Letter to a frustrated poet


Note: This is adapted from a real letter, shared because some writers desperately want the impossible (their books in high street bookstores) and refuse to explore other outlets for their writing. Sabella is not the poet’s real name.

Dear Sabella

It was good to see you the other day after all these years. I’m glad to know you have such an excellent driver to help with transport, especially when you travelled for nearly two hours to call on me and <famous New Zealand poet> and<famous New Zealand poet>.

Thank you for lending me <title of poetry book> to read, and the CD — which as you say, is essential to get the full flavour of the poems. I enjoyed them both as insights into the way your mind is working and your talents as a poet and actor. What I appreciate is the passion behind the poems, even when I don’t grasp the meaning. Your reading brings out that passion and drama. My feeling is that these are performance poems, which don’t necessarily flower on the page. I am pleased you have been doing open mic performances: that’s where you get the most wonderful audience responses!

Sabella, I have decided not to write a review

  1. A review needs an outlet, and I don’t have a suitable one.
  2. With only eleven poems, the book is very short. A reviewer wants something substantial. Customers will not see the book as good value. Bookstores won’t see it as profitable. Theoretically the CD adds value, but people can’t glance through it like a book: they have to listen and they can’t do that in a shop.
  3. You wanted a review, I understand, so that Unity Books would agree to sell the book. Let me repeat, I am certain that a review would not make the slightest difference. Unity has outstanding staff who know what their customers will buy, regardless of reviews.
  4. Every author longs for reviews but the publishing scene has changed. I used to get a dozen or so reviews for my fiction and even my poetry collections. Now, I’m lucky if I get a couple. So I publish new poems on a blog, and am very happy with the readers who gather there. (aybrow.com)

I suggest you send a review copy of Quake to Paula Green who runs the New Zealand Poetry Shelf blog. (https://nzpoetryshelf.com/) Paula is a knowledgeable and wise advocate for New Zealand poetry. Don’t ask her to return the book: that’s not polite.

Don’t be so proud — get online!

It’s really worthwhile learning how to read and write and broadcast poetry online — hundreds of poems are being published in blogs, on Facebook, on Instagram. All this is much, much, much easier than it was a few years ago, I promise. You get to meet other poets and readers, and to publish your own poems in a friendly atmosphere. SeniorNet in <your city> offers very popular computer classes for people 50 and over, and these classes are easy and fun.

This is my own philosophy as a writer

Sabella, my new slogan is write into life — write because you love it, because the act of writing is life-affirming and life-giving and healing and intellectually satisfying, write because you want to write!

Write. Don’t expect publishers to publish you or bookstores to promote you. Don’t expect fame and fortune. Don’t expect reviews. When you drop the sense of entitlement, you banish bitterness and frustration. And then everything beyond the joy of writing is a bonus — every round of applause at a reading, every message from a reader, every review, every invitation to a literary event, every smile of recognition is something you didn’t demand or even expect and is therefore twice as precious.

This reply is offered in sincerity and respect. I don’t ask of you anything that I don’t live by myself. I expect you are disappointed but you did ask the right person for advice.

I wish you well in every way.



9 thoughts on “Letter to a frustrated poet

  1. lifecameos says:

    a very succinct description of the writing / publishing scene today. i hope she is ableto get satisfaction out of her writing. I really enjoy the comments and conversations with other bloggers about their work and mine.

    1. I think she does feel proud and happy with her writing, but those feelings are swamped by frustration at present. Like you, I hope this changes. I completely agree about the community of bloggers.

  2. Making money at writing is very tough these days. Even writers who are published often don’t make much. I know the hope is that you are one of the lucky few. Might as well buy a lottery ticket.

    1. Kate, you are so right. For decades I earned a healthy amount from my writing and now I don’t. So it’s easy for me to be nonchalant about my own situation, and easy for me to perceive this as an historical shift. Not so easy for those who have never had that lucky literary streak.

  3. joared says:

    This attitude you articulate reminds me of what was mine toward having a boyfriend or later getting a husband when I was young when so many of the girls around me were frantic about both. I could have cared less. I engaged in what I enjoyed doing and surprised myself one year long after someone of my generation was considered to be an “old maid” (in my late twenties) when I unexpectedly met someone I actually was willing to wed. Artists of all caliber I’ve heard interviewed seem to have one thing in common — they’re passionate about their work, enjoy the process of creating it and while they mostly consider recognition rewarding, I’ve often heard them say words to the effect it’s the “icing on the cake”. I know, a writer, painter, musician, etc. can’t live on those fumes alone and shouldn’t be expected to do so, but seems to me the priorities would best be in order. Just a layperson’s observation on the artist’s life. 🙂

    1. I see the parallel, for sure — a clinging, a neediness arises when you focus on one exclusive goal, closed to other options that may be interesting or fun or satisfying. Artists dance on a tightrope between strong focus and persistence and professionalism on the one hand, and playful exploration.

  4. Wade says:

    Often, I think people get caught up in the notion of “success” instead of satisfaction. Perhaps Sabella has it in mind that to be a “successful” writer, she must be published and have her book on a shelf in a fancy bookstore. And though it isn’t my place to tell anyone that their view of success is wrong, I would suggest, much like this letter, that greater satisfaction could be found in a different community, who appreciate the writing for its own sake. This was a very gratifying read, and a nice reminder for me to remember why I write. Thank you!

    1. Thank you Wade, it’s good to know you share my point of view. It’s tough on Sabella and I fear she will be perceive me as part of the great conspiracy.

      1. Wade says:

        I suppose I understand, and I’m even sympathetic. I too wrestle with my notions of success at times. Let’s hope Sabella and I both enjoy meaningful successes, even if we never become household names.

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