The Poet Scout

I would love to be able to sincerely express embarrassment that I am about to open with an account of a dream I had. However, even a cursory glance at my twitter account would make it clear that I hardly hesitate to share dreams publicly, so I will have to dispense with disingenuous apologies and get to the point.

I had a dream the other night that I was working at a bookshop when someone came in and asked where to find the literary journals of local colleges. This was, apparently, a section that existed in the shop, and while I showed him the way, he explained that he was a poet scout looking to make some new discoveries. 

I woke up utterly charmed by the idea: a poet scout! Of course, the charm lies in the counterfactual: we do not live in a world where the economics of the poetry market generate a need for such a person as a travelling poetry scout (a phrase I pronounce in my mind with a lilt to match the “travelling poetry bag” from my favorite Fry & Laurie sketch). And what do you do with a good counterfactual, but play pretend!

I think this would make a lovely reading project for a reader of any age or level of experience with the reading of poetry. In fact, it may be particularly fruitful as a route into reading poetry for people who simply don’t. Goodness knows it is probably the majority of us nowadays who do not read poetry, and I’m afraid that part of the barrier to entry is a perception of inaccessibility around the poetry world. While much poetry does reference other poetry, and it is true that the more you read, the more you enjoy the reading, taking on the figure of the poetry scout would allow any reader to center their own reading experience rather than anxieties about approaching the labyrinthine world of poets.

Here’s the reading project I propose: imagine you are a poet scout, on the lookout for poetry that stirs something in you. It doesn’t matter where you find it - you could try chapbooks on sale for a couple of dollars at craft fairs or local crystal shops, or you could sit a while with Poetry magazine at the local library (I also recommend their Poetry Mobile app, which allows you to spin themes and find new poems). Since we’re playing pretend, it really doesn’t matter if the poet you find is, in reality, fully “discovered” already. What you’re scouting for is a poet who speaks to you, whose use of figurative language resonates with your emotional experience of the world, whose account of unfamiliar experiences opens new pathways in your mind, or whose application of consonants feels like a warm and glowing campfire evening or a bright and candy-pink sunrise in your brain. Working out what you’re looking for is part of the fun. 

What comes next is the best part: it’s a self-regenerating reading project! Once you’ve discovered a poet, you can find more of their work to read. There is a good chance you will enjoy your poet’s books, if they have published some, but you should also seek them out in other journals (back-issues are often available for a discount if you’re hunting down a specific poem from a past year). You can continue to scout through the journals this leads you to, and you should also try reading interviews with poets you like, who will generally mention other poets you might find worth reading. If you’d like, you can go down a whole rabbit-hole reading essays on poetry, reading the poems and the poets that they reference, and then reading essays written by those poets. Or, if you’re not as big of a lit crit fan as I am, just stick with the poetry.

There is always plenty of poetry to read, and the beauty of reading this way is that you don’t have to worry about whether you are a “good enough” reader. In this reading project, your reading experience is the whole point, and the criterion for choosing further reading is just a certain feeling in your gut. Happy reading!