Auld Lang Syne

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Poets Work for Food (read "for free")

Have you been to a poetry reading lately? Have you attended an author talk or panel? It is a most pleasant thing really to go and listen to someone read aloud. Maybe we do this as a connection to childhood, to being read to by our parents or grandparents or a kindly babysitter. At any rate, we love to be read to. I admit I am a sucker for a reading. I love to sit there and let the words wash over me, to admire the turn of a phrase, the way the poet has put together images to make meaning, to tell a story. It is inspiring for me as a writer to listen to how another poet gets a message across. I leave a reading wanting to write better or more. I also leave readings with at least one book (unless I already have the book and then I will have brought my copy to be signed). I make it a point to step up and speak to the author, to tell him/her what EXACTLY I like about the work that was read. I want to support other writers. I know what it takes to make books happen. I know the hours of solitude and sweat over getting a poem just so, to make meaning that will say something important or fresh. I empathize with every late night at the keyboard, every meal missed to stay the course for the sake of the writing. I am there with my fellow writers at the mailbox when the rejection notes arrive, or when the acceptances show up (love the fat acceptance envelopes that say "we love you").

But here's the thing: have you bought books from the poets you've heard read?

It is a little frustrating to bring a stack of books along to a reading and have many people stop by the signing table to say how much they admire the writing but not buy a book. (By the way, thanks to the woman at a recent panel discussion and reading who bought one and had me sign it). We poets hear comments like "oh I love your poems, they are so well-written and mean a lot to me personally." This is often followed by "where can I get a copy?" or "are you in a bookstore?" or "can I get it online?" or "is it in the library?"  Now these folks are standing right next to the stack of books you've hauled from the trunk of your car, arranged neatly, and right next to the sign that announces the price. Yet they are asking. I say, "of course you can get a copy right here and I'd love to sign it for you." The normal response is "oh that's okay, I didn't bring my checkbook" or "oh I'll just get it online later." The other comment (request) is "Can you email me a copy of that poem you read about the dog so I can send it to my sister whose dog had to be put down? It would mean so much to her." I'm starting to think I should print out copies of the poems I'm going to read aloud and have them there for $1 at the signing table. At least there would be SOMETHING to take home other than the leftover cookies and the box of books. You laugh, but I am thinking of doing this, really I am.

Of course poets write to make art that will mean something to others, to get the creative work "out there" for people to enjoy. But you must remember that poets are not hobbyists. This making of art is a profession. Many of us have gone to school to learn or hone our craft. Graduate school was not cheap, not free. Would you go to your job every day if there was to be no paycheck? Does your doctor treat you for free because he is good at making people healthier? Can you get daycare for your children for free just because the babysitter loves children?

So how is it that most people at readings don't support the writing, the writers, by purchasing copies for themselves or to give to others?  I go to readings PREPARED to buy at least one book. I have the usual $15 at the ready. I will buy a copy for someone else even if I already have one myself (which I bring to get signed). In this way I do support my colleagues. I would hate to see that person who has worked so hard to create art lug her books back to her car, knowing she sold not even one book. I don't want that on my conscience. And there is the other part to the buying for me: I love reading the poems later and love having my very own copy of someone's book, someone I have met, talked to, heard read. When I read the poems later, I can hear the actual voice of the poet in my head. A joy to say the least.

On the larger scale, not financially supporting poets and poetry has led to a culture of avoidance by bookstores and publishers. I just got my copy of the latest Poets & Writers magazine which features four agents who are supposedly making a huge difference for writing/reading. Well, great. I mean it, GREAT for the writers whose books are being distributed and sold, read and enjoyed. But have you heard of a poet with an agent, other than someone wildly famous? Do you know a poet who has someone promoting and distributing his/her work for sale to bookstores? Agents typically do not take on poets as clients. This is because they cannot make big money from poetry. There is a financial bottom line. There is no financial upside for agents with poet clients. The husband of a poet friend once told us that we needed to put away the poetry long enough to become commercially successful writers. His solution "write smut novels."  He has a point. But really? Do I need to take a break from myself to do something just to survive? I am not a "smut novelist."

Poets are admired for their words, their attention to detail, their ability to show the world its truth. But because they are poets, there is the expectation that they ought to do this for free. Poets are supposed to be altruists. Should painters or sculptors give away their art? Have you been to an art exhibit where paintings are there for the taking? Oh sure, there are art galleries where you can go, look at the art, leave empty-handed. But we know that someone is indeed purchasing the art that has been created. Go to an art auction and hear the frantic bidding, people vying for the art they admire. What about poetry? Why should it be relegated to the freebie shelf?

It is also true that getting one's poems accepted by journals and anthologies is not at all a lucrative effort. Normal compensation for poets is a contributor's copy, two if the publisher is really generous. I treasure these copies and enjoy reading the work of others alongside my own. I spend time finding the poets I admire and then BUY a book or two if I find they have books. I follow their blogs, email them my admiration. I hope they feel good when they hear from me. I hope they are pleasantly surprised when amazon makes a direct deposit into their accounts for my book purchase.

You should know that journals and anthologies are SOLD to the reading public, The publisher gets money for them. Without the poems and stories and articles IN these publications, there would be NO publications. But the poets are expected to be grateful that the publisher has put their work out there to be read (of course we are grateful) and to not expect payment for their creative efforts (with some exceptions, and thanks to those). I had a horrible experience with a journal last year, The Goose River Anthology to name names. I had submitted poems and received an acceptance for publication. I knew I was not getting a check for my effort, but looked forward to getting my one copy when the anthology went to press. WRONG. I got a notice saying I could purchase a copy or copies at an "author discount."  Please understand that this anthology was not being given away to the reading public. It was most definitely for sale to the reading public. The publisher was going to get compensated for her efforts to gather the written material together between covers. Understand too that everyone who had submitted had paid a "reading fee" which was to offset the cost of printing the anthology. This is normal, no one thinks these things get printed for free. But the people who CREATED the work inside were not getting compensated, not even getting a copy to have for themselves. I called the publisher. I asked where was my contributor's copy. She said (BIG LESSON HERE) I should re-read the fine print. She was right. There were no contributors' copies for anyone. I could buy copies and should do so, because I would earn a royalty for every copy I bought or others bought because I was "in" the anthology. They'd have to mention my name of course when they ordered or no royalty for me. I think it was a whopping ten cents per copy royalty. Because I keep copies of all publications featuring my work, I did order a copy. I got my ten cents in the form of ten cents off my purchase price. I'd frankly rather have had the dime. It's the principle of the thing. Lesson learned. I check carefully before I submit to see what if anything I will receive for my creative efforts. I will never give my work away totally for free again to someone who will profit from that work. No I will only give it away mostly for free and be grateful to see my work in print. Journals don't even give out cookies.

OK, I sound a little bitter here. I don't mean to sound that way. It's just that from time to time the frustration bubbles to the surface. Poets work HARD to create ART, to make something lasting. We labor long over getting just the right words in just the right combinations. We WORK, just like any other artists. We want our creativity to be appreciated. We are happy that people come to our readings, our book launches, our panels and discussions. We love to be in the presence of people who read and enjoy poetry. We love the goodies on the snack table at readings  (though mostly we bring the goodies ourselves). We love it all. But we'd enjoy seeing a few books go home with people. It's sad to pack up the books and haul them back to the car.

So next time you go to a reading, please buy one book. Buy it and donate it to a school if you aren't going to put it on your bedside table or on your coffee table or next to your chair. Buy one book as a present and wrap it nicely and put it in the mail to a friend. Bring a plant to the next reading or a cutting from your favorite perennial and give it to the poet. At least she will have something to take home other than her box of books.

Enough now. Time to get to work on the line-up of poems for my next reading. Oh and there's that smut novel I should be working on. Sure to be a best seller! LOL


  1. I thought poets were either rich to start off or wrote poetry to maintain a simple "poor as church mice" existence.
    Would you rather have 20 folks there listening to your poetry (but not buying a book every time they come out to show support) OR have one attendee who buys a book.

  2. hmmmmm, I'd rather have people there to listen, but if we don't support poetry by buying books (not buying the same one at every reading of course!) then we are not fully supporting poetry. My objection is the people who ask where they can find the books when the books are right there in front of them... they don't realize that by getting them at readings the poet benefits more that at shops or online where the poet only gets 60% of the purchase price.

    Most poets cannot make a living by writing, and do things like teach or lecture to make ends meet, but NONE thinks that being poor is somehow artistically noble.

    Thanks for commenting!!! Keep coming back to chat on topics.