Tim Wells on how to be a professional poet

Tim Wells on how to be a professional poet

By Rebecca Greig 05/11/12

“Hard-gigging poet” Tim Wells was praised by The Guardian for his "wit and brilliance". He edits poetry mag Rising and has two books published by Donut Press. He shares trade secrets with Rebecca Greig...

I figured that it was a good way of getting into gigs for free. In the late ’70s and early ’80s you used to get poets performing between a lot of bands, getting free drinks and getting girls. I did get into gigs for free and I did get drinks but I didn’t get many girls... I still persevered.

In spoken word poetry now, there’s a circuit, there are lots of clubs. When we were doing stuff in the ’80s, there were only three poetry venues. The Poetry Society hated us, academics hated us and half the audience hated us. We had to build a circuit to sustain ourselves. We had to create an awareness and a liking for what we were doing.

When you’re breaking into something, you have to gig a lot before you make a name for yourself. It’s only when you’ve got a name and a reputation that you start getting paid for stuff. Most of the early gigs were paid in booze and sometimes we’d be in a dressing room next to Julian Clary, which was quite exciting. Gig as much as you can and go to as many gigs as you can.

Most people who make money from poetry do so by teaching, which I don’t do a lot of. I hated school and I hated teachers, so I always feel dirty if I do it! I gig regularly, three times a week, and have done for the last twelve years. But the value of something isn’t measured in money. Money is certainly important but value is comprised of a whole lot of different things.

Creating a profile is important in making a living out of poetry: it’s doing gigs, it’s getting into magazines, it’s doing it for yourself. Nobody’s going to come along and say, “Here’s a huge stack of money. Lounge around and write poems.” Starting a magazine raised my profile and got me published.

Get a business card. You never know who you’re going to bump into. I’ve bumped into some amazing people and got some great bits of work just through opportunity and knowing how to make use of that opportunity. It also makes you look more professional.

Read lots. Don’t always focus on what you like: break down what you don’t like or enjoy and work out why it’s not working. Learn lessons from the bad things as well as the good things.

Use social media to your advantage. Don’t be po-faced. Be honest, be yourself, but have a sense of humour. Your page shows your personality, helps place you, gives you a profile with different groups of people.

Find your USP [Unique Selling Point]. The same principle applies to poetry as to any business. If everybody’s doing really bad hip-hop slam poems with a sharp intake of breath every couple of minutes, they’re not going to stand out. They’re just going to be “another one of those...” people. Know what your strengths are, know what’s distinctive about you, don’t showboat it, don’t gimmick it, but use it, have some honesty and see where the gaps are.


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