Some Practical Advice for Poets

A few weeks ago, I came across an article in the New York Times about Jeffrey Skinner’s book The 6.5 Practices of Moderately Successful Poets. I’ll admit that prior to the article, I’ve never heard of Skinner, even though he has five collections of poetry out and has been published in major publications, including The Atlantic and New Yorker, but after reading the review, I wanted to get my hands on his new book.

His latest work isn’t really at all a craft book, and it doesn’t feature writing prompts. Instead, it offers sound advice for poets at any level, and it does so with great sarcasm and wit. One of my favorite pages in the book is a list featuring the “Top Ten Poet Complaints,” which includes lines like “I haven’t heard of a single person in this lit. mag,” “I guess you have to be famous to be in this lit. mag,” and “AWP keeps turning down my panel.”

Besides the humor, the book offers plenty of useful advice and reflections on the writing process. I especially like the chapter in which Skinner compares the act of writing to getting lost in the forest and states, “you have to get more immediately and literally lost every time you face the white page and the words begin to appear (or don’t) and you follow, with no idea where you’ll end up.” He also admits in the same chapter that very few appreciate poetry, but to become successful in the genre requires a writer to “commit to uncertainty” and to “unreasonable devotion.”

My favorite chapter is the one in which Skinner describes the classes he took at Columbia with Howard Moss, David Ignatow, and last year’s Poet Laureate Philip Levine. He depicts Ignatow as more concerned with his rising poetry career than the students. Moss, however, is depicted more kindly, and Levine is treated as a wonderful, but tough mentor, who, to paraphrase Skinner, knew his own skills and limitations as a poet.

The 6.5 Practices of Moderately Successful Poets is the most humerous book on craft I’ve yet to read, and also one of the most useful. It’s a wonderful book for teachers, students, and poets of all levels.

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