From Bland to The Bollingen Prize: 5 Ways to Make Your Poetry Stand Out in a Crowd Without Using a Flame-Accelerant

If you write a poem, there’s no one else more passionate about seeing it succeed than you. That’s why you’re the ideal person to do the work of actually writing it.

But it’s not easy, is it? What can you do to craft your poems so they’re unforgettable? How can you make your poem the first one that comes to mind when someone fitting the demographic profile of your target reader is thinking of a poem?

The route to memorability is not paved with bland poetry efforts, that’s for sure. Nor is it paved with bright, multi-colored asphalt featuring extra large cave drawings of elk or bison in nicely contrasting colors. This does not create memorability – this creates traffic jams!

Here’s how to create an unforgettable poem for your readers. Follow these five steps, and you’ll be on your way from bland to The Bollingen Prize, and if not The Bollingen Prize, then at least an unforgettable outlier outside a Bollinger band.

Target Targets Fearlessly

In order to craft memorable words and images that will resonate with the people you want to reach, you have to know who they are. Sounds simple, doesn’t it?

The problem with this simple statement is that most poets are not clairvoyant, and those who are clairvoyant (such as Hannah Weiner) have only limited clairvoyance – totally inadequate for placing consistent winning bets on greyhound races or compiling detailed demographic information of a target readership group. Most poets also lack access to the type of technology, databases, and other high-tech gizmos used by the FBI in procedural crime dramas or televised serials focused on counter-terrorism efforts.

And yet, poets don’t want to give up a single potential reader – as there are so few to begin with! So they cast a wide net with their poems, which when thrown into the ocean dissolve into tiny bits of floating matter enticing to fish – but harmful to some species.

They try to target a broad range of ages; genders; reading levels; comprehension levels; apprehension levels; familiarities with deciduous or perennial vegetation; comfort-levels with parachuting, bungee-jumping or other extreme sports; and knowledge of good geographic areas to dump a body.

If you market a poetry product with a massive potential market, that’s a great approach. But I’m willing to bet money that Billy Collins isn’t reading this blog.

This blog is for poets with small (and getting smaller) readerships, who are creating poetry products that will solve the poetry problems (“I’m so hungry! Give me poem!”) of a specific group of very special people looking for extra special poems (pickles optional).

Think about who those people are, and don’t be afraid to focus on them to the exclusion of other potential readers, your immediate or extended family, friends, squirrels, wookies, giraffes, talking yardsticks and members of law enforcement.

Your syntactical, structural, metrical, lingual and pottie-break strategies will become tightly focused, and – more importantly – your potential readers will know your poem is perfect for them, even without having to place a sticker over top reading “This is poem is just perfect for you – you know who your are.”

Listen to Popular Opinion and Then Listen Again to Make Sure It’s Not Really Saying “Please Smother My Oxen in Cream Cheese”

Once you know who you’re trying to reach, it’s time to listen to what they want. Your poem won’t work if you forge ahead with your vision, blind to what your ideal reader actually desires (Homer, notwithstanding).

So ask good questions, and listen even better to the answers, then ask the answers even more questions and their answers questions and so on until you have ALL the answers – which only gets you so far (see Dick Cheney, preferably when he’s not holding a gun)

So how can you get inside their heads to find out what they want? And do it in a manner that is sensitive to privacy concerns and realistic about the feasibility of miniaturization and inner-cranial-micro-organic-tourism? Try these techniques:

Take a few readers out to lunch and ask them about their poetry needs and challenges. If you find several of them attractive and appealing, invite them all to dinner and try to have an orgy.

Create a survey, and offer a valuable giveaway (see “Sweeten the Deal: Getting High-Fructose Corn Syrupy on Their Asses!” below) in exchange for information that would be helpful in creating your reader-focused poem or in tracking down wanted fugitives from justice (Did you know: “Bounty hunter” is the 2nd most popular profession among poets).

Schedule phone time with some of your readers. Ask them directly how you can help them help you help them by writing and delivering exactly the right poem at the right time both anytime or all the time. If they begin heavy breathing unrelated to asthma, work to angle them into joining the lunch-dinner-orgy group (see above).

Tune in to WKDU-FM or WII-FM-NR-WII-FM?

Do you listen to college radio or marginal, niche music which would not appeal to hardcore viewers of American Idol and be merely incidental to viewers of hardcore pornography? You should. It’s required listening if you are creating poetry, as poetry is the music of the spheres once the spheres have lost their bearings and the last musician has been crushed.

WII-FM-NR-WII-FM, is – of course – What’s In It For Me? No Really, What’s In It For Me?

When you sit down to write a poem, this question should be playing in the background at all times – but playing nicely (i.e. no trading of kicks to the genitals or Russian Roulette). Why? Because your poetry efforts will only be meaningful and memorable if you’ve addressed what benefits your poem provides to readers and then manage to deliver the poem to that address in a discrete, unmarked envelope.

You’d better be able to answer that question, because believe me – your target reader is asking it and sharpening the blade on a Bowie knife and will not be denied your heart, liver, or other internal organs if you fail to deliver the goods!

Sweeten the Deal : Getting High Fructose Corn Syrupy on Their Asses!

An unforgettable poem is namely that – unforgettable. How does a poem become unforgettable? Unforgetablity it is built through repeated exposure. Unforgetablity it is built through repeated exposure. Unforgetablity it is built through repeated exposure. No matter how amazing your poem is, people won’t remember it if they’ve read it or heard it only once. They can’t: they’re processing all the other poems being thrown at them wrapped tightly around baseballs (see last week’s column, “Roger Clemons’ Advice to a Young Poet”).

The way to open a channel of repetitious, continuous communication where you can keep the poem exposure high and the poem hammering at them constantly over time to the point where they can do nothing but repeat your poem in answer to simple questions like “Can I get you coffee, sugar?” or “By any chance, have you traveled to a foreign country recently where canines are routinely consumed?” is to get your readers onto a mailing list.

Email software (i.e. the tiny people who work inside of computers) allows you to capture information (either by force or unconditional surrender), continue to offer exposure to your poem, and build a relationship (consensual and/or sensual) with readers before they get a restraining order.

That sounds great, but there’s one important caveat: no one really wants more email in their inbox or inmail in their e-box or any of it in their botox. In order to rent space in potential customers’ inboxes, you not only need a signed lease, you’ve got to sweeten the deal with a giveaway they won’t be able to resist despite all known negative behavior modification techniques and mother’s constant warnings not to take candy from strangers.

What can you give away?

Try a delicious free pie-filling you drip out every few days by email autoresponder. Set it and forget it: once you’ve created those emails with pie-filling attached in the appropriate container (one that doesn’t get trapped in their spam filter and leak all over the place – yuk!) and set them up in your email software, your work is done.

Offer a special series of collectors plates featuring you holding an American flag, rolls of crepe paper or a buyer’s guide for all-purpose sand. Solve a crossword puzzle, or create a list of poets by their imagined heights your that your target readers will find valuable.

Offer audio or video with valuable poetic information. Give people access to a solution they’re looking for – whether it’s a simple gin and tonic, insulin or an IV-drip with 10 CC’s of Heparin (be sure to let them choose Audrey or Katherine). Demonstrate how you made the solution on video, or describe it with audio accompanied by a hand puppet they can wear and make it recite to them in sync with the audio.

All in Good Time is a Good Time Had by All

The poetry strategy that’s rarely spoken about – and should be used as a last resort if none of the above work – is blackmail or extortion. Shhh. You didn’t read that here.


Remember, these techniques only work when you apply them vigorously in a counter-clockwise, circular rubbing motion.

Continually refine your information about your target reader until it will easily pass through a camel stuck in the eye of a needle.

Listen closely to what readers want out of your poem (and if applicable, out of their group-sex encounters).

Make sure your poem clearly answers the “What’s In It For Me? No Really, What’s In It For Me?” question.

Keep lines of communication constant by inviting readers to join your mailing list, and make joining irresistible to all known means of resistance with an offer they can’t refuse (leave the poem; take the cannoli).

Bland to The Bollingen Prize doesn’t happen overnight, but it can be done, even by you. Especially by you! If not by you, then who? Ted Kooser?

Last night, I started reading Charles Bernstein’s new book “Attack of the Difficult Poems“, which begins with an absolutely hilarious satirical piece on reading “difficult” poetry that uses the tone and phrasing of a self-help column.

This morning (4/20/11) I got an email from one of my favorite sites in my real life as a marketer – Pamela Wilson’s – containing a really great marketing advice column entitled “From Bland to Brand: 5 Ways to Make Your Business Stand Out in a Crowd.” For some reason I stared replacing the word “business” with “poem” and the piece kind of took off from there.

The original piece is here.

I mean no disrespect to Pamela Wilson in appropriating the piece in this manner and encourage anyone with an interest in Marketing and Design (and the critical interplay and intersection of each) to check out her site (, sign up for her ABSOLUTELY TERRIFIC (and free!) “Design 101” email course, and benefit from her really great marketing insights.

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