Monday, July 19, 2010

Poetrybirds (it's clear the poetry movement is far from stagnant)

The following is a minimally-edited version of an editorial that appeared in Warbird Digest #30, a periodical about fighter planes, aka "warbirds," and the people who love them. While leafing through magazines at a friend's place, I came upon Warbird Digest and was struck by the similarities between the sentiments expressed in this editorial on the economic feasibility of warbird shows, and, as Louis Cabri calls it, POETRYWOLD (i.e., the poetry world.)

Through projects discussed in the Poetry Blogs, and new poems we’re following, it’s clear the poetry movement is far from stagnant. The costs associated with writing any rare, high performance poem is staggering by any quantification, but the cost of transforming a heap of words into an award winning poem can only be justified by the heart. In a recent newsletter of the Heritage Poem Museum of Vancouver, British Columbia, executive director Ken Mirkieri lists cost of living as one variable in the sustainability of the poet. The other variable of course is revenue. The challenge he poses to every member is to win the “monthly gap” war. He amusingly recalls the old adage “...we are in one of those businesses where you can make a small fortune, IF you start with a large one.”

Sustainability is the biggest question facing poetry writers today. Some poets give little thought to the negative cash flow of their poetry operations. To those deep-pocketed poets we applaud their generosity to an endeavor with great public benefit. To the rest, who struggle to cover operational costs, we owe even greater thanks as they persevere in an increasingly difficult area.

The 2010 literary season is upon us. As we look forward to seeing our friends and enjoying the sights, sounds, and smells of our beloved poems, we must consider the viability question. While promoting my hometown reading series I was confronted by a coworker who questioned the show’s $5 admission fee. “Why should I spend $5 so some writer who wants to play with his hobby can get paid to do it?” I was appalled by his ignorance, but it offered insight into a common public opinion. The response I mustered was “Thank God for the successful people who spend their money funding these rare poets, otherwise the only place to see a contemporary poet would be in a museum.”

A long time acquaintance and poet shared his belief with his writing buddies that they should not expect to make a profit at writing. In his words “Why do we do this? We don’t do it to make money—we do it for the fun of it. If you want to make money than you shouldn’t write poetry.” I realized his opinion held much merit, but was quite the opposite from many poets. Certainly it doesn’t fall within the framework of literary magazines trying to make their operations pay the monthly bills.

As a literary promoter who considers many poets as friends, the question I’ve struggled with is “What’s the appropriate fee to pay a person to perform at our reading series?” What I’ve found in the poetry industry is a floating scale, which results in poets being paid the minimum to gain their services. Those poets who will attend for fuel and hospitality get that. Those who want $400 are often enticed to appear for $250 plus the normal hospitality. Then there are those who stick to their guns and refuse to bargain, either out of necessity or principle. The organizer digs through his bag of options and decides who to invite based on his limited budget and the cost/benefit he perceives for each poet.

I’ve agreed to accept the floating standard because it’s the only way I can, without guilt, pay two poets different amounts for the same reading offering the same service. I believe all performers deserve to be compensated, because after all they are providing a service that is being marketed and charged for. However, most literary organizations are at best making a modest profit. So, the question of viability is as much a struggle for poetry promoters as it is for poets. The cancellation of much 2009 and 2010 arts funding is ample evidence of funders opting to refrain from increased risk during this economic downturn. As many of you know, there are fewer readings to attend, and fewer opportunities to read.

Poetry doesn’t fit neatly into the traditional economist’s supply/demand curve. It neglects the emotional component, which in the literary world is more the rule than exception. If you’re a poet you must ask yourself “Why do I write?” If you garner intangible benefits from sharing your historically significant talent, and you can afford it as a gift to yourself and society—great. If you kick and scratch to survive, knowing you need $500 to cover your rent, then stick to your guns. Writing poems benefits many people beyond the computer screen, but the question of viability is paramount.


Source text: Editorial by Greg Morehead in Warbird Digest #30 May/June 2010.


Nikki Reimer (Ken Mirkieri?) is the author of [sic] (Frontenac House, 2010). She/he/it lives in Vancouver, volunteers for the Kootenay School of Writing collective, and chronicles the East Van Cats.


Daniel Zomparelli said...

Great post, as usual.

I help set up a few readings every year and half I can't pay the readers for, and half are funded. It really sucks when you can't pay the reader. I buy them beers when I can't pay, which will probably be the reason that poets will be even more drunk and more broke in the future.

League of Canadian Poets supplies funding as well as Heritage Canada (might be the wrong name). The Heritage Canada must be done well in advance, which kinda blows because sometimes I'm only given a month to get readers together.

Lemon Hound said...

I have no idea where the idea that anyone could, or indeed should, earn a living from poetry came from but it needs to be roundly pummeled...

As far as funding for readings goes, I am completely surprised by the amount of money available on the one hand, and frustrated by the need to become an administrator to access it on the other.

nikki reimer said...

I didn't mean to suggest that people should, or should think that they should, make a living from poetry. I was more struck by the similarities between the niche industry of fighter plane shows and the niche industry of poetry.

Also they are both sexy, and made of metal.

Daniel, I know there are some Very Important Poets who will only appear for full fees and travel (and who am I to blame them?) but I personally see no problem with sometimes being paid and sometimes being paid in beer and sometimes being paid in the pleasure of the other poets' company. But I do think it's worth discussing the relationship of work to money.

Sina waving from London said...

They are both sexy and made of metal, absolutely.

And yes, it is important to discuss, but also to note how many have absolutely no pay for their labor in this way.

I would like to see statistics in terms of number of poetry books published per person in our country and others. The number of people who consider poetry to be a career, or consider themselves amateur, etc.

nikki reimer said...

And does considering oneself amateur belie a lack of seriousness, etc.

(Hi London!)