As Robert Graves put it, “There is no money in poetry, but there is no poetry in money, either.”
Poets don’t pursue poetry for the cash, but the truth is that we all have to make rent and buy groceries.
While it’s rare for a writer in any genre to make a living solely off the sale of their work, financial rewards for excellent poetry are especially hard to come by. At AU, we find ourselves encountering early-career poets eager to hone their craft but nervous about their financial prospects. We hear the same question again and again. How does a poet make a living?
Our goal is to send writers out into the world with talents sharpened and professional opportunities opened. We want our poets to have tools to support themselves so they can sustain artistic lives. Below are some of the ways that our poets go on to support themselves financially as they pursue their art:
Poets write in multiple genres.
Some of the most beautiful prose is penned by poets, with their sensitivity to sound and rhythm. Poets frequently write in multiple genres – and the cash advance that a writer gets when she sells her memoir can sometimes stretch further than the sales of a poetry collection. By writing journalism or creative nonfiction or fiction, poets can diversify their publications in a way that becomes financially sustaining.
AU poetry alumna Sandra Beasley has published three collections of poetry and placed her poems in top journals, and she published a work of nonfiction, a cultural history of food allergies, as well.
When we interviewed Sandra in January, she discussed her experiences at AU taking a class in journalism and a class in translation. “These classes broadened my sense of a literary community, and of what I could do with the degree,” Sandra said. “I can thank Richard McCann for introducing me to the craft of creative nonfiction. Not every program allows students to cross genres so freely. He said you have to find the nerve, the place where it hurts—and then press on it. That advice has stayed with me.”
Our new studio track makes time in students’ schedules for extra creative writing classes, enabling them to receive additional instruction and feedback in their chosen genres.
Poets work a range of professional jobs where their talents are valued.
The MFA is seen as valuable by employers seeking strong communicators. We have written before about non-teaching career paths that our writers pursue.
One alumnus, poet Jay Melder, has lent his skills to the political world, where he currently serves as Chief of Staff at the DC Department of Human Resources. Other alumni have found work as editors, radio producers, coordinators for arts and lectures series, public relations officials and writers in communications and marketing roles.
Our new professional track gives students the chance to take classes that expand their career options by providing supplemental skills and exposure to new work options. The bottom line? An MFA in poetry shows potential employers that you are a serious and accomplished writer—a valuable asset in today’s workforce.
Poets teach creative writing.
Teaching writing is a time-honored tradition among poets. W.H. Auden taught. Elizabeth Bishop taught. Langston Hughes taught. And many of our own graduates teach their craft to other new writers.
A 2009 graduate Jenny Molberg writes poetry, serves as poetry editor for Pleiades, and works as assistant professor of English at the University of Central Missouri.
When we interviewed Jenny in March, she described how she balances her teaching and writing life. “It’s difficult, especially because I am in my first year of a tenure-track job, but I find that I am constantly challenged and inspired by my students, who make me want to go home to write,” Jenny said. “Sending work out and applying for grants and residencies becomes difficult with a very busy teaching load—sometimes I just dedicate a Saturday to reading, writing, and sending out poems.”
Our new teaching track allows students to earn credit toward their MFA while taking classes that will prepare them to teach.
Ready to pursue poetry in the District? Learn more about the MFA in creative writing program.