Can you earn a living as a poet? Discussion offers advice on how to pay the rent

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There is no magic shortcut to making a living as a poet. That warning from discussion panel chair Sarah Hesketh at the Poetry Book Fair in London on Saturday may not have surprised her audience at all. But the discussion that followed involving Hesketh and fellow young poets Richard O’Brien and Rachel Long, pictured right, was full of important advice and useful tips, on subjects such as fees – don’t be shy or sell yourself short, check the Society of Authors rates; approaching organisations with project ideas – don’t expect them to come looking for you; and if you’re self-employed, remember that the books you may have bought at the book fair, the travel costs you incurred getting there, and many other things are all tax-deductible.

Sarah Hesketh was poet in residence with Age Concern working with elderly people with dementia, and assistant director at the literature and free speech charity English PEN. Since 2012 she has worked as a freelance project manager, and currently works for Modern Poetry in Translation magazine, teaches creative writing for the Open University, and is a member of the Society of Authors' poetry and spoken word committee. As she said on Saturday, “you have to end up wearing lots of different hats”.

embedded image from entry 70701 Richard O’Brien is a Teaching Fellow in creative writing at the University of Birmingham, and a PhD researcher at the university’s Shakespeare Institute. For him, poetry has been a “consistent but not altogether reliable form of secondary income”, alongside teaching and what he called “poetry-adjacent” work.

Rachel Long describes herself as a freelance poet, facilitator, and curator - “I run about all over London, doing jobs in poetry”  - and felt there was a way to make a living this way. Running two or three workshops in schools each month can help make ends meet, and pay the rent. She said that most sources of income came from workshops, commissions and residencies, with less money from actual poetry readings. She runs the Octavia poetry collective for women of colour at London’s Southbank Centre.

She said: “My way into working through poetry was by allying myself with organisations, rather than wait for them to notice me.” She said that there were lot of schemes to aid young poets aged 16-25, but “after that it becomes harder”. She went on: “I don’t think that what we do is held in as high esteem as other art forms. They might say that we’re going to pay you with a video of your performance – you can’t pay your rent with that.”  

embedded image from entry 70699 Sarah Hesketh advised poets to approach organisations with an idea for a project, and then promise to go away and find the funding. “Approach your local library, offer to run a monthly poetry workshop – there might be council funding available,” she said. 

Richard O’Brien admitted that he would work for free “in a lot of circumstances”, but not if it undermined the position of others. But he cautioned against damaging what he described as “a wider poetry ecology”, mentioning small presses and festivals that could not afford to pay much, of anything.

Sarah Hesketh insisted that the question of fees was “important to talk about. You’re often asked to set your own rate, and although you might feel funny about doing that, you have to value yourself.” The Society of Authors could help with questions on rates. Any agreements on fees should be put in writing, she added.

One questioner from the audience asked how the poets saw the financial future developing. Rachel Long added a cautionary note about the involvement of business promoting their products, as in recent TV ads involving poets that might add “depth” to the marketing. “I worry about the effect  that has on us,” she said.

Greg Freeman


Background: A good long read! More from the Poetry Book Fair 



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M.C. Newberry

Sat 7th Oct 2017 15:21

Regarding Laura's comments: I saw a recent late night BBC TV programme featuring performance poetry and a mention
of Attila, if my memory serves me correctly.

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Laura Taylor

Fri 6th Oct 2017 09:42

Attila the Stockbroker has made a good living from poetry - no workshops involved. I'd recommend any poet to read his autobiography, which I reviewed for WOL:

for tips on how to do it. It's also a hugely interesting read besides that.

It's serious graft, but it can be done.

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M.C. Newberry

Mon 2nd Oct 2017 16:58

I can see the connection between doing and enabling,
tho' I have a concern about HOW you can teach creative writing and what is being taught along the way...with
today's repeated restrictive references to "young"
poets and whatever experiences of life they have
acquired. My comments about faculties and positions
embrace the aspect of obtaining income, in addition to
which there are the welcome entries of Nationwide and
other business interests into the world of poetry. The
comments about getting out there and making contacts
are certainly worth commending - and the best of luck
to those who follow that sound advice. In a sense, it
is a form of self-publishing...and so the wheel turns.
You have to speculate to accumulate!

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Greg Freeman

Sun 1st Oct 2017 19:06

I'm not sure that you've read this piece closely enough, MC, even though you have written at some length about it. These poets are not saying that they can earn a living through their poetry alone, but from work associated with their poetry. That's the crucial difference.

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M.C. Newberry

Sun 1st Oct 2017 18:16

Historically, poets - like composers of music - would have sponsors to support them and their work, not only hoping
for commercial profit but in the wider context of adding to
the quality of life and artistic endeavour. It was thought
socially and morally worthwhile, and benefitted both
the patronised and the patron. But it can be argued
that poetry is the poor relation and that the best - and
best remembered - poetry was not the product of any
financially orientated employment, until relatively recent
times when faculties and positions were in place - and
the likes of "Poet Laureate" became established.
Much of what is likely - and perhaps most deserving - to remain is the result of self-publishing, when a writer has
enough faith in his/her product (and if income is your
aim, then it is to be seen as a product!) to pay their
way to get it "out there" and, hopefully, become known
and even "memorable". As things stand, there is the
existence of a type of poet that exists in a rarefied
world of creation, writing stuff that is mutually agreeable
and acceptable, whilst looking with haughty and dismissive mien upon anything that might be "popular"
- and thus "unworthy" (in a sort of reverse rendition of
what went before) of being promoted into perpetuity.
Occasionally, the likes of Ayres and others break through
and become commercially successful...but it's not
something that is seen that often via the poetry press
and its satellites, collective and individual.
It's nice to get paid for a poem but as for a living...?
Hardly a realistic prospect for most in the real world,
even for the most deserving.
From Houseman to Larkin, the evidence is self-evident
- so, when a Betjeman appears and reserves a place
in posterity, we should be grateful but not necessarily
assured of repeated instances for either today or the

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