You can’t sit on your laurels as a writer, they say. Get out there on social media, they say. Plug your work. Brag your achievements. Promote promote promote.
And they’re right. Sort of. Poetry doesn’t have many reliable media outlets outside the internet, and publishers have limited resources with which to market books. Artists of all stripes need to be active online, not only because they need to stay abreast of the latest news and possibilities for their artform, but also to get out there and ensure people know their work exists.
But most people aren’t very good at it. So for every Neil Gaiman, starting competitions, sparking conversations, collaborating here, there and everywhere, you’ll get writers hammering Twitter over the head with sales spam, shedding followers at every turn.
Obviously, say we, that’s wrong. First rule of social media etiquette is that you only share things that are of interest to others beside yourself. That should do the trick, right?
Problem is that what’s interesting to you may not be to the wider world. And when it comes to poetry, we need to be thinking about the reader at every stage.
I’ve noticed among poets in particular a certain recurring phrase:
“So excited to be appearing in X”
“So excited to have been shortlisted for Y”
“So excited that my book will be published by Z”
Hands up here. I’m hardly immune to this. My very last blog post began with “Exciting stuff!”, I have frequently used the SE intro, and I am judging myself accordingly. You might say this post is a personal exorcism as much as it is a rant.
What’s the problem here exactly?
If we’re that excited about everything related to our poetry careers we’re going to need seatbelts on our swivel chairs just to get a first collection out. So my first problem with this phrase is that I don’t believe the user is always “so excited”. Sometimes it really does reek of perfunctory tweeting, perhaps because you’ve been asked to promote the event or magazine in question. So it becomes a fallback phrase.
How did this phrase become so prominent among poets? Poets, in my limited anecdotal dataset, tend to be uncomfortable sharing their triumphs. In contrast, more retiring visual artists can simple post their winning work online and allow it to speak for them. Pictures speak quickly, broadly and loudly. Not everyone will read through a poem.
So poets come up with a phrase that is both celebratory and Jenny-from-the-block modest (as in, “I’m totally still small enough to get excited about this wow you guys”) Or else, blue-tit-like, one poet does and we all learn from them. This allows us to brag it up under a mantle of modesty. It’s permission from us to ourselves to say we’ve done something and we want validation from the wider world.
My problem with “So excited” is that it represents a paucity of creative ways to talk about our artistic praxis, coupled with a Miranda-ish “Such fun!” tone that either grates or fails to grab. To go back to the old etiquette adage, why should anyone else care that you’re excited? Where’s the excitement for them? Especially in poetry, where paid roles, prizes, fellowships and such are extremely few and far between, could this not be insensitive?
Certainly you’ll get some Likes, some congratulations, some yays, but I know I add many of these almost from muscle memory. It’s not that I’m not happy for my friends, but there’s a disconnect there; I feel compelled by manners or habit to express this via the quick click of social media tools, which bypass genuine emotion and discussion in favour of polite box-ticking. The most thought I give to it a lot of the time is deciding which emoji to use for my reaction.
I suppose my point here is that all of this “I-did-this”/”Yay-you-did-that” back-and-forthing takes up time and energy that we could be using to make and discuss new, unusual, challenging poetry in fresh, unexpected ways. We could be mulling over methods of opening up the artform, instead of buzzing around the same old bottle.
Fine. What’s your genius solution then?
I don’t have one. But I have a couple of ideas for things to consider before hitting ‘Share’. (And hopefully I can break my bad habits and take my own advice on this.)
1. Think like a journalist before sharing on social media. What’s the angle here? Where’s the story? If you’re in a magazine or event, who else is in the magazine or event? Can you tag them? Is it a special issue? Ask yourself why people should care, because in poetry, nobody has a hysterical fanclub; nobody is throwing their knickers at you and buying every format of your latest poem. If you really, truly can’t find an angle outside yourself, at least make it funny, entertaining or in some way emotionally affecting for your readers. That’s reason in itself.
2. Do you actually need to share this thing that at all? Edit your sharing like you edit your poetry. Yes, it happened. It’s a thing. Yay! Do you need to share it? Would it light someone else’s fire? Do you have something new to bring to the table in relation to it? If yes, go for it. If no, either accompany it with a rapier-witted comment or consider putting down the mouse and going for a walk.