I Want To Be… A Poet!

Claire Askew

Is it really possible to eke out a living in the literary world? As a poet, no less?! Just ask Claire! The fabulous redheaded Claire Askew is a working poet, arts editor & part-time tutor living in Edinburgh, Scotland. She’s a very busy & ambitious girl, with lots of good advice as to how to make it as a writer!

Tell us about what you do.
First and foremost, I see myself as a writer, specifically a poet; but I juggle a variety of jobs and projects which also help keep me financially afloat. When I’m not writing, editing and redrafting poems, I work as a private tutor for kids aged 11 – 18, teaching English and Creative Writing. About a year ago I set up my own literary magazine, Read This, and I now also have a blog called One Night Stanzas which is designed to involve and encourage young writers. I’m currently working on my first collection, and I’m also about to embark on a postgraduate MSc in creative writing at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland.

How long ago did you start on this path?
I’ve been writing since before I can remember – which is a cliché, but I genuinely can’t remember the first time I picked up a pen. I wrote my first poem aged about seven, and won a prize for it at the local fair. I reckon that’s when, subconsciously, I abandoned my childhood ambition to be a farmyard vet, and set out on a more literary path!

How long were you doing it before you made it into your career or primary form of income?
I’ve been treating my writing as more than a hobby for about the past four years, when it began to be accepted by magazines, and I’ve been getting paid work (mostly publication in larger journals and anthologies who can afford to give out fees) for about the last two years. As I say, I’ve been doing it all my life, but I think it was only quite recently that I really sat down and thought “this could be your career. You might not be a millionaire, but you could probably do it.”

Did anything significant happen to get you to that point, or was it a series of small steps?
I was in my third year of University, and I’d joined a writer’s group and started going to workshops and whatnot, and people started to “notice” my work and tell me it was pretty good. Crucially I think, I met the poet Brian McCabe, who really liked my stuff and was (and still is) incredibly encouraging. I realised that I was rapidly coming to the end of my four years in further education, and I really needed to start deciding what I was going to do with my life afterwards. Eventually I got to the point where I thought “why not just do what I love?”. I set up Read This at around the same time, and soon after, I won three quite big poetry prizes. I think that really cemented my decision… it was a good omen.

Do you think official qualifications are important for someone entering your industry?
It’s an interesting question, and the issue of should-you-get-a-creative-writing-qualification is hotly debated. Many writers actually see qualifications as counter-productive: they reckon creative writing courses teach you bad habits, and that they contribute towards poetry’s transformation into an increasingly “academic” artform. Other people reckon you need to be “vetted” by a qualification – that they sort the men from the boys, so to speak. I’ve chosen to do a postgrad qualification mainly out of a need to step things up a gear – I want to take my writing to the next level and I hope it will help me to do that. But I don’t think it matters either way whether you’re qualified or not. To be successful in poetry, you just need to be talented, thick-skinned, and willing to work really hard.

What do you think is the best thing about working for yourself?
I can control my time, and my environment, which is important. I’m one of those people who can’t just write anywhere. If you work in an office and you get halfway through the day and feel trapped and burned out, you can’t just grab your laptop and go to the park. You can’t take a break for an hour and read a book or sleep or whatever. The best thing about being in control of my own time is being able to decide what I do with it, on the spur of the moment if need be. Right now I’m very lucky – many writers have to juggle other jobs and outside commitments, and it can really dry up your creativity. But I think the best thing about doing what I do is using my experience to help brand new young writers to get a foothold in the poetry industry – that’s what Read This does, and although One Night Stanzas is still very new, I’m hoping that eventually it will also be able to help people in the same way. It’s great when people email you and say “thanks for your advice, I just got published for the first time!”

What’s the worst thing?
Distractions. I live with my boyfriend, who’s around from 4pm onwards every afternoon and, as you can imagine, he’s pretty distracting. I’m also a bit of a tidy-freak and so if there’s housework that needs doing, I kind of have to do it before I can sit down and write. And I absolutely love my tutoring job and all the gorgeous young people I teach, but sometimes you get home from four back-to-back ‘Hamlet’ study sessions and feel like you never want to see a word on a page ever again!

Rate how happy you are with what you do out of 100 (100 being the best, 0 being devastatingly awful) on an average day.
About 87. Sometimes higher, sometimes lower, but that’s my happiness average.

Would you call yourself a workaholic, & if so, are you alright with that? Do you think that’s normal for your industry?
I’m not necessarily a workaholic – I can spend four hours reading books and not feel bad about it – but I like to have heaps of things on the go, and I’m very driven. I love getting Read This off the press “on schedule” every month, and I make myself write at least one post to my blog per day – usually two. I write for anything from 8 to 15 hours per week, and I’m happy if I’ve written four poems by the weekend (but happier if I’ve written seven). I’m also keen to get involved with any poetic activities that other people are organising – last week I spent an afternoon being “a poetry terrorist” in a local park (running up to people with print-outs of famous poems and, in most cases, getting them to read them). I think if you want to be a poet, you don’t need to be a workaholic as such, but you do need to be willing to work.

What would your number one suggestion be for someone who wants to do what you do?
Read. Read, read, read, read and then read some more. Reading other people’s poetry is the only way to make your own poetry better, and that’s something you should always be trying to do. Read the magazines and journals you want to send your writing to. The more poetry you read, the better you’ll know the industry, and the better equipped you’ll be to succeed. Kenneth Patchen once said, “people who say they love poetry but don’t buy any are cheap sons-of-bitches,” and I’d add to that: “people who say they write poetry but don’t read any are deluded sons-of-bitches.” You have to read widely to write well. You have to read to succeed!

…How about number two?
There are million pieces of advice I want to dole out… just look at my blog! But the second most important thing is: persevere. You might never make any money out of poetry, you friends and family might never understand why you do it, and there will be times when you’ll get rejected and think “am I actually just rubbish?” You have to be prepared for that, and you have to keep on going; keep writing and submitting and publishing even through the knock-backs. No matter what anyone says to you, if you love doing it, keep doing it.

What do you wish you had known when you first started out?
There are a whole lot of people who move in literary circles – and particularly poetic ones – who want to see you fail. Don’t ask me why, but there’s a massive amount of negativity around when it comes to poetry, and particularly when it comes to young writers. Just look at some poetry blogs – everyone has a view, and often its not a nice one. You get pessimists telling you poetry is dead and writing is pointless. You get countless people who’ll tell you that “your style” of poetry is rubbish, or that you’ll never succeed because you’re too young. You’ll get people attacking you in online forums and ripping your work to bits and sending you poisonous emails, even if you think you’ve done nothing to provoke them. Perhaps worst of all, you get a lot of websites that are set up to suck inexperienced writers into money-making scams: beware of anyone who says they can publish your work for a ‘reading fee’! I don’t want to freak people out, but I never knew about this stuff, so it really shocked me. It still shocks me. It’s the main reason I started One Night Stanzas – I wanted to provide a safe place for writers to get advice and feedback on their work. And just to prove my point, the blog is only about two weeks old and already some snide comments have appeared… so be prepared!

Are there any major misconceptions about your job or industry?
The whole ‘poetry is a dead artform’ thing. I disagree! Poetry is on the downlow right now because there isn’t enough young blood around to stir things up, but I don’t think it will ever die. It might be on a dialysis machine at the moment, but I’m convinced that’s only a passing thing. So, young ‘uns, get writing and get out there and revive your artform!

What motivates you to keep doing what you’re doing?
I’m motivated to keep writing by the random emails I get from people I’ve never even heard of, saying things like “your poem touched me.” One girl a while back wrote her English Literature term essay on my poetry, and another wrote one of my poems out in gorgeous calligraphy and put it on public display. I love reading my work at events, too, because I get some lovely responses from total strangers. I’m also encouraged by all the young people whose names I see in publications here and there, and I think “I gave that person some advice once”, or “Read This was their first publishing gig.” I like the idea that there is a creative community out there, and I’m part of it, and – even with the aforementioned negativity floating around – that’s a great feeling. And I think I’ll always write, whether I continue to be successful or not. I’m one of those people who does it because they’d go mad if they didn’t, basically!

Who do you look up to within your industry & why?
He’s dead now, but I still love Allen Ginsberg to bits. He did something new and radical with poetry, and flew in the face of all the people who said he couldn’t succeed because he was gay, because he was Jewish, because he was unapologetically political, because he was a college dropout, because he wasn’t a conventional writer, etc. He’s a household name in spite of it all and his poems are funny and shocking and gorgeous. I’m also a big fan of Edwin Morgan, and I’d love to meet him – he seems like such a kind soul, a very genuine man. Roddy Lumsden is a great, plain-speaking poet and he does a lot of teaching and working with younger writers. He also came to my rescue once when my poetry was under attack on a very poisonous forum-thread, even though he didn’t know me at all, and I love him for it to this day. And I’ve met so many wonderful, hard-working editors who rarely get any credit for what they do – so appreciate your editors, people! They’re the people who keep the poetry industry ticking over!

Extra For Experts:
Claire also wrote this excellent piece, Writing In The Face Of Adversity, which is worth reading!