Friday 18 November 2016

The professionalisation of poetry

Reading the 46 bios in the most recent "Rialto" you'll find about 6 people admitting to non-creative-writing professions - there's a nurse, an editor/translator, a journalist, a dog-whisperer, a Jungian analyst and an RSPB worker. Maybe several others have non-creative-writing professions, but are too shy to admit to them. Some who don't mention their profession (Carrie Etter for example) are creative writing academics. Academics or not, many aren't shy of mentioning their creative writing degrees.

The 57 bios in the latest "Interpreters House" have more variety, the non-creative-writing professions mentioned being artist, acupuncturist, funeral director, librarian, museum advisor, EFL teacher, psychology prof, graphics/web designer - though there are many creative writing qualifications listed as well.

Where are the doctors and lawyers? Where are the bishops, butchers and bakers?

In The Professionalization of Poetry, David Alpaugh wrote "today practically every highly acclaimed poet in America is teaching in a college or university writing program". That was in 2003. He continued "We nonprofessionals need to speak up and make our presence known". My standard bio for UK mags currently reads

Tim Love lives in Cambridge. He's had prose and poetry published in "Stand", "Rialto", "Oxford Poetry", "short Fiction", etc. His publications are "Moving Parts" (HappenStance, 2010) and "By All Means" (Nine Arches Press, 2012). He blogs at

which doesn't help. So I think in future I'll mention that I teach programming at Cambridge University. I could mention that I've taught an astronaut, gold medalists (rowing) and even a "Great British Bake Off" runner-up, but that would be showing off.

David Alpaugh went on to write "We need to remind professionals that the ad-hoc, personalized, dare I say amateur writing process they are striving to replace has produced practically all of the great poetry in the world for over 2500 years! We need to let them know that we expect poetry to continue to be published and honored on the basis of its quality rather than on the professional status or nonstatus of the poet. When you open a literary journal and see what you think is downright prose parading as poetry, write a letter to the editor and ask what it is doing there. When you see poems full of shoptalk, insider references, poetic name-dropping and credential-showing, complain - or, better yet, cancel your subscription.". Well maybe, but one thing at a time. For now, I'll just fix my bio.


  1. You make a great point. I've had poets be surprised that I have a full-time, non-poetry day job. I do work as a publisher and my last job (not the current one, which is completely non-poetry-related) did involve some selection of poems for anthologies, but that was only a small percentage of the job. Anyway, I find it a little disheartening when other poets or writers assume that you MUST be making a living either teaching creative writing, or facilitating poetry events, or...that's about it. As you say, some if not most of the greatest poetry came from people who definitely did not teach creative writing. And by the way, I feel similarly about other poets being surprised that you don't have a creative writing degree - or feeling obliged to get one themselves - but that's another story.

  2. Had I gone to university in the seventies which I never ended up doing I might’ve got in with the right people—Janice Galloway studied Music and English at Glasgow University about then—and then again I might’ve simply studied, passed my exams with flying colours and ended up right where I am just now only with a degree certificate gathering dust in a drawer. Who’s to say? Not having a degree—any degree—has always embarrassed me because I was always a clever clogs and wouldn’t have found it hard and it would be nice to be able to append ‘BA (Hons)’ to my name not that I would because I’m not that kind of guy and I’ve been a little disheartened to see the Bard of Salford calling himself Doctor John Cooper Clarke after receiving an honorary degree from his local uni although knowing him he might be just doing it ironically. Odd that very few writers add their qualifications to their names since they seem to be so damn important. Of course the list of writers who don’t have any kind of degree let alone a creative writing qualification must be immense. Why don’t we rise up?

    At the time my best friend went to Strathclyde University and ended up with a BSc (Hons) and I remember him talking about qualifications, their purpose. Basically, he said, all a degree proved is that you had “the capacity to learn” and he told me he never used anything he learned at uni ever again. He ended up managing an airport would you believe!

    Interestingly I was just reading a post by Art Durkee on a very similar subject in which he asks the question: Why Do You Write the Way You Write? In part:

    “This unspoken assumption about why writers write, perhaps especially poets, also leads me to be often asked about my writing habits. We have two generations of poetry workshops and MFA writing programs, now, which if you've been paying attention has led to an over-emphasis on craft. Why? Because you can't teach anything but craft; you can't teach heart, the writer has to have that, or develop that, on their own. When people ask me about my writing habits, I am alert to their quick judgments about how my habits differ from their own. According to one poet I knew, I have no discipline, because I write when listening calls me to write, not for an hour or two every morning, like a newspaper opinion editor. I don't write every day. I write when what I hear calls me to write; which takes me back to deep listening.”

    What’s the difference between an amateur and a professional? One thing: an amateur does it for the love of it, a professional for the money. Okay that’s a bit harsh and I would never suggest that Andy Murray doesn’t love tennis and Usain Bolt doesn’t love running but it’s still a job they do and I’m sure the fact that they have to make a living from what they love affects how they feel about it. Throughout most of the 20th century the Olympics allowed only amateur athletes to participate and this code was strictly enforced for many years. I wholeheartedly approved of that. For them “amateur” was not a dirty word, far from it. Makes you think.

  3. Thanks Clarissa. People still ask me if I'm thinking of taking a Masters in Creative Writing.
    The bios make some kind of sense. After all, the people are in the mags because they write poems, so that's the aspect of their lives that's relevant. Who cares if they're 73, or have 8 children, or work in a bank. If I had a paper in a maths journal I wouldn't mention in my bio that I've had an allotment for 20 years - I'd stick to the subject.
    But part of me feels that poetry's going the way of boiler repair - you need to show your certificate first to prove you're not a cowboy. Creative Writing has had an image problem in the past - is it really an academic subject? - so I suppose it's no surprise that certification matters so much.

    I don't have a Ph.D Jim (not bright enough), but friends tell me it's useful to be a Dr or Prof sometimes, especially when writing complaint letters. My computing career ladder is a bit crooked anyway - I had a computer game published before I had any qualifications. I don't feel that a lack of paperwork has ever held me back.
    You say that a professional does it for the money. In poetry of course, book don't make money, but there's pressure on academics and tutors to produce a book every few years. I think that pressure shows, with poets using tricks to make a little go a long way - sequences, variations, and themes.