Welcome to the new column; I hope you enjoy it.
What Price Poetry?
What do you think? Is it more important that our art is taken seriously and paid for, or is it more important that we get it out there to as many readers as possible, even if that’s our only reward? Or can we have it both ways?
When I was a child, and people asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said, 'A poet'. My parents pointed out, quite kindly, that a poet wasn't a thing you could 'be' in that sense: it wouldn't earn you a living. My generation of Australian poets proved them wrong eventually, but we had to include various related activities such as writing book reviews for publications that paid, and teaching poetry writing in colleges as part of Professional Writing courses. Even then, it was a frugal living.
Late last century the Poets Union of Australia espoused the principle that writing poetry is work, deserving of payment. This was one of the platforms on which the Union was founded in 1977.
We were sick of the notion that if we had a poem published in a newspaper (squeezed into a tiny corner of a page somewhere, buried deep) or if we were grudgingly allowed to recite a short poem or two between bands at a rock concert, the honour and glory should be sufficient. Newspaper editors and concert organisers thought we should be grateful, not paid.
The Union did succeed in establishing the principle of payment for our work. Admittedly, some small literary magazines paid in copies of the issue you were in, rather than cash; and if venue owners were struggling to make money, the poets might donate the fee back to them. But at least we established the principle. And we supported each other, buying the magazines and the books. Those who subsisted solely on their writing (and the related activities) proudly wrote 'poet' when declaring their occupation.
There was something of a boom in Australian poetry at that time, with a proliferation of small presses and performance opportunities. Heck, sometimes poetry was the whole concert! One or two featured readers would be paid from the door takings; others would read a poem each in the 'open section'. Hopefully we’d all get a turn at being featured.
I don't know what is happening now, all these decades later, about payment of poets. I haven't been much involved in performance in the last 20 years, since moving away from the city; even less so with printed (i.e. paper) literary magazines and anthologies. It's a while since I got paid in actual money.
Even in the old days, when I was an independent publisher of poetry (some of it award-winning) the business ran at a loss. Poor marketing, you think? One of my publications — in addition to being short-listed for two major prizes, and being by a popular, high-profile poet — got a double-page centre spread, editorial and photos, in the most popular daily paper in the State. You can't get much more mainstream than that! This wonderful free publicity did not sell one copy.
However, we (meaning not only the small presses but the individual poets) did sell our books by other means, and some sold well — albeit from small print-runs of 500 copies, which was about what the market at the time could bear. But it was a battle. Everyone knew poetry didn't sell, therefore agents wouldn't touch the stuff and very few publishers, apart from idealistic small presses like my own, would take it on. Even when they did, the distributors didn't push it hard to the bookshops because everyone knew poetry didn't sell, and most of the booksellers, knowing this too, didn't bother to display it or promote it. Therefore it didn't sell — a self-fulfilling prophecy. Or so we told ourselves, with some truth. There is also some truth in the view that it doesn't sell anyway, at least not in great quantities. It's certainly a niche market.
We sold our books gradually. We sold them via book launches, to our friends and relatives and other poets. We sold them at poetry readings, to our audiences. We sold some to libraries around the country, who felt duty-bound to stock them and support Australian culture. We gave away a number of review copies, and sold a few to readers of the reviews.
Stop me if you know all this already! I imagine it wasn't much different in other countries.
The Digital Age
The Digital Age
And now? It's a different century. There were always poets who self-published chapbooks, usually as a prelude to achieving ‘respectable’ publication. Now this practice is commonplace, particularly in the form of ebooks, and has become respectable as an end in itself. The ebooks sell at very low prices or are offered free. Performance poetry (or spoken word poetry, as it's now called) is shared more and more on YouTube.
I've embraced the digital poetry world, along with most if not all of you who are reading this. In recent years I have produced very few books, most of them collaborations and only one of them in paperback as well as ebook. They aren't selling well. I give away most of my poetry for free in blogs and on facebook and twitter. So, I think, do you.
I'm not hankering for the old days, although I enjoyed them at the time. Mainly, we wanted to take poetry 'off the page' and into people's lives. We did — a bit, for a while. We started something. We were the precursors of spoken word and rap, and poetry slams. We were part of what I now realise was a world-wide 'idea whose time had come'. It was wild and wonderful, and I hobnobbed with poets of amazing brilliance who were doing innovative things. But that time is past. Now, in the digital age, things have changed again. Good heavens, I've now taken part in two poetic revolutions!
The second might seem to be a backward sort of change if we've lost the principle of being paid for our work ... for our art.
What do we do it for?
What do we do it for?
But I recall Fay Weldon (I think it was her) advising a young writer — not even about poetry but fiction — that the only good reason to do it was for the love of it, not for the problematical income.
And indeed, who writes poetry solely for the possibility of making money? (You see? That’s laughable!) No, we write it because we must. It's a compulsion, a vocation. Or maybe, for some, it is simply a pleasant hobby — but I bet they'd miss it if they were compelled to stop. Let's face it, we do it for its own sake.
I always think that the first impulse in doing it is self-expression, closely followed by the second, which is to communicate it.
I think we get at least as much readership on our blogs as we might by being published in paper literary magazines with limited circulation. If we get into digital literary magazines, all the better. Many of them don't regard poems posted to a blog as ineligible for inclusion, whereas most paper lit mags, as far as I know, still do.
Even the most successful poets, those few names known around the world, have usually worked at other jobs to pay the bills. Often, it has been as academics, absolutely giving the lie to the saying that 'those who can't, teach'.
Work or play?
Work or play?
So, is poetry our work? It can require much devoted time and effort, that's for sure. But I've come to align myself with Ms Weldon, who insisted that the reason we should not do it for money is that it's not work but play, and that if we want to retain our love for it, let alone continue to do it well, we must treat it that way. (Or something like that. I’m paraphrasing from memory.)
I know that if ever I try to write deep and meaningful things, capital-I Important, I very easily dry up and develop writer's block. What breaks the block is simply to start playing with words. Then, before I know it, I have a poem. (Sometimes it even turns out to be deep and meaningful. As for 'important', that's for others to judge ... I'd settle for 'moving'.)
Well, perhaps we can do both. Perhaps we can hold it as both work and play, and hope for both remuneration and readership. I know that many of you keep a foot in both camps, and good luck to you!
But I’m old; I can’t be bothered playing the game of ‘getting into reputable printed publications’ any more. Nowadays I like the ‘blogging poet’ game and the international poetic community it puts me in touch with. The great treat is that I find myself hobnobbing with poets of amazing brilliance, who are doing innovative things.
Feel free to share your thoughts.
Photo © Rosemary Nissen-Wade 2013
Photo © Rosemary Nissen-Wade 2013