A career in poetry

 23 March 2012

Wendy Cope is a rarity in the literary world: a poet whose name is known to the public. She has won the Cholmondeley Award for her poetry collection, and was awarded an OBE for services to Literature.

Wendy Cope, OBE, is an award-winning poet.
Wendy Cope, OBE, is an award-winning poet.

Born in Kent in 1945, Wendy taught in primary education for the better part of 20 years, during which she became arts and reviews editor on the Inner London Education Authority magazine, Contact. She became a freelance writer in 1986, and was for a spell television critic on the Spectator.

Her poetry collections include Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis (1986), for which she won the Cholmondeley Award, Serious Concerns (1992), If I Don’t Know (2001) and Two Cures for Love (2008).

She has also edited three poetry anthologies, as well as the Faber Book of Bedtime Stories (1999), and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

Writing modern poetry

"I don’t worry about the status of poetry as an art form. Good poems find their way in the world and they stand the test of time."

"So many households have a copy of the Rubaiyat or A Shropshire Lad or Other Men’s Flowers and so on.

"I imagine there are people who occasionally take down those books and read something, but who don’t buy modern poetry. Very few books of new poetry sell at all well.

"There is a lot of recent poetry that most ordinary readers are unlikely to understand. That is not to say that poets shouldn’t write like that – they are free to write whatever they like. Some poets would say that readers should be encouraged to 'embrace difficulty' and learn that you can enjoy a poem without understanding it.

"I think the number of readers who are going to embrace difficulty is strictly limited, and I don’t want everyone else to give up on poetry. Readers need help in finding their way to books of poems that are not too difficult to understand. There are plenty of them – old and new.

"Reviews of poetry books are rarely much help in that respect. The best idea anyone has had in modern times for encouraging people to read poems is Poems on the Underground. The great thing about that it focuses on the poem, not the poet. It must have introduced thousands of people to the work of poets they hadn’t heard of.

Creating poems and anthologies

"Writing parodies of male poets was one way that I rebelled against male ideas about how we should write. The first poems of mine that got published were literary jokes that made male poets laugh. Some of them probably think those were the only good poems I ever wrote.

"I don’t think of my anthologies as 'populist'. I enjoy compiling books of poems that I like. I edited two anthologies of humorous verse (one of them for children) and an anthology of happy poems. There aren’t many funny ones in the latter.

"I don’t like the funny/serious distinction because I believe that humorous poems sometimes say things that are important and deeply felt. I prefer to talk about funny and unfunny poems."

Performance poetry and poetry readings

"Young aspiring poets shouldn’t be thinking about 'career moves'. You’ve got to want to work at getting better at writing for its own sake."

"I give around 30 readings a year. I prepare a new list of poems every time, although there are a few favourites I always include.

"I do think about the audience, taking into account their age (if it’s a school) and asking myself whether there will be many people who will enjoy the literary jokes.

I always welcome the opportunity to take questions from the audience. I find it the most enjoyable part of the event.

"I’m wary of the performance scene. A good performer can make the telephone directory sound exciting but that doesn’t mean that the telephone directory is a poem.

"I imagine some performance poets write stuff that works on the page too. But without reading it on the page, it’s hard to tell. If I go to a poetry reading, it’s to hear a poet whose work I’ve read and liked on the page."

Advice for aspiring poets

1. Write for yourself

"Young aspiring poets shouldn’t be thinking about 'career moves', nor should old, published poets. You’ve got to want to work at getting better at writing for its own sake.

"At a certain point I decided that writing better poems was my number one priority, even though there was no guarantee that I would ever get published.

"Once I’d made that commitment, it wasn’t long before I did begin to be published. I’ve observed that people who are too focused on publication and success tend not to get anywhere."

2. Don't give up the day job

"I think it is a good idea for a young poet to get a job and write in his or her spare time. I worked as a schoolteacher until my first book was published. Philip Larkin was in paid employment all his adult life.

3. Find support and feedback

"Read poems, and work hard at your writing. Go on Arvon courses and get some feedback from published poets. If they think you are publishable, they’ll tell you so.

4. Approach publishers directly

"Unlike novelists, poets don’t have to have agents. In any case, agents don’t want ten per cent of the peanuts that most poets earn from their books. Publishers will look at submissions that come direct from the poet, but it helps if you have published in magazines first."

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