How I Started in Poetry

Above is a still from my poetry performance of “This body is (not) a virus” for the Human Rights Campaign during AAPI Heritage Month published on May 10th, 2021.

How did I have my poetry in the Human Rights Campaign, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Asian American Writer’s Workshop, the Rumpus, and read aloud in the Slowdown by U.S. poet laureate Ada Limón??? So you’re a poet hopeful or yearning to write? Let me share my journey…

Where it all began

Back in middle school, I was obsessed with Sarah Kay’s work. I remember watching her TED talk in class and wanting to BE her. There was a way in which she was moving her audience through language that I wanted desperately to embody. I tried to get involved with spaces like Get Lit’s Saturday drop-in classes but my mother didn’t have the time to drive me and didn’t trust me to take the public bus on my own. So it wasn’t until college that I had an opportunity to learn alongside other poets in a workshop setting.

I have to credit Matthew Cuban and Alyesha Wise who offered me a scholarship to take a class in their poetry series called the Spoken Literature Art Movement (S.L.A.M.) back in the fall of 2019. It was there for the first time that I had a chance to seriously engage my work in a performance and writing class. I remember that class helped me find a community of poets in L.A. and I was so inspired seeing the other people of color and queer folks who were unapologetically speaking their words aloud.

The pandemic hit

Then as I was just starting to lean into a physical community the pandemic hit. I remember that the last physical in-person gathering was an open mic at the Fox Trot Cafe (sadly now closed) in Long Beach at the Definitive Soapbox.

That summer I returned to my childhood home to live with my parents in the San Gabriel Valley. I thought for sure that I would start to go insane so I turned back to poetry as an escape and means to process what it was like being home again. I started taking online workshops obsessively.

Summer of 2020 I took no less than at least four different workshop series and was taking a class at least once a week. I didn’t realize this but I created a pandemic writing residency shuttered at home and consistently took at least one poetry class a week.

Amongst the places where I was learning was the UCLA Extension program with Sebha Sewar, Kundiman with George Abraham, Youth Speaks and Get Lit with various teaching artists, and then various sundry one-time workshops across different platforms where I took several free generative writing workshops with Safia Elhillo.

Submitting to places

At that time I realized that my writing was getting stronger and so I started doing what any serious writer does which is, I began to submit to different places. I don’t remember how it was that I started submitting poems, but I recall reading the work of my favorite poets and paying attention to where they were being published.

After much trial and error, I noticed that certain magazines liked certain aesthetics of poetry and that I would have success submitting specific works that aligned with those editors’ preferences.

For example, DIAGRAM distinguishes itself as a place that publishes poetry that takes on unconventional and inventive forms.

Maybe the only hard rule around submitting your work is to make sure that you keep track of your simultaneous submissions in some sort of document so that when you get accepted you can let other publications know a piece is no longer available to be considered. 

I also strongly believe you should be paid as a writer when you’re getting published and that as you’re starting that rate might be low but it does get better as you become a stronger writer. I’ve been paid from nothing to $250 for a published piece of poetry online. And when you’re starting a lot of places will consider your work for free and while I was a broke college student, that helped a lot. 

Finding my voice

But above all else, reading is what truly helped me grow my writing into a strong discipline. Without reading I wouldn’t have been able to identify forms of poetry that I liked and disliked, I wouldn’t be able to have a discerning eye on my work. And reading widely helped me understand that my poetry didn’t exist in a vacuum and that there were other writers that I was in conversation.

Reading also helped me understand the expansive possibilities of rhythm and rhyme in language. I didn’t need to abide by the strict rules of a Shakespearean sonnet, I could also invent new forms myself.

As an Asian American writer, I think in many ways, learning outside of an MFA program helped me center myself in the western canon. I was learning and reading from most writers of color and I didn’t feel alienated as I was looking towards examples of who had come before. There were poets like Franny Choi, Danez Smith, Tonya Ingram, and Hanif Abdurraqib, all of whom I deeply admire and wanted to model my work after.


I was very fortunate that as my craft continued to grow, people who read my work advocated for it along the way. To this day, I feel that my breakout piece was a prose poem, “Queeranteen Sermon” published in the flash fiction section of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop The Margins. Swati Khurana, the editor, had taken a class with me online with George Abraham and I don’t recall how the conversation started but she had me talk with Yi Wei, another amazing poet and assistant flash fiction editor, who edited my piece to make it publish-ready.

I hate to sound cliché but I couldn’t find many of these early opportunities without the support of my peers. I was connected to the Human Rights Campaign through Youth Speaks, Tonya Ingram was curating the Poetry in Color Series at LACMA, and Brian Sonia-Wallace recruited me as a Pride Poet to write poems at the Getty. The list goes on and on.

In many ways, your friends are the biggest proponents of your work, they’re the ones who hype you up and share it and try to push opportunities your way. And once you’ve established a reputation, the quality of your work speaks for itself and folks start to reach out to you directly about performances, panels, and other writing engagements.

I also was a recipient of multiple scholarships that made it possible for me to take workshops and classes. Most recently I was a Brooklyn Poets fellow last fall and a scholarship recipient of the Key West Literary Writing Seminar in January which is how I got to learn with poets Rosebud Ben-Oni and Tyehimba Jess. I otherwise wouldn’t have the money to shell out hundreds to take these craft classes. I really encourage you to seek out scholarships and grant opportunities for you to get financial aid.

I haven’t really made money but that’s ok (because it wasn’t my goal)

All in all, this was a very windy road, filled with a lot of blessings and joy. I think that if I had gone into poetry the expectation that I would someday become published and famous that might have taken the joy out of the work that sustained me.

Poetry isn’t known to be a lucrative career, most of us don’t get the chance to make it big (unless you’re like my sweet friend who won one of the biggest poetry awards and was able to buy a mortgage for a house). So I tend to look at this discipline with rose-tinted glasses and say it’s an art form outside of capitalistic tendencies.

That doesn’t mean you can’t make money as a poet though. Some of us find ways to monetize this art as folks are realizing that poets have a powerful way to convey messages through language. You might end up starring in an advertisement or writing copy for a company or using your performance skills to transfer toward acting. I get invited to do typewriter poetry for different events and while some folks might charge more for custom poetry, I make it donation based at public events. I usually end up getting paid around $13 to $25 an hour when you break it down. There are rare poets like Rupi Kaur who get invited to speak on late-night shows, and who have performance deals with Amazon Prime, but the majority of us don’t make it like that.

A lot of serious poets become teachers (though not all are good at it) and can work up to getting a tenured professorship at an English or Creative Writing program at a university. Around two years ago I started running poetry workshops with the artist collective Level Ground called “Blooming in the Whirlwind”. That online class is no longer running, but I still occasionally teach in-person workshops at different spaces throughout L.A. like Junior High.

I don’t know if I’ve achieved mainstream success (and I’m not sure if I want to) but that’s ok. I’ve published a small chapbook “The Purpose of All Things” which has some of my best poetry in the past three years alongside pictures that I took over the pandemic. I’m very proud of my work and that’s what matters. I’m writing for my friends and community and have a very clear understanding of what my purpose is.

I think that in a few years, I’m hoping to publish a full-length collection that wins a publishing deal with a small press that I admire like Alice James Books. I want to have enough poetry cred that I can continue to run my little workshops and apply for fellowships and writing retreats to improve my craft.

Where you can start

I’ve linked some resources in this post but I also have some other things you can check out under the creative writing menu on Beyond the MFA. There are plenty of writing workshops you can take online and organizations that specifically support writers of color like Kundiman, Cave Canem, and CantoMundo. There are regular online workshops through places like Roots. Wounds. Words. It’s all about finding a group that will help you nurture your craft. If you don’t live in L.A. and can’t access the physical workshops that I’ve listed, I encourage you to google local open mics in your area. You’ll be sure to find local writers and poets there that you can start writing with or ask where they find classes and resources.

My best advice for you is to simply just go for it. Start reading and find what you like. Then start writing and ask yourself if you like what you’re writing. It’s ok if you don’t at first. Most of us (and I did) struggle for years to get our writing better and then we maybe like it half the time. But the more you write, it’s like working out at the gym and building those muscles. Simple exercises become easier. Suddenly it’s really simple for you to put together the scansion in your structured rhyme scheme and syllables of a pantoum. Years down the road you’ll be amazed that poets you once admired from afar are now some of your best friends.

It’s not a straight or necessarily easy path learning to write good poetry, but it’s like hiking in the woods, feeling out of breath as you’re admiring the beautiful scenery around you. Good luck friend!

Wishing you a fruitful writing journey,

Jireh 😘

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