature, or creating broadsides with a local painter) can allow audiences to blend. Having a booth or table at music festivals, farmers markets, and other similar events may also be worth considering.
If there is an organization with a mission that fits thematically with a poet’s work, there may also be opportunities for collaboration here. For instance, a chapbook and/or poetry reading dedicated to dogs may pair wonderfully with an animal shelter’s adoption drive.
Forging a path into the lives of readers who aren’t poets will require nontraditional paths and a willingness to experiment. The reality is that most poets have not been trained to even consider alternative, nontraditional ways of reaching people. On the one hand, this creates challenges as the actions you take will appear novel, potentially scary, and risky in the sense that they may fail as people are not prepared to interact with poetry. However, this same risk also demonstrates great opportunity—few poets are actively considering these means to growing readership, which means there is less competition. The world is ripe for your poetry.
Geoff Anderson, poet, author and business owner, founded diVERSES to promote the writing of multi-racial, multi-ethnic, and under-represented poets in building writing that supports creative and financial future. His poems can be found in journals like Cimarron, Tar River, Ninth Letter, Indiana Review, and Hobart. He’s a Callaloo fellow, Cave Canem fellow, poetry retreat organizer, event curator, and dad. Learn more at diversespoetry.com.