How to Read Like a (21st Century) Poet

04/17/2015 05:02 pm ET | Updated Jun 17, 2015

A lot of times (okay, six times so far) a friend or acquaintance will reach out in an email and ask some sort of variation along the lines of this question: "Josh, I would also like to write and publish my poetry -- how can I go about doing that?"

If I'm short for time, or the baseball game is about to start, I'll usually just reply and say, "you have to read a lot, and that will help you become a better writer." But in honor of National Poetry Month, I thought I might take you on a tour through my own daily reading habits -- more and more of which are occurring online, for better or worse -- and I thought this might also be an opportune time to reflect on just how much the vast Internet literasphere has impacted and shifted what it means to be a modern day poetry practitioner.

Before I begin, I'll add in this caveat, that I am just one person, and this is just one particular person's daily Internet-ing, and that everyone is so different, and has their own system in place. And what works for one person may not work for another; you alone know what kind of reading experiences (and life experiences!) will excite and/or move you. But I do think you have to read, to become a (better) poet; and I do think the Internet can provide some remarkable avenues to do said reading.

So, I start off each day with three websites: The Poetry Foundation,, and Coldfront.

The Poetry Foundation is the online home for the organization of the same name, which is run out of Chicago, and is best known as the publisher of Poetry Magazine. Each day, on the right side of the front page, there's a new daily poem. I read the new one every day. On this same page, under the Features tab, there is a link to their Harriet blog, which is a very well-curated and constantly updated running blog, highlighting stories, articles, reviews, and other poetry-related news items. I'll check these out too, and if there's something there that peaks my interest, I'll follow the link to that article (which is a great way to then learn about even more literary websites, which I'll get to shortly). is the online wing of the Academy of American Poets, and also has a daily poem, which changes each day. They publish contemporary poets on Mon-Fri, and classic poets on the weekends. I'll read this too, every day. (You can get this sent to you as an email each day, but for whatever reason, I haven't yet signed up for that - I like to go to the website instead. Though I do have other emails coming in, which I will also get to shortly).

And Coldfront Magazine is a poetry publication, I believe it's based out of New York, and over on the right side at the top of their homepage, they will feature a link to a poem in any wide variety of online Internet journals and publications. So I'll usually click on that, and take it in.

What's going on in these three daily visitations is this: I'm trying to wake up my own inner poet, and feed him examples of other people who have successfully played around with words. Now, it would be foolish and silly to suggest that I respond favorably and with great gusto to each and every poem that I'm taking in -- in fact, a lot of times, I'm not yet responding, either because these particular works aren't resonating for me, for whatever reason, or, perhaps my mind is elsewhere -- but at the very least, I'm trying to give him (my inner poet) an appetizing taste, to see if anything bites, and to see if he wants to begin to make something of his own...maybe a certain theme will trigger a thought, or maybe a particular sonic rhythm or wordplay will excite him, and, we'll want to copy or riff off of that.

As mentioned, there are also emails coming in around this time. I get Garrison Keillor's The Writer's Almanac email each day, which features a poem, along with historical anecdotes about famous writers, artists, historians, etc., that were born or died on that particular day. So again, I read the poem, and I usually make sure that I read the anecdotes as well, to see if anything sets off a brainstorm from there. And lately, I'm now receiving The Literary Hub's daily email as well, which provides links to various stories and articles about writers, writing, etc.

Backing up a bit, the reason I like to include Coldfront in my daily reading, along with those other, more established and more well-known poetry websites, is because Coldfront will often showcase a journal or publication that I'm not yet familiar with, or, remind me of a publication that I've previously read, and, to whom I might want to submit my own work, especially if I find that the poets which this particular magazine or journal are publishing share some sort of sensibility or affinity with my own stuff.

To that end, one of the best things that can occur is what I'll call the Google Binge, and I'm sure you know what it is (it could also be called, the Google Stalk!). This is when you read someone's poem or article, and you are so inspired or moved by it, that you then search the writer out via Google, to see what else he or she has published. Doing so is a great way to learn more about a particular writer, but moreover, it can also lead you to a lot of interesting locations and journals, and, that's pretty much the best way to (a) get a sense of where work is being published, that you personally respond to, and (b) acclimate yourself more to the online literary scene. For example, if you read a poem by the poet Jenny Zhang (I have done this), and you're like, that was amazing, and so then you Google her and go read her work in all these different venues (I have done this too), you might linger a bit longer at one of those venues, and get a better sense of what it is that they are up to, in that particular venue, and even go so far as to submit your own work. And your letter might say, "Hi, I'm sending in some of my work for your consideration. I was peeking around on your website, and I really responded to Jenny Zhang's piece, as well as the one by Monica McClure, and it made me want to send my own stuff along too." Look at you! You are becoming a professional poet!

In addition, by doing this, the editors at the journal will probably appreciate your submission a little bit more, because you have read some of their past work and familiarized yourself with their particular content...and you, too, can feel good about yourself, since you're not just carpet-bombing websites that you don't know anything about, and asking them to read your work (or sending an email to your friend Josh asking, how do I become a poet, when he doesn't have time to answer because the game is about to start).

So that's sort of my start-of-the-morning routine. Around this time, a voice in my head speaks up and says, "hey man, this is all starting to feel very insular -- let's pay attention to what's going on in the world! That's where the poems are meant to be birthed, anyhow! Get me out of this too-too-enclosed literary prison!" At which point, I go and do a tour of the news, and for me that includes The New York Times, New York Magazine, and The New Yorker. (I'm a little afraid that this makes me sound like a snobby New Yorker, but, I'll simply have to deal with that). I think, as a writer -- or really, as a citizen -- it's important to take a daily tour of a reliable news source, to see what's going on in the world, and in particular, in your own world. If you live in New Orleans, for example, I hope you've made it a habit to peruse The Times-Picayune, which incidentally, is the best-named newspaper in the nation.

I definitely take in the Book-related coverage on these news sites, but I make sure that I cover other topics as well: food, politics, and certainly world news. Sometimes it can feel a little depressing, to read yet another ISIS-related story, but even if my poet just wants to write another love poem to a young woman we collectively met recently, I want him to know that he is doing so against the backdrop of tremendous brutality and suffering, which is occurring regularly in another corner of the world (or, if you're black, maybe right here at home?). Reading about what's going on in the world is a way to tell my poet: you can go ahead and write about a girl, or the trees, or how the girls or the trees are making you feel forlorn... but I don't want you to forget how lucky you are, that you are free, and able to do so.

Sometimes, for sheer juxtaposition pleasure, I will read the headlines at our very own Huffington Post, and then go read the headlines at Fox News. It's remarkable how varied the headlines can be, even when covering the same story, e.g., the latest potential of a nuclear agreement with Iran was (kind of) covered like this: HuffPost: PEACE WITHIN REACH? Fox News: THE ROAD TO HELL.

And then at this point, with the taste of the world's catastrophes in my mouth, I take a much-needed sports break, and head over to ESPN, to see the box scores, and watch highlights, and make sure that the Detroit Tigers are still in first place (which, as of this typing, they are).

If nothing that I've taken in has yet triggered a desire to start my own writing, I'll go to my next round of Internet sites. I'll hit up Gawker and Deadspin, or maybe The Awl, for news, sports, and media coverage with a slight edge to it. If I'm looking for more literary content, I'll go to The Rumpus, The Millions, or this new one, Real Pants, which has a lot of interesting content about poetry and poetry publishing.

(A parenthetical moment is required: I'm not going to be able to list all of the fantastic literary websites out there, and I'm getting nervous that by leaving off certain ones I'm not making them feel included, or welcome to the party. Not true! There's and EntropyMag, and, I mean, I could just do this all day... what I'm trying to do in this article is (a) provide a certain starting point, for those looking to get into the online lit world, and (b) take you through one particular person's habits. But if you are one of the editors at one of the magazines that I am forgetting to include, let me just say, I've been to your site, you are doing yeoman's work, and we all really appreciate it).

Of course I'm leaving out an entirely vast source of influence, and that would be social media -- for me, that's Facebook, and Twitter. Scrolling the feeds on either of these sites provides me with a feast of various poems, articles, and content -- especially because, at this point, I'm 'friends' with a number of different poets and writers, and I follow poetry magazines and publications as well. So when they tweet or share their latest content, I usually (as much as I can) make my way over to those links, to see what's going on, and again, to see if anything inspires or stirs me up, to make more work of my own.

If you are thinking to yourself, this all sounds laborious, or like a tremendous amount of work...well, feel free to have that response -- that's totally allowed! There are so many ways to go about reading in this great new century of ours. You can opt out of all this online nonsense, and take yourself to the bookstore, or the library. Or hell, you don't even have to read any of this at all! Go to another section of The Huffington Post, and enjoy yourself! I think they have a whole section dedicated to nip slips -- get out of here, and go check that out instead! (And send me the link?!)

But I think often of that Aristotle quote (which, I don't want to present as an academic or intellectual, since I'm not -- this is pretty much the only quote of Aristotle's that I know), and it goes, "We are what we repeatedly do." So to me, it doesn't feel like a chore to read all this content, and to see how it spurs my own literary musings as a result; instead, it feels like my job...and not the one that pays me, but rather, the one that I claim for myself, and the one that I love. I love reading all this content, and I love to feed my inner poet and watch him take in all these various ingredients and make his own strange stew.

A thesis statement: you're not a writer because you got a graduate level degree in it, or because you teach it at a university, as either an adjunct or a tenured professor. The truth: if you are regularly reading and writing, then you're a writer. And if you're not, you're not.

Okay...but Josh, you might be thinking, don't you read books? You know, actual, real, published n' printed books? And to that I would say, I do...but if I'm being honest -- which I'm aiming to be -- I would have to acquiesce that these days, more and more of the reading that I personally am doing comes from the Internet. This might a side effect of sitting at a desk in front of a computer all day long (my dayjob is as a legal secretary). Maybe if I was a librarian, things would be different... although I was a librarian once, in college, and I got fired for sleeping in the stacks. Hold on; we're getting off track.

My point is, for a while I felt ashamed that I wasn't reading as many books as I felt I should be reading, as a burgeoning and practicing writer. But lately, I've decided to stop beating myself up about this -- although that might be the Lexapro working -- and simply told myself, hey, you're doing a good job reading a lot, each day. In fact, you're reading now more than you ever have before. It's a different kind of reading, sure... but y'know what? Let's not judge it. Let's just, keep reading! And writing.

And maybe on Sundays, we can have a no Internet policy? adds the voice. And we can just, sink into the work of one particular person, by way of their book, and curl up on the futon and read like we used to do, with a mug of tea, and a scone of some sort? That's actually a pretty good idea. I'm thinking about committing to that. Because as much fun as all this literary 'research' provides, there is still the unparalleled pleasure of sitting down with one writer's voice, far away from the dings and pings of the Internet, and letting their work envelope you, and wash over you like a wave.

Anyways, I think I've said enough here, for a starting point. I haven't even begun to talk about the rest of life, and how it too triggers and propels the inner poet to make more work...I mean, there are art museums, and state fairs, and rocks that look like buttcracks, and long highway drives to the country with a new lover and the taste of hope in your mouth, there's bickering over the electric bill, and ISIS, and short, there's the world, and your life within that world, and the way it all makes you feel as it continues to unfold. But I think that while everyone has these feelings and's the poets who aim (and fail, but keep aiming all the same) to get them down accurately into words. To do so effectively, it's truly in your best interest to read how others have done so before you. As a vast and endless tool, the Internet can definitely assist with that.

Or y'know what? Just Google Pablo Neruda.

Oh crap, the game's starting... gotta go!