We write poems because we love writing poems, not because we expect to make a living from it. I feel like that’s probably the most blatantly obvious statement I’ve written in a long time, but I had to start there because—as a writer who has recently become a public voice for the necessity of paying poets for their work—it’s too easy to think I believe otherwise. But, no, the fact is I wrote poetry long before I ever made a cent from it, and I’ll continue to write it regardless of whether payment sources arise or not.
That being said, most artists love their work, don’t they? Painters, filmmakers, musicians… ostensibly most people create art because they feel driven to do so by passion. For some reason, though, very few people seem to be upset by the idea that those artists are working toward a life where they can get paid for doing their art. But poets? No. We aren’t allowed to want payment, because poetry is a such a higher, more soul-stirring form of artistic expression that writing it is payment enough.
Okay, I’m not trying to mock people who feel that way, because (refer to the first sentence of this piece), I agree that writing poetry is a reward in and of itself. But I do feel like there’s a big problem when almost every other art form is allowed to dream of (and work toward) an actual career making art, but we’re not. Even fiction writers are encouraged to strive for the (now almost unheard of) lucrative three-book deal, but as poets we’re supposed to be happy not only publishing in journals for free, but doing that forever. We’re not just supposed to pay our dues at the beginning of our career while we’re making our name. We aren’t like fiction writers or copywriters or journalists whose words might potentially be deemed worthy of monetary compensation. At worst we’re considered hobbyists, and at best people working toward a teaching career that will pass on the skills that will allow others to become more notable hobbyists.
And it’s not fair. And yes, I know, life isn’t fair. And yes, I know, a big problem here is absolutely a lack of readership. And sure, this comes from many sources: the dearth of solid curricula in contemporary poetry that could BUILD on children’s natural love of verse (hello Shel Silverstein and Dr. Suess), particularly in middle schools; the insularity of the poetry world that pushes artists into competition with each other for the limited number of jobs and fellowships and (highly reputable) publishing opportunities. (In fact, this is for another post, but I believe the latter is the single largest contributing factor to the trend against accessibility in contemporary poetry; everyone needs to seem super smart to get accolades and jobs, and accessibility isn’t academic. So people write more and more esoteric pieces, and editors publish them to seem serious and fancy, and regular non-academic people can’t figure them out. Wash, rinse, repeat.)
So, yes. There are problems, and all of them lead to a lack of readership, which then leads to a lack of money. But, and bear with me here, these are not the biggest problems. And I’m shocked that it took me almost six months of thinking and writing about issues of poetry and money to really figure that out.
I started the Poetry Has Value project in January of this year with an experiment: I pledged to only submit poetry to paying markets in all of 2015, and to blog about the process with full transparency at Poetry Has Value. I realized pretty quickly, though, that the questions of poetry, money and worth weren’t simple and encompassed myriad valid perspectives, so I started reaching out to others, and the site began to fill up with posts from prestigious guest bloggers and their points of view on the topic. However, because I had taken the pledge and had trouble finding a comprehensive list of poetry journals that paid poets, I started a live Google documentthat listed paying poetry markets and, as a resource for writers, made it fully public, updatable and editable.
But this site wasn’t just about writers who wanted to get paid. I also wanted to figure out why journals don’t pay. I mean, yes, because they don’t have money. But some journals pay and make it work, and I wanted to figure out why and how. I started an interview series with those questions in mind, speaking to editors/publishers of magazines that pay poets about how they make a paying model work. Through a variety of interviews with those who run very different markets, I’m trying to paint a comprehensive picture of the myriad ways editors of literary magazines manage money and provide writers with payment.
Throughout this process, one thing came up again and again and—surprisingly—it wasn’t lack of readership. People are engaging with poems, and while it’s true that many of those people also write poems, it’s still not an entirely insignificant number. In fact, one of the Poetry Has Value guest bloggers, Sonia Greenfield, wrote on the site,
According to data, the readership for poetry has contracted to a mere 16 million in the U.S. To put this in perspective, Singapore, which boasts a vibrant economy, has a population of 5.3 million; therefore, readers of poetry are three Singapores strong.
So when I said above that lack of readers wasn’t the biggest problem, here’s what I mean: The problem isn’t that no one is reading, it’s that no one is buying the work. People are engaging with poems, and while it’s true that many of those people also write poems, it’s still not an entirely insignificant number. And as the Poetry Has Value project moves toward its half-year mark (!) it’s become more and more evident that we, as readers and lovers of poetry, need to actually put MONEY into the system. If we want poetry to not just limp along the way it is now, but thrive, we have to buy poetry and poetry magazines.
Yes. Of course! Not a eureka moment, right? Yet, this ludicrously obvious (again!) bit of wisdom doesn’t translate into the real world like it should. We know we need to buy poetry to keep this art form we love alive and kicking, yet, statistically speaking, we don’t. We don’t, despite the fact that almost every editor I interviewed said some version of the same thing: if even a fraction of the people who submitted actually subscribed to even a few of the journals they submitted to, the entire industry would change.
This has also lead to wonder why we don’t buy poetry so much, and I’m really frightened that it might be that we don’t engage with the poems that are published as fully as we could. The question of whether people who even buy journals actually READ the poetry in them seemed like one I could ignore for a long time, but I can’t anymore. It’s created a compound fear in me: firstly that most of us don’t subscribe to journals, choosing instead to get our poetry free on the Internet, despite the fact that it keeps us in this viscous cycle of free labor (especially labor from editors and publishers, who often have less financial options than writers, even). And secondly that when we do get magazines and books, we don’t give them enough credit, don’t talk about them and share them and promote them. It’s kind of funny that we talk about contest fees being unfair, and submission fees being unfair, and maybe they are. But we as a group of educated and invested readers STILL do very little to change it. And I think that has to stop.
And finally–confession time–I’m really worried that I haven’t done enough personally to help stop the cycle. I subscribe to some journals. Not enough. Not as many as I can afford. And often when journals come I don’t even read them fully. Yes, I flip through to read poets I recognize or know personally, but because I’m so busy I sometimes just let it slide (not always, but often enough), which means I stop engaging with this thing that means SO MUCH to me. Why do I do it?
Not sure. It’s a chicken and egg argument, maybe. There are so few jobs in the poetry world right now, as I mentioned, that I have literally FIVE jobs cobbled together to make a living, most of them not poetry-based. So my attention and energy go elsewhere. Which, of course, happens because I can’t get paid writing (or fully paid teaching) poetry at this point.
This all might sound really pessimistic, but the truth is despite the dozens of annual articles stating the contrary, I don’t think poetry is dead. I think our readership has simply decided that it won’t buy the cow if it can get the milk for free. And I have NO IDEA, even after all this work on Poetry Has Value, about how to change this. But I do know that we need to talk about it. Once, I was accused by a really prominent editor of trying to guilt people into subscribing to magazines when they should do it because they love the work. And oh, I agree, I so agree. But look at the numbers. They don’t subscribe. WE don’t. Is it me making people feel guilty, or ARE we guilty? The free milk won’t last forever.
About the Author:
Jessica Piazza is the author of two full-length poetry collections from Red Hen Press: Interrobang–winner of the AROHO 2011 To the Lighthouse Poetry Prize and the 2013 Balcones Poetry Prize — and Obliterations (with Heather Aimee O’Neill, forthcoming), as well as the chapbook This is not a sky (Black Lawrence Press.) She holds a Ph.D. in English Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Southern California and now teaches for the Writing Program at USC and the online MFA program at the University of Arkansas at Monticello. She is the poetry editor of The Southern Pacific Review, and in 2015 she started the “Poetry Has Value” project, hoping to spark conversations about poetry, money and worth. Learn more at www.jessicapiazza.com or www.poetryhasvalue.com.
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