When I was a student in a Master’s program, I found I’d been accepted into a prestigious program for fiction and had also gotten a fellowship at another brand new program in poetry. I went to my professors, begging for advice. It seemed to me the first time in my life I faced such a big decision and actually had multiple good options, rather than a series of lesser evils. I went to my major poetry professor and asked him what I should do and he said, “You should be the first person to turn down the Prestigious Program,” and he did make that sound appealing. I went to my major fiction professor and he said, “The question is really simple: Do you ever want to make money from your writing?” His implication was clear: everyone knows poets don’t make money. But then, literary fiction writers (with those rare and bewildering exceptions) rarely make all that much either.
I’d like to say that at that moment I thought of the donor of a small prize I’d won earlier. She was a little old lady who wished to remain anonymous but the faculty made sure I got to meet her. She told me about how she’d met Robert Frost when she was an undergraduate, that she had picked him up at the airport for a reading at the school, and how kind and gracious he had been to her. That was one of her main reasons for funding the award. I was very grateful to her (and to Robert Frost for being so civil, so unlike the more common model for poets). The prize allowed me to buy a printer and some books, all of which I still have and rely upon.
But I didn’t think of that. I based my decision largely upon the fact that the Prestigious Program wouldn’t allow me to take poetry workshops while I was there but the new program was happy to let me continue working in both. Now I think about that moment pretty often, particularly when I think about how poets and poetry can survive in a market economy.
One of my good friends confessed me to recently that until she’d met me she thought poetry was dead (not that I’m convincing evidence for liveliness, but I refer from time to time to a culture of poetry). This neighbor is a reader, and a reader of literary books, so her assessment made me feel glum. Of course the body of poetry has been pronounced dead many times by many different people, but eventually belief can cause a thing to be true, can’t it?
I just finished reading The Gift by Lewis Hyde, a book originally published over thirty years ago. In it, Hyde talks about the importance of gift economies—how a gift circulates and is meant to keep circulating in a group, and how artists fit into the gift economy (we think of artists as “gifted” and in turn when their work survives, attains the stature of real (vs. commercial) art, it seems like a gift; in other words, it begins to seem like something that would be nearly impossible to consider as a simple commodity). But the trouble is, of course, that we don’t live in a gift economy—that we must pay for housing and food and health care and clothes—and so if we spend our time creating “gifts,” how are we to survive?
Right now it seems that there are four answers to this question and that most poets use one or all three to make ends (more or less) meet:
- Teach. Academia offers regular pay and usually health care. The problem is that the really good jobs, the ones with manageable course loads and are located in places you would truly enjoy living, are rare and becoming more so. I can only speak to the situation in America, but here it is getting more grim by the day. Cuts have been made to higher education in every state save two and the emphasis has switched from education (read “critical thinking”) to instruction (read “skills industry is seeking”). Poetry has long been an uneasy guest in the classroom, and perhaps escaping from it will have some beneficial effects in the long term. In the short term, desperate poets grow more desperate.
- Win awards. There are a number of them available, but never enough to go around, of course. In The Gift, Hyde talks about Ezra Pound, an odious man but important poet, and how the only money he made from poetry was a pittance in royalties and a prize of $2000. It’s hard not to think of how unfair this system is—that a poet becomes valued after death and that so many poems were not written because poets were so busy pulling ends as hard as they could.
- Make money from your books. Okay, stop laughing.
- Work an unrelated job or two and write in your “spare time.”
I think we should try to save our educational system (for reasons mostly unrelated to poetry) and to fund it as vigorously as we can. I also believe in awards, from the government, foundations, and philanthropists. These awards offer not only material support, but an affirmation of the work that can keep the poet working (and giving). I also believe that working a job outside of the field of poetry can be wonderful—and for many people it makes a lot of sense.
But all of this looks at the question from perhaps the wrong way round: after all, the question isn’t really how should poets be paid, but rather how we should pay for poetry. And I believe a really important aspect of that is that “we” should do it—not that we should convince an agency or a foundation or a wealthy patron to do it, but that we should each begin to take on this responsibility, so that we as people can begin to believe in poetry again and to help it live, and so it can help us live.
We could do this by creating awards (if we have the money) or by buying as many poetry books as we can. The problem with the first is that most awards involve, by necessity, a formal process that takes considerable time both on the part of the grantor and the potential grantees (only one or a handful of which will realize any return for that effort). The problem with the second is that we are often buying something before we can be convinced of its value. Perhaps you have seen the poet read and liked her work and so bought the book, in which case you are making an informed (and fairly rare) purchase. And another problem is that many of the people who attend readings are either students or poets, both with notoriously small disposable incomes.
But what if poets had a way to get paid for individual poems? And the payment could happen after a reader has read the work and been able to quantify its worth to them (in relation to their ability to pay, of course)? What if poets began setting up bitcoin or Paypal accounts (or some other alternative) and that readers knew they could send a couple of dollars when the spirit so moved them? This would enable poets to avoid the book hurdle that keeps them from getting support (for the most part) from at least two of the support options mentioned above. This would enable readers to connect directly with poets and provide poets with a greater sense of the response their work is getting. The money from such endeavors might be miniscule, and for most might be non-existent (after all, readers still have to come across your work somehow) but could it really be much less than poets receive now?
Most importantly it would empower everyone with the ability to support work that matters to them, to make it clear that poetry is alive and is for everyone. Even if you couldn’t afford to send anything, you might be moved (and feel you had permission) to contact the poet with a few kind words.
Really, what have we got to lose?
Rita Mae Reese has received a Paumanok Poetry Prize, a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award, a Stegner fellowship, and a “Discovery”/The Nation award. Her poems and stories have appeared in dozens of journals. Her first book, The Alphabet Conspiracy, was published by Arktoi Books/Red Hen Press. She is currently working on a book of poetry about Flannery O’Connor entitled The Book of Hulga. You can visit her online at www.ritamaereese.com.