(a response)

I remember discussing the question of payment for poetry (and avant-garde writing) as far back as the early eighties when I moved from writing in journals to performance. Almost all of my work, and the work of contemporaries, was done at open mikes, and, occasionally we would stage a show and split the take (six dollars each, if we were lucky). On our best weekend someone would book one of us at a festival and pay a royalty.

One of my fellow poets who, like me, tried to stay at the cutting edge of performance and poetry, [1] wrote a manifesto that poets shouldn’t accept money from public funding and grants until we were paid as well as musicians for our performances. (Sadly, I’ve forgotten which poet it was, but I think he didn’t know how many musicians plugged away at open mikes and fifteen dollar a night performances in worse conditions than ours.)

Image courtesy of the Free Library of Philadelphia

I, on the other hand, accepted the chairmanship of a now-defunct arts promotion non-profit, the Texas Circuit of Poets and Writers. I wrote grants to fund those festivals around the state and pay as much as $200 a performance to three artists a festival. We wrote another grant subsidizing the publication of one new book a year (the Austin Book Awards), grants for small press publishers to bring out limited print runs (300–1000 copies) as well as grants for projects such as the late Raul Salinas’ Resistencia Book store.

The example we set, sadly, didn’t encourage museums, bars and bookstores to open their coffers to poets. It turns out they believed poets received public funding and had no need of reimbursement from them for performances on site.

The reality of public funding? In my best year I was able to raise $3000 personally to support my work, in spite of spending more than that on multimedia equipment, software and production. The manifesto-writing poet was right: Accepting public money undermined our commercial viability. And yet I’m not sure refusing it would have made our work more lucrative.

Vendors and studios think writing poetry is easy, work that deserves no pay because we sit all day in coffee houses and dream, writing a handful of lines that make little sense to ordinary readers. Which is a shame because poets work at the cutting edge of commentary and most pour their souls into their work.

Image courtesy of Longreads.com

I taught college, developed programs for a number of non-profits and wrote and edited for a number of publications in my career. I was paid for my work in each instance. I worked harder on my poems than I worked at those jobs (and I worked hard at them). That my work, and the work of other poets, still remains undervalued galls me.

Much of our work will be lost to history, neglect and a lack of interest. However I can say with certainty that the best poems of my generation will outlast every Trump tower.

Living metaphor. Follow me @stephens_pt.

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