Setting the Table for Your Reader

Trevor Ketner

In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 133.

Let’s begin with a question: Who do you write for, generally speaking? Take a minute to sit with that and see what you come up with.

All right. Now what kind of answer did you find? Do you write for yourself? Your community? Your family? Do you write for children? Teens? Adults? Do you write for people like you? People unlike you? Do you write for someone specific? Do you write for the world? For as many people as possible? For one person? These are important questions: Even if you only write for yourself, you should always have a reader in mind. And I don’t mean the amorphous phantasm which most workshops refer to as “the reader,” which so often undermines or dismisses the work of marginalized writers: I’m just not sure the reader will make that leap. Will the reader be generous enough to believe this story? I’m not sure the reader can engage meaningfully with this work. While such questions and comments might seem geared toward helping a writer avoid navel-gazing, they often mask an interest in maintaining dominant narratives and perspectives. So when I say, “a reader,” I mean someone you’d really like to read your work, not a figure that embodies white, straight, cis, hetero-patriarchal hegemony disguised as neutrality.

For me, identifying the reader is an essential part of starting any project. I’ll use my books as examples. I wrote my first poetry collection, [WHITE], published by the University of Georgia Press in 2021, for those like my parents and professors: white people between fifty and sixty-five years old who—while decent and caring in many ways—have resisted addressing the insidious, artificial nature of whiteness because of their own defensiveness. When whiteness comes up in discussion, they act as if they’re being accused of something. [WHITE] is meant to provide a new angle of engagement with the problems inherent in leaving whiteness uninterrogated. My second book—The Wild Hunt Divinations: A Grimoire, forthcoming from Wesleyan University Press in 2023—is a love letter to other queer folks, an exploration and fracture of the various facets of my experience of queerness, queer culture, and sexuality. My third manuscript-in-progress is for me: It’s a delicate, slightly pretentious book with a lot about birds and plants, which delight me more and more as I grow older (predictable, I know).

Because their audiences vary so widely, the books themselves have dramatically different aesthetics, shapes, and lexicons. In a workshop a few years ago, I shared poems that would eventually appear in my second book; another member of the workshop, who had liked my earlier work, vocally disliked these new poems: “I mean, they just don’t sound like the same poet.” This expectation of consistency echoes the demands of social media, where poets—along with other writers and artists—are pressured to treat their work like products of a personal brand. The question tacitly being asked is this: If people can’t depend on you to deliver a predictable stream of work they’re sure to like, then who is going to support you?

This question came to haunt me less, however, while I was drafting [WHITE]. For that book, I spent a great deal of time contemplating mid-twentieth century artist Robert Rauschenberg; many of the poems in the collection are in direct conversation with his work. Rauschenberg’s practices changed wildly across his life and career, creating an incredibly rich and varied oeuvre. Once he felt he’d accomplished what he wanted with an approach to painting or assemblage, he’d move on to whatever new mode of art-making he found most exciting at the time. For Rauschenberg, his audience—his reader—was himself; he worked to find personal delight in whatever he did. Rauschenberg’s experimentalism helped me realize I had the freedom to do whatever I wanted with my craft as a writer.

This realization was not easy for a writer like me who had formerly been a literary agent. I had grown used to thinking in terms of the market as opposed to the audience. While I think these are both essential concerns for writers to keep in mind if they want to publish, the problem is mistaking them for the same thing. Your audience is your ideal reader, the person with whom you most want to communicate. That reader should always be considered—especially during the writing process. Your market, on the other hand, is the type of person or organization you think would pay to support your work (whether by buying it, in the case of individuals, or funding it through grants or fellowships, in the case of organizations). Personally, I don’t think the market should be considered until after you’ve written and decided to publish. Targeting your market while writing is an easy way to eliminate all originality or risk-taking in what you make. What’s more important is to ask yourself who you’re trying to reach with your writing, not who you’re trying to sell it to.

The permission I felt I’d received from Rauschenberg to think less about the market and more about my audience, the reader, enabled me to approach my writing differently. Rather than wonder who might follow me on Twitter or buy my work, I could contemplate what formal decisions—what aesthetics—would touch the reader I pictured sitting with each specific piece. I could truly think about how to speak with each readership—whether that meant my parents, past lovers, fellow poets, or my future self. Many writers try to write for everyone and instead write for no one. But if you can write to a specific someone—or to a group of specific someones—the massive void that the world is waiting hungrily for you to fill suddenly becomes a more manageable and intimate space. The page gains a new shape. For me it takes the form of a kitchen table where I’m settling in for good conversation. My manuscripts, different as they are, have allowed me to enter very different kitchens, to sit down at very different tables where I can greet each reader: “Welcome, friend. Nice to meet you.”


Trevor Ketner is the author of The Wild Hunt Divinations: A Grimoire, forthcoming from Wesleyan University Press in 2023, and [WHITE] (University of Georgia Press, 2021), selected as the winner of the 2020 National Poetry Series by Forrest Gander.

Art: Debby Hudson