How poetry ruined my life, episode 4

A question for the poets: What do you do when you’re at a party, and some unimaginative guest asks you what you “do”, and you have that moment where the following thoughts collide in a mangle of mild discomfort in your mind:

1. Do I bypass the details of how I have a menial day-job to support the poetry?

2. He’s going to think I’m a wanker if I say I’m a poet.

3. But I am a fucking poet, I even got published in Overland once!

4. I studied writing and everything, does that justify me or make it sadder that I’m still fixated on it even though Penguin still don’t want my verse novel manuscript?

5. I mean, I did the Diploma at RMIT/I did the Bachelors at RMIT/I did the Masters at RMIT/I did a fucking Ph.D at RMIT and I teach the subject now, that’s got to count for something…

6. Look at this dork, he’s probably got a Ph.D in Quantum Physics, I can see it now, the beer coming out his nose when he snorts and says “you can do Ph.Ds in creative writing these days? Really?”

7. I’d have loved to do a Ph.D on Quantum Physics. If only I could remember how long-division works. No, seriously.

8. Maybe he’s one of the polite ones who will smile and nod and say “I never liked poetry much, to be honest”,

9. and if that happens, note to self: Resist urge to tell him he just hasn’t read the right poetry yet. You know he stopped at Shakespeare sonnets in high-school which brought down his University entrance score to 98.9, and his left eye still gets that nervous pulsating twitch when he thinks about it 15 years on. He’s probably not willing to believe you when you tell him there are as many poets and poetic styles and genres as there are musicians and musical genres – and EVERYBODY has at least one kind of music they love. It’s just that poetry isn’t passive, you can’t really read it while you cook your nightly pasta sauce. I mean you do, but he’s probably particular about not getting tomato on his books, even the ones he hates. More likely he’d be worried about burning his dinner. His reaction would be “Well I’ll read a poem when you do a quadratic equation”, which wouldn’t be so bad except you really don’t remember how to do long-division.

10. So change the subject if he gives you the smile’n’nod.

11. Better yet, lie. Say you’re in marketing. You market… something… something people actually need and love. Toilet paper, asprin, organic chickens, breath mints, gym memberships…

12. Don’t be stupid, excuse yourself. Go stand in the line for the loo. Nobody will ask you personal questions there.


Got a few newies at: http://taramokhtari.wordpress.com

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Tara Mokhtari is a Persian-Australian poet and screenwriter based in New York. She is the author of The Bloomsbury Introduction to Creative Writing and Anxiety Soup.

More by


  1. I just say I’m a writer, which is true enough. But then, I can masquerade as a novelist. No, I never say I’m a poet.

    Except once, and it was because I was flustered. It was when I visited Iceland around 2005, and immigration officials pulled me out of the line. As I do in such circumstances, I immediately felt guilty of something. What is your profession, they asked me, and why was I visiting Iceland? I blurted out that I was a poet, and I was visiting to read at the Writers House. (I would never normally mention “poetry” to anyone who vaguely looked like a bureaucratic official). The effect was startling: they immediately apologised for bothering me, and hurriedly waved me through.

    I mentioned this to my friend who picked me up from the airport, and he laughed. “You see, in Iceland we still believe that poets have the power to curse,” he said.

    So being a poet’s fine in Iceland, anyway.

  2. I actually think one of the biggest hurdles for poets is that anyone who writes poetry can call themselves a poet. I only ever thought of responding that I was a writer once I was making (ie: publishing & performing) enough to have to mention it to the taxman (who not surprisingly guffawed and said you really make money from THAT?).

  3. The question is, at what point can a writer call themselves a poet? Is it when they have studied poetry? Is it after they have had a reasonable amount of poetry published? or a collection published? I write poetry but I don’t consider myself a poet. I think it’s because as a writer, you have ‘one’ passion and mine is writing fiction novels. But I still just call myself a writer when people ask because I enjoy writing poetry, short stories, film scripts, articles, but if I had to choose one it would be novels. Maybe a poet is someone that writes just poetry and nothing else? Not sure.

    • Koraly, that is too big a question for the internets to answer, is it when you’ve written a poem, when one has been published in a zine / anthology, when you’ve had a collection published, won a major prize? According to the tax office it is when you secure the majority of your income from the activity, does that mean there are no poets left in the world, only teachers of the craft?

      • Hi Mark, not sure about the tax. I am considered a writer by the tax office because that is my primary occupation, even though I don’t make any money from it as yet. All my expenses are deferred, to be offset against future income(I knew my accounting degree would come in handy!) So all you emerging writers out there, keep your receipts!

  4. If you’re invited to that kind of party you have to bring your best mates along. So there’s that one over there that seems to be a hopeless wannabe, and there’s another that’s a pathetic scribbler of verse, and the rest of them might resemble any of those other cliched images of a poet as seen from the perspective of high achieving materialists and/or businessmen. And I would feel like a fraud if I didn’t admit, not only did I come with those guys, but that they’re actually my dearest friends. Moreover, if you have a problem with any fucking one of them, I’ll kick your arse, buddy. Since I’m a poet, of course I mean that metaphorically.

  5. I find a persons answers always depend on the level of inebriation. I’m not a poet so I am not posed with that problem, but I am a wannabe writer in a very industrial town, so if your not working as a labourer you’re a “poofta”

    I must admit that my favourite answer to “waddaya do for a crust?” is – “I am an apprentice conspiracy theorist. I haven’t quite gotten the nuances of prooving these crackpot theories yet, but I can give some awesome bullshit about the government, giant lizards and everything in between.”

  6. Well this is all very encouraging.

    Koraly, you’re only a poet while you’re in the act of writing a poem, same as any other occupation. Sadly, in my case, that’s almost all my waking time. Most of money comes from poetry too – scholarship+verse novel=main source of income.

    Alec, much as I’ve tried to give them up, all my friends are musicians who’d never pass as writers.

  7. A friend posted this, which is sort of relevant to how one describes oneself in the Arts without sounding wanky.
    “I’ve informally noticed that the social acceptability of ‘talking oneself up’ varies greatly between countries – from the USA, where moderate self-praise is standard social currency, to the UK, where it is only acceptable when followed by a self-deprecating comment or joke, to Sweden where it is only acceptable when one is threatened by armed men or the future of the world hangs in the balance.”
    It’s from:
    I think Oz follows the UK but we have to learn to call a ‘spade a spade’. I got into heaps of trouble from some US guy a few weeks back because of a self-deprecating comment – he thought I was insulting his compliment.
    Of course, if you announced you were the world’s greatest living poet and an intergalactic treasure, perhaps you might empty the room.

  8. You could try paraphrasing Keats:

    ‘Heard Poets are sweet, but those unheard
    Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft bongs, play on.’

    I’m sure it would leave an enduring memory – maybe a broken nose or a lunatic sending flowers daily.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>