National Poetry Month often reminds me of the frustrations of being a poet in a world that doesn't really pay much attention to poetry. This month many people, publications, programs, etc. will devote a bit of time to poetry, but will quickly forget all about it for the other eleven months of the year.
As a poet, I've come to accept this, but seeing all the National Poetry Month talk does make me think of the many odd/annoying/frustrating conversations I've had with people when I tell them I'm a poet. This month seems like a good time to point out some "poet pet peeves," or in other words, here's some advice on how not to talk to poets:
1. "So you are a poet, when are you going to write a novel?"
I've heard this so many times as if poetry is some stepping stone to fiction. This often feels like the person is asking when you are going to write something I might be willing to read because I'm not going to read poetry.
2. "Oh you write poetry, so do I! Will you read mine and tell me what you think?"
Way to make it all about you. If we've just met, please don't say this to me. Of course, I read and give feedback to people on their work, but I do this for friends and people I have some connection to. People get paid to be editors, so it's a bit insulting for strangers to ask writers to just randomly read and critique work for free.
3. You're a poet? Write me a poem."
I get this a lot, which is kind of odd. Normally it's someone attempting to flirt with me. Not gonna happen if this is how you start. It also implies I need to prove I'm poet right on the spot. I'm not a poetry machine, and why would I write you a poem?
4. "You have a book? Can I have a copy?"
This can happen to any writer, and it can be awkward and frustrating. Most writers don't make tons of money, so wanting to get a free copy of a book is insulting (especially if I don't know you very well). When my first book came out, I hardly gave anyone a free copy. As a reader myself, I always buy people's books. It's important to support writers with your purchase even if you are friends with them (actually especially if you are friends with them).
5. "I write for fun too, but what do you really do?"
I've come across many who seem to not understand there are people who really do write and publish poetry on a regular basis. This is the group that thinks of creative work as a hobby.
6. "Is your book on Amazon?"
I don't really mind this question, but I did find it humorous how many times I was asked this when my first book came out. It seems many people's definition of creditable is having it on Amazon. This is even more humorous because it's not hard to get things listed on Amazon.
7. "Is your next book going to be gay poetry too?"
I'm never quite sure how to answer this question. I don't mind people labeling me a gay poet because I am gay and I am a poet, but this question seems to imply that they hope I will write something else or that "gay poetry" means poetry only for gay people. My issue is never with the labels as much as people's idea that these labels must describe the reader as well. I often write about gay issues, but that doesn't mean only gay people should read my work. I read work by straight people all the time.
8. "What does your poem mean?"
Most poets dread this question, myself included. I don't mind talking to people about my work or answering some questions, but the flat out "what does this mean?" question is frustrating. I blame bad teachers for this. Everyone always wants to beat a meaning out of a poem.
9. "Is this poem true?"
People are really obsessed with "truth," and I'm not really sure why it matters. I do use a lot of my own life in my work, but I like poetry because I'm not held to some autobiographical truth. I can combine things, mix things up, leave things out, etc. The speaker of my poems is often a version of myself, but that version is often poking fun at things or questioning the idea of something. And of course, the speaker isn't always me. I will normally answer the question, but I'm not sure it should really affect the poem or your understanding of it.
10. "I'm a poet." Silence/quick subject change.
At least say something.