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What does a poet do all day?

Written by Clare Pollard

What’s the reality of being a poet in the twenty-first century? We asked poet Clare Pollard about her experiences as a poet and what she gets up to on a day-to-day basis.

Did you always have ambitions to be a poet/ writer?
Yes! I can’t remember a time I didn’t want to write. I ‘wrote’ my first musical, about a goose girl, when I was four, and by six was regularly writing ‘novels’. My mum wrote plays that were performed at our Village Institute, so that was probably a big influence. I’ve always just taken such pleasure in reading and writing, that the idea I could maybe make a living out of it one day was irresistible.

Do you write everyday?
No, not at all. When I’m in the ‘zone’ I’m incredibly prolific, but I often have long fallow periods, especially between books. To be honest, in the poetry world if you produce 60 pages every five years that’s fine, there’s no pressure. However, I do like having projects – like translating Ovid’s Heroines or my blog – that allow me to sit at my desk and just write rather than waiting for the poetic muse to descend. It’s good to have the odd thing like that on the go for ‘keeping warm’.

Do you have a dedicated writing space?
Ish. I have a study, over-spilling with books, files, accounts etc. But I use it more for admin or when I’m writing something that needs lots of references. Usually when I’m working I’m alone in the house, and prefer the kitchen table, where I can keep topping up my coffee or wander into the garden to check on my seeds.

Do you work with an “end” in sight (e.g a collection of poems, a project), or do you write whatever you like and hope it’ll get published?
That’s an interesting question. I guess a bit of both. I usually start by just writing whatever I like, but every now and again I realise something coherent is starting to come together. Like now, after five years of pootling, my next collection has a name (Incarnation) and a shape, and identifiable themes (our sons and daughters, and the stories we tell them). So I’m starting to write with the project in mind – looking for what the collection is missing or needs.

Is it possible to earn a living as a poet? What else do you do (if anything!)?
For the past ten years I’ve managed to make a living as a sort of all-round lady of letters, but that’s involved a huge variety of work. Probably about half of it is teaching: I was an RLF literary fellow for a couple of years, I’ve taught courses at universities, nightclasses, and in schools, and I do a lot of one-to-one mentoring. Then I’ve done quite a lot of translation work, I’ve had a play on, I wrote a film script that never got made, I’ve written and presented things for radio, I’ve had poems commissioned, I’ve dabbled in journalism and reviewing, I’ve edited anthologies and magazines. Performing too – I’m currently touring a one-woman show of Ovid’s Heroines, which is helping to pay my bills at the moment!

I’ve never had an actual, proper full-time job in my life – I’ve always freelanced in a very hand-to-mouth way, which can be insecure and scary but also means I’ve been able to take up all sorts of interesting opportunities. So it’s possible to earn a living as a poet, certainly, but you have to be willing to say yes to lots of different challenges – very little money comes directly from the poems themselves.

How do you balance competing priorities? What effect does constant multi-tasking have on your writing?
Now I have a small child, I’ve had to start saying no a lot more to unpaid work. The whole poetry scene is run on generosity, and I must get a couple of requests a week to do something unpaid – a blurb, an introduction, a reading, a poem for an anthology. It’s great to get these chances when you’re starting out, and I like to help where I can, but when you’re actually paying for childcare it really puts priorities into sharper perspective! I have to remind myself poetry isn’t my hobby – it isn’t an indulgence to tinker with one of my poems for a whole morning, it’s my real job.

What’s the best thing about being a poet?
In terms of writing, I think it’s the brevity of the form. You can have an idea, and a couple of hours later you have this beautiful thing you’re really proud of. And it can be ‘perfect’ in a way a novel can’t somehow. It’s small enough that everything about it can be just right.

More generally, it’s the social aspect I love. As a child in Bolton, I used to dream of meeting other writers. And now sometimes I’m in at the TS Eliot Award Party or something, drinking complimentary wine and talking about literature with all these amazing poets, and I have to pinch myself! I still get starstruck.

And the worst?
Oh, just the money I suppose. Every year it seems fees go down and more people expect you to do more for free. I got a first at Cambridge, a lot of my peers are making a fortune whilst I’m still buying my clothes in H&M and worrying about next month’s bills! Still, at least I’m not doing anything soulless or immoral. And I get good perks: festival tickets, free books…

What beliefs do you think people have about poets and are they true?
I’ve always liked the idea that we’re brooding, intense rebels, who take drugs, travel the world, have crazy affairs, see visions and die young. The whole Romantic/Confessional/Beat thing. Sadly, most poets these days have MAs in Creative Writing and are fairly institutionalised. Although I can be pretty wild on occasion. I like to think I’m doing my bit!

You were successful at a young age. What advice do you have for young poets?
The great thing is that you can write a wonderful poem at any age. I kind of agree with people who say novels take life experience, but a poem is just this small thing, and if you can write something true in your own voice, there’s no reason your poem can’t be as good as the Poet Laureate’s.

So that’s all you have to do really – take things one poem at a time, and put those poems out there – send them to websites like the Young Poets’ Network and NWN Young Writers, and to the Foyle competition, and to magazines, and go to open-mic nights or slams, and put them up on YouTube – and if the poems are good they’ll start finding an audience; making a connection.

I love poetry because it’s so pure like that. It’s not about marketing or accounts. You don’t have to get a degree or find an agent or any of that stuff if you don’t want. You just have to make a connection with another human being.

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