Write Every Day
Poet Mary Oliver recommends writing the same time every day, like an appointment you keep with your muse. Do your best to develop some daily or weekly pattern. Keep paper and pen handy throughout your home, notebook in your rucksack or purse, and your ear open to spoken phrases or lyrical images that come to you. Many poets keep a dream diary, which requires writing dreams down each morning before you become fully awake. See: Wild Mind and Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg; The Triggering Town by Richard Hugo; and The Practice of Poetry, edited by Robin Behn.
Reading poetry helps you develop a sense of what you do and don’t like. Why is this important? Because the good stuff will creep into your work. You learn to have a dialogue with your muse: “Why do I hate these poems?” or “What is making me love these poems?” You may see technique that astonishes you or originality that makes you laugh. Poet Brenda Hillman says entering a poem is like going to the carnival: You enter, ticket in hand, and walk around, taking in all the sights and sounds. See: Twentieth Century Pleasures by Robert Hass; An Introduction to Poetry, edited by Dana Gioia and XJ Kennedy; and Poetry Daily.
Join a Workshop
The workshop is the crucible where a dozen poets read their work and critique it. Typically, you read your poems and then keep silent while others discuss them. To ensure a good experience, do some research. Who is the teacher? Do former students have positive things to say? Who attends the workshop—seasoned poets, beginners or a mix? Do the same checking if you sign up for a summer writers conference. Is it a gentle or competitive atmosphere? If you’re not ready for criticism, find a local poet or writing teacher to tutor you. See: Can Poetry Matter?by Dana Gioia.
You need to know what’s happening in contemporary poetry. Go to readings at libraries, colleges and coffeehouses to learn and “get the sound in your ear.” Some start with a featured poet and then invite audience members to read afterward. Don’t feel pressured, but you’ll find you’ll want to step up to the mike one day. Audience reaction is a great way to road-test new poems…just make sure your audience can appreciate your chosen topic or style! See: Poetry Society of America and Poetry Speaks, edited by Elise Paschen.
Consider an MFA
The MFA in Creative Writing, or any graduate writing degree, is not critical to your development as a poet. That said, for those of us who love to write, pursuing this degree feels like dying and going to heaven. Imagine having to read and write poetry, surrounded by poets with equal enthusiasm and different styles! To get a feel for the experience, attend a week-long summer writers’ conference. If you want to teach, the degree can come in handy. However, without an MFA, you can develop your work through a steady diet of reading, writing, workshops and poetry events. See: Associated Writing Programs and Poets & Writers