The Poet’s Job: How I Make a Living in Poetry

The question then becomes how to give an audience compelling poems. Since I know nothing about any particular group except where they live and, sometimes, the organization they’re affiliated with, I use those clues as my guide. But I’m still faced with the challenge of how to get a general audience in a theater to pay attention to poetry. How do I engage hundreds of elementary school or middle school students sitting in a gym or a cafeteria with a poem?

The answer: I’m always going to share poems where there’s the best chance of establishing an authentic exchange between myself and my audience. The poems themselves will necessarily vary by setting. If I already have poems that fit the occasion, great; if I don’t, I get to work writing them.

It helps, too, to mix the delivery of poems: Some I’ll read from a book or a sheet of paper; others I recite from memory (read your own strong, reliable poems often enough and you, too, will commit them to memory); and still others I introduce by telling a story. Because I play fiddle, I’ve learned to separate spoken-word passages with fiddle interludes. It’s like serving crackers during a wine tasting. I’ve also taken the step of making the music an integral part of those poems and stories.

For instance, when doing shows for a general audience, I’ll often bring an accompanist who plays fiddle or banjo, and I’ll share poems about the music. When I read to the sound of live fiddle or banjo music, then pick up my fiddle myself, the reading has reached another level. Performance? Sure. Why not?

Not a musician yourself? What’s stopping any of us, I wonder, from writing a poem, or a sequence of poems, based on a favorite song or musician? What’s stopping us from writing poems that can be arranged for music, or enhanced by music, and then bringing along a musician to a reading? If each poem in a successful collection is to stand alone, and the full collection is to function as one exceptionally long poem, why not aspire to the same standard when it comes to readings? Why not choose poems that purposefully make better theater? Anybody writing ekphrastic poems can show the pieces of art that inspired the poems being read—with extra points to the writer who’s also the visual artist.

What’s stopping any of us from writing poems that more directly engage a particular audience?

For young audiences, my work has evolved so that I now write an age-appropriate poem for every school or community I visit. As the visiting (paid) writer—perhaps the only poet these students will ever meet—this has become an essential part of my day’s work. I’ll not only write something original for the place, but I’ll also type, print, cut, and hand out poems to every student, along with one of my poetry bookmarks.      

Last September, when I visited three high schools in Caldwell County, North Carolina, each student received a bookmark and the following poems:

A Caldwell County Poem
Cheeseburgers, chocolate,
and coffee. Begin in
Lenoir, leave for Asheville,
Durham, Charlotte, Boone,
way down to Atlanta even.
Everywhere is home. You can’t
lose it, really. You’ll never
lose it, the place you grew up.

Cured tobacco or ham, church
on Sunday or Wednesday, calculus,
uncles, aunts, cousins. Maybe you’ll
never leave this place in the hills.
That’s okay, too. Either way,
you know where you’re from.

A Special Caldwell County Poem
Call it your life. Make magic
as you go. Magic? Carolina
lets you have these crazy fall
days, both happy and sad.
What? Some of what I know:
Earth can be a weird place.
Last night there was road kill.
Love can push; love can pull.

Call it your life. Make magic
or make a promise as you go.
Understand? Yes? No? Do you?
Next week is not the plan.
The time is now. This is it.
Your magic life. Work & play.

In November 2013, I wrote these two poems for at-risk middle-schoolers at the Lincoln Elementary School in Kokomo, Indiana:

A Lincoln Poem
Lots of things happen
in this school. I know that.
No, I don’t know details.
Consider this. If I just
observe, I’ll not only   
learn, I’ll be inspired.
Next, I might even write.

A Special Lincoln Poem        
Let me explain the usual.
I write different poems. I
notice everything I can.
Can you do this magic?
Of course. It’s easy to 
let your mind fully sail.
Notice everything you can.

And in the spring of 2012, I wrote these for first- and second-graders at Bellamy Elementary in Tampa, Florida, where the school mascot is a bobcat:

A Bellamy Poem
Boys and girls sit in     
every class. Some
love reading. Some love
lunch. Some love
art and music. Some love
math. Some love poems.
You, what do you love?

A Special Bellamy Poem
Be a bobcat. Don’t be a crab.
Eat a great big juicy orange,
lots of vegetables too. We’ll
look out the windows. Will
an animal walk by? Florida
makes me happy. Yes, I’m
your poetry friend today.

Most kids everywhere have seen acrostics, even if they don’t know the name of the form. But few have seen them with line breaks, and fewer still—approximately the same number of high-schoolers who have encountered sestinas or villanelles—have come across double acrostics, where the same word is spelled with both the first and last letters of each line. I title the poems simply, which lets students know the poem is about their place. The title also spells the acrostic.

Even high-schoolers will ooh and ahh upon finding the acrostics. If some in the group don’t discover them on their own, even after my clues, I’ll explain the trick. Getting such a reaction, which usually sweeps the room in a wave, I know my work has value. Emily Dickinson, I think, would approve.

When I see students try their own acrostics, or start writing enthusiastically from another of my prompts, I know I’ve earned my fee. Walt Whitman, I think, would be proud.

When I later receive students’ letters or poems in the postal mail, I’m delighted to have been of service. I make copies of these to pass along to the sponsors of my visit.

This process is one more way for writers to get by in the world.

More than that, this is about poetry, music, art, and education. This is about hope.

It is work rooted in the belief that every occasion holds possibility.

Ken Waldman is the author of six poetry collections, a memoir about his life as a touring artist, and a volume of acrostic poems for kids. His nine CDs feature a combination of Appalachian-style string-band music, original poetry, and Alaska-set storytelling. He tours nationally, and has appeared at some of the country’s leading festivals, concert series, music clubs, and universities. His website is www.kenwaldman.com.