Dispatches | March 24, 2011

By now it’s old news, but on March 14th someone in Ann Arbor asked a web site what she should do about her daughter, who wanted to be a poet.  “What can I do,” the parent asked, “to help her pick a career path more likely to help her earn a decent living?”

The response is predictably bland, the responder urging, “don’t overreact,” and dispensing advice that in no way addresses the question directly.  Give the young lady a career dream journal, he suggests – which is exactly the wrong thing to do.  If you don’t want your daughter to become a poet, then for goodness’ sake don’t give her writing implements.

I recall a time when I was asked to dispense advice on a not-unrelated matter.  Years ago, the younger brother of a friend of a friend contacted me for a high school assignment.  He was required to seek out a knowledgeable person and interview him, or her, so as to obtain some perspective on the field he aspired to work in.  He wanted to be a poet, and so for some reason he was led to me, even though I had not written a creative sentence (or stanza) in my life and had no intention to start (a stance I have not entirely abandoned, eight years and one writing program later).  I told him that if he wanted to be a poet, he should probably go to college and take writing workshops (something I hadn’t done) and then enter a reputable graduate program.

Having seen the worried Ann Arbor parent’s question and the answer to it, I’m struck by how entirely conventional my advice was.  It is still the advice I would give a seriously aspiring poet, though I might add that he/she should take some extra time off in between schools.  I know that having a child with a future in poetry isn’t quite the same as having one with a future in corporate law and/or surgery – which is what, I imagine, many parents in Ann Arbor hope for – but to have a daughter who aspires to something that would send her through college and into grad school does not seem altogether bad or justifiably disappointing, to me.

This is evidence, I suppose, that the average person – or Michigander – does not appreciate how hard our poets work.  See our latest Poem of the Week for the fruits of one hard-working poet’s labor.

Curious to know what other poetry-related questions get asked online, I turned to Yahoo! Answers and searched for such words as “poem,” “poets,” “poetry” and “slant rhyme.”  But the most relevant results came up when I searched for “poetry career,” as the people asking about, simply, “poems” appear to be teenagers seeking shortcuts to writing papers for their English classes.  Poets:  the need for your insight is dire at Yahoo! Answers.  Someone asked, “How do I get my poetry career started?” and the advice was not good (though at exceptional moments it is).

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On an unrelated note, I have been thinking of establishing an annual book award – the Modest Book Award, to be bestowed on one book published each year that achieves great things, but manages to do so while being relatively short and operating on a scale that isn’t too particularly grand.  It would have to apply to books already published, as I haven’t the clout or the resources to award a book with publication.  Nor, for the same reason, could the prize money amount to more than a hundred dollars.  I am confident this dream will never become reality, but I would like to field prize-winner suggestions, from this year or recent years, in the comments section or on our Facebook page.

Robert Long Foreman is The Missouri Review’s Social Media Editor.

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