Some while ago I wrote two posts, the first called On Not Being a Poet and the second On Not Not Being a Poet. Logically the follow-on would be On Being A Poet, and it says something about where I am now that I am at last prepared to write it. The first two were very much about whether or not I felt like a poet and whether I was entitled to call myself one. This is about being a poet ‘out there’: somebody who ‘does’ poetry and can be seen to be doing it.
Since I joined the wonderful 52 in May last year I’ve had more than 20 poems published in magazines and anthologies and have been shortlisted in a pamphlet competition and longlisted in a single poem competition. Not bad going for someone who prior to that had only had two or three poems published ever. Once I’d got six published poems I was able to make a submission to a poetry publisher, and I’ve been invited to submit a manuscript of 50 poems for consideration in March next year. No guarantee of publication, but the publisher is a reputable one and I’m delighted to have got that far. I’ve now amassed enough of a body of work to make publishing a pamphlet or even a full collection possible. All those things are poetry credentials, the sort that real poets have, even if I haven’t yet got that many of them.
But it’s not only about the work itself. Since this time last year I’ve been going round being a poet. I go to workshops with other local poets, I read at magazine launches and open mics, I turn up at festivals and poetry discussions, I spend time hanging out with poets. Down here in South Devon there’s a very active poetry scene and a tribe of poets who all seem to know one another. Some are more published and better-known than others, but none of them seem to have any trouble accepting me as one of them. When I said to someone that until recently I’d been scared of talking to poets because they seemed to me such special beings, his immediate reaction was, ‘But you’re a poet.’ Just like that. Somehow or other – and I’m still not sure how – I’ve got the equivalent of the old Equity card and in the eyes of the world have been admitted into the ranks.
So what’s it like, this being a poet? Rather nice, I have to say. As I remarked to a friend the other day, since I became a poet my social life has expanded dramatically. Poets are forever getting together for readings of their own and other people’s work, for many poets workshops are a sine qua non, and there’s nothing poets like better than sitting round with other poets and talking about poetry. By contrast, the novelist seems a much more solitary animal. After spending hours at the computer or with the written page, a novelist won’t necessarily rush off to a reading of other people’s fiction or get together with a whole lot of other novelists to talk shop.
I’m very fortunate to be part of a regular group of novelists and prose writers (I still harbour dreams of writing fiction as well) who meet regularly to share work and support each other in their writing lives – but that doesn’t seem to be the norm. For company, and perhaps by choice, novelists may have to make do with the characters they have created. And perhaps that’s a difference: however intense and arduous the experience of writing a poem may be, it doesn’t go on for weeks, months, years in the way that a novel does. You write a poem, you finish it or put it aside for later, and then you move on to another one. Which isn’t to say that there isn’t a bigger and more continuous process involved in writing a series of poems or putting together a collection – but it isn’t a continuous piece of fabrication in quite the same way.
I’ve no idea whether what I’ve said about poets and novelists does anything to explain the difference between them, but it does say something about my experience of being a novelist (to the extent that I am one) and being a poet. I love writing poems and I also love writing fiction: having the chance to immerse myself in the world of a novel and live with the people and places in it over time. And I love both my poet friends and my prose writer friends, and feel extraordinarily grateful that I can be part of two such creative and welcoming communities.