How Poets Make a Living

Written by Caitlin Jans | July 18, 2017

At a garden party in Brooklyn years ago, someone stopped me, and asked me what I did. At the time I was in a Master’s of Fine Art program focusing on Poetry, I would graduate that spring with an MFA in Poetry. So I told the stranger that and he aksed “how do a poets make a living?”

I did not have an easy answer. Instead I turned the tables and asked what the questioner did. It turns out that you can make a living as a puppeteer in New York City.

I make my living running Authors Publish. I, like most poets, make my living outside of poetry, but what many poets do for pay is outside of writing entirely. In this article I am going to focus on how poets from various eras and backgrounds make their living,  just so you get an idea of how wide the range is.

In preparation for this article I Googled “How poets make a living” and the first answer was “Greeting Cards.” That could not be further from the truth.

There are very few poets historically and currently that made their living writing poetry (or greeting cards). W.H. Auden paid most of his bills through various teaching posts at universities, and the same is true for most established contemporary poets, Mary Ruefle, Mark Doty (he has also written a bestselling memoir), D.A. Powell, James Galvin, and any number of other well known living poets make their living this way. Many graduates of MFA programs and Creative writing PhD programs follow similar paths, even though many lesser teaching positions do not pay well.

But there are still of options outside of teaching. Matthew Dickman, an established contemporary poet, describes himself as a freelancer, but he also is the poetry editor for one of the most prestigious literary journals Tin House. It is very common for poets to make their living as editors and publishers in one way or another. Sometimes cobbling together jobs out of freelance work.

Saeed Jones, the author of Prelude to a Bruise, is the executive editor of culture for BuzzFeed. Morgan Parker the author of There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyonce has largely worked at Museums to pay her bills.

William Carlos Williams was a doctor who was also a poet, and he was successfully both. Peter Pereira a physician, has published several books of poetry over the course of the last decade.

Phillip Larkin was a librarian, T.S. Elliot worked at a bank, Wallace Stevens was an executive at an insurance agency. Richard Hugo worked for Boeing.

Poets have done all sorts of things to pay the bills, and they will likely continue to do them. I think the key is to pick a job that does not destroy your creative spirit. One that still allows you and maybe even encourages you to write when you are not working.


Caitlin Jans is a poet, a novelist, and the editor of Authors Publish Magazine. Her writing can be found in The Conium Review, The Moth, Labletter, Literary Mama, and elsewhere. You can follow her on Facebook.