At What Price Poetry?

A fellow poet recently had the courage to complain about the expense of our chosen vocation. It’s a sad fact that the net proceeds for poets are usually negative. We often have to pay to develop our craft and get ourselves read. Perhaps it’s not unlike many art forms in this way — especially the “fine” arts like ballet. In the case of poetry, schools, workshops, conferences, book tours, and contest fees all add up. Those of us who publish books may end up making little or nothing on them. Readings at most venues don’t offer remuneration, while the poet usually ends up having to pay for gas and dinner. If you sell a few books, you’re lucky to break even.

Payment — or lack thereof — is difficult subject to speak about in public settings, partly because of the unspoken taboo on discussing money matters at all, and partly because of the notion that artists must do what they love for free, or have to suffer for their art, living in garrets and shivering next to wood stoves. It’s easy to sound bitter, and no one wants to publish — or read — a bitter poet. It is possible to make a living as a writer of prose, but not with poetry. Not in American society, where most mentions of poetry in mainstream society joke about how awful it is to have to listen to it.

This double bind is why I went into web development in the mid 1990s. I didn’t have parents who could support me or supplement my income and I didn’t have the connections that make it so much easier to break into publishing. Zines and websites used to circumvent the snooty literary establishment, but the fact is that my education and inclinations have given me champagne taste when it comes to literature in general and poetry in particular.

After 20 years in an industry that’s taken me further and further away from my literary roots, I’m embarking on a low-residency MFA program that will allow me to keep my job while I focus on honing my craft in my off-hours. An MFA is not cheap. I was fortunate enough to qualify for a merit scholarship, but I’ll be paying for the bulk of tuition with student loans. Once I graduate, my monthly payments will equal about half of mortgage. Worst case scenario is that I end up saddled with so much debt that means I can’t afford to make a career change more in line with my passions.

All of that being said, I do believe there are bright spots in the cloudy future. Grants do exist. Paying gigs (mostly teaching, but also prose writing) do exist. Scholarships do exist. Free artist residencies do exist. Lesley awarded me a scholarship and I’ve won awards in the past so I know it’s a possibility for me. The key is to not get sucked in to the maw of the pay-for-play mentality of some literary circles. And that’s hard because sometimes the people in those circles are the poets I really admire and want to be like.

I’ve spent so much time avoiding dedicating myself to the arts because I’ve been too afraid of failure. I’m taking the leap this time — or, more accurately, I’m taking a measured, clear-eyed walk along a rocky and difficult path that hugs the side of the mountain.

Succeeding in the end might require a revision of my definition of success into outcomes I can directly affect rather than those that depend on the whim and tastes of judges and editors. When I look at it that way, success is inevitable.

Photo credit: slgckgc via Flickr, CC 2.0

The Indian Family in the Hospital Lobby

Rushing between off-site meetings, I carve out some time to sit and eat lunch in the lobby of one of the hospitals in the Longwood Medical Area. There’s a huge family at the table next to mine that has an entire catering setup — I guess to feed everyone who’s come down to support their loved one. They take up four tables and are eating delicious-looking Indian cuisine, speaking in what may be Hindi or one of India’s many other languages.

Seeing them makes me think about frugality, and how it requires you to stop worrying about what other people think of you, and about what it means to live in a multicultural society, and about how diversity is hard because humans are hard-wired to fear the Other, and also about what it means for me to live so far away from the support system of an extended family. I’m lucky to have a huge constellation of family-by-choice, and friends, and kindred spirits — I know more wonderful people than I can possibly have deep friendships with. But the bond of shared DNA runs deep, even with the low-level irritation that can develop among grown-up relatives. When I’m in the hospital, it’s my family that comes to visit me. And if they’re not related to me, I begin to understand who truly is my family of choice.

For better or for worse, that’s my life: to be a stranger in a strange land, even when it’s one I’ve lived in for years. Writers and artists often live at the edge of society. It’s what gives us the perspective and the fearlessness to speak our own truths about what we see. I’m most comfortable on the edges of things, observing the swirl and color of human existence — I see things that I wouldn’t if I were at the center of my own drama.

And perhaps it’s why I need the company of plants and animals to recharge myself. They speak a quieter language free of the body-mind duality that plagues humanity.

Boston Area Poetry Readings for April/May 2016

National Poetry Month culminates this week with the Mass Poetry Festival — an event that fills all of downtown Salem with readings from poetic luminaries, a small press fair, and workshops of all kinds. The poetic fervor continues into May.

Thanks to those of you who came to the workshop I did last weekend at the Rozzie Public Library — if you missed it and want to know about the next one, sign up for my mailing list.

All events below take place in Massachusetts unless otherwise noted.

Thursday, April 28, 6 pm
Matvei Yankelevich
Woodberry Poetry Room, Lamont Library, Room 330
Harvard University
Cambridge

Continue reading “Boston Area Poetry Readings for April/May 2016”

UPDATED April 2016 Boston Poetry Readings

National Poetry Month offers a dizzying array of events across the nation, but especially in Boston. Updated listings appear below. You can see my teacher Barbara Helfgott Hyett read alongside an old poet-friend Nicole Terez Dutton at the Newton Free Library on Tuesday, April 12 at 7pm. You can meet me in person at the Roslindale Public Library on Saturday, April 23 at noon. And if you have the time, inclination, and stamina, you can attend at least one reading on just about every day this month. All readings are in Mass unless otherwise noted.

Thursday, April 7, 6 pm
Martin Corless-Smith
introduced by Boyd Nielson
Woodberry Poetry Room, Lamont Library, Room 330
Harvard University
Cambridge

Thursday, April 7, 7 pm
Cammy Thomas, Sophia Yee, Ros Zimmermann
National Poetry Month Celebration
Cary Memorial Library
1874 Mass. Ave.
Lexington

Continue reading “UPDATED April 2016 Boston Poetry Readings”

April 2016 Poetry Readings in Boston MA and Environs

NOTE: You can find an updated version of these listings here.

April is National Poetry Month, which means that readings and classes abound. Here are my top picks:

Listings follow. All venues are in Massachusetts (USA) unless otherwise noted: Continue reading “April 2016 Poetry Readings in Boston MA and Environs”

Poet to Poet: Doug Holder Interviews Alexis Ivy

Alexis Ivy is a poet I greatly admire. We spent some time together in the same workshop and I’ve really enjoyed her first book Romance with Small-Time Crooks. Doug Holder of Ibbetson Street Press interviews her here on Somerville Community Access Television.

In case the embedded video above fails, here is a direct link to it on YouTube.

Boston Area Poetry Readings for December 2015

These listings are compiled by Daniel Bouchard. Friday, December 11 is the very last of the BASH Reading Series by Black Ocean Press at Brookline Booksmith. And make sure to check out the Brookline Public Library on Sunday, December 20, where the open mic is as high-quality as the featured reader.

Thursday, December 3, 7 pm
David Miller, Sandra Storey and open mic
Rozzie Reads
Roslindale House
120 Poplar Street
Roslindale, MA Continue reading “Boston Area Poetry Readings for December 2015”