There’s a theme emerging here:
- Someone waved a sheath of papers in my face at a poetry reading (I was a featured reader) and talked about his inspirations, interrupting only to ask if I would read his poems. He didn’t make one comment on my reading or my poems.
- Someone emailed me with a link to a forum, explaining that I could search for his poems, all twenty of them, and he wanted to know what I thought of them.
- Someone posted on social media that writers who had ‘made it’ should nurture and provide help to emerging writers.
- At a spoken word evening someone asked where he could get the poem he’d dashed off that afternoon published.
- Someone went to a writing conference and complained that the literary agents all “hid” in the breaks between sessions (including sessions where attendees could make their pitches) so they didn’t get chance to speak to one.
I get it: you desperately want feedback on your brilliant manuscript and you’re too broke to pay for professional critiques, can’t travel to workshops (but can turn up at readings, spoken word events and conferences), urgently want to see your work in print, feel that those already published have somehow shut the door on your burgeoning career and feel that literary agents and other gatekeepers aren’t human enough to need comfort breaks or simply a break.
Perhaps you could try this approach:
- “Loved your reading. Do you know of any local workshops I could go to get feedback on my work?”
- “I saw your poems in…/heard you read at… Do you give critiques? I could put my poems in a document and forward them to you if you do.”
- “Writers aren’t gatekeepers. Publishers and editors are. Workshops and writing groups are part of the literary eco-system, can anyone suggest some good online or offline groups local to me?”
- “I’m going to read some poetry magazines and find out which might be the best fit for my poems. Any recommendations?”
- “I got loads of good advice from the writers’ conference. I listened to all the sessions and now think I’ve got two or three agents that would be a good fit for my work. Now I’m going to polish my submission to give it the best chance.”
Any half-decent salesperson will tell you that you can have the best product in the world, but no one’s going to buy it if you can’t present it in a way that’s welcoming and relevant to your potential customer. If your potential customer is another writer or agent and your product is your manuscript or poem, consider:
- Approaching a poet when they are about to give a reading is bad timing. The poet is preparing for their reading, checking everything is in place and getting ready to go on stage. Interrupting this process makes you at best an irritation.
- Making it all about you and what you want without acknowledging the poet you’re approaching isn’t just bad manners, it tells the poet that their opinion and thoughts don’t matter, which undermines your purpose of getting feedback.
- Allow the poet their personal space, particularly if there is a significant size difference between you and the poet. I doubt the man waving his papers in front of my nose realised that he was perilously close to hitting me in the face with them and that his height meant he was actually talking over the top of my head.
- If you contact someone by email/post, at least have the courtesy of mentioning where you got their address from or how you heard of them. If you don’t it makes you look like a potential stalker.
- If you want someone to do you a favour, don’t create work for them. If I agree to critique your poems (and there will be a cost involved), I don’t want to search for them and I will not go to an unfamiliar website that I don’t know I can trust.
- It is the editors of poetry magazines you need to impress: they’re the ones who decide which poems get published.
- Agents, publishers and writers who speak at or take part in panel events at writers’ conferences may simply want a break between sessions. They are not obliged to hear your unsolicited pitch. It may even be to your advantage to write to them afterwards, saying you were at the conference and heard them speak (mention the topic or briefly quote to prove it) and why you think that, as a result of that conference, your work is a good fit for them.
Writers have no obligation to help others. In fact if they’re already juggling writing around a day-job and other commitments, they may not have time. They may also not be best placed to give you feedback: writers aren’t the gatekeepers. Join a writers’ group, go to workshops and consider paying for critiques if you want feedback on your work.