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

Interview with Widows’ Handbook Editor Jacqueline Lapidus

It was through Holly Zeeb that I first learned of The Widows’ Handbook: Poetic Reflections on Grief and Survival, an anthology of poetry written by, for, and about women who had lost their life partners. Holly, a fellow student of the PoemWorks workshop and an excellent poet in her own right, was one of the many poets who contributed to the book. Holly lived with cancer for years before succumbing to it in late January 2016. Her literary legacy includes not only her poems in The Widows’ Handbook, but also a chapbook from Finishing Line Press and Eye of the Beholder, a book-length collection in limited run. In addition to — or perhaps because of — her poetry, she left behind a wide circle of friends and fellow writers. They crowded Newtonville Books to grieving friends read her work. I got one of the last seats in the house and found it deeply affecting to hear the finished versions of poems I saw take shape in workshop.

I met Jacqueline Lapidus through entirely different circumstances and only realized her connection to The Widows’ Handbook and to Holly after we had been corresponding for some time. The anthology had been on my reading list for some time, and meeting Jacqueline was the push I needed to crack the book. A slight woman with a mop of curly blonde hair, Jacqueline has a fascinating life story that spans continents and waves of the feminist movement. She was kind enough to talk with me about the societal implications of widowhood, her own experiences with it, and the work involved to create such a comprehensive anthology.

What role did poetry play in the grieving process for yourself and the poets in this collection?

My significant other, with whom I was involved on and off over more than 40 years, died suddenly the day after Thanksgiving 2004. We’d been together continuously for the past 10 years of his life.  I wrote poems to deal with my own grief, and anger, and frustration, because writing poems is what I do when I have strong feelings. I’ve done it all my life, and I’ve always sent my work out in the hope of getting it published. But the poems about widowhood that I submitted to literary magazines were rejected, probably because the editors—mostly young—couldn’t deal with such a painful theme. Then Lise Menn, a college classmate of mine who was also widowed, came to Boston for a conference. We went out to dinner, and while we were waiting for our order, she showed me her widow poems. After reading them, I had this bright idea. I said, “You know, this would be a great topic for an anthology.” And when you have a bright idea, well, you’re the one who has to make it happen. That was how we got started on what became The Widows’ Handbook. I pretty much knew what we’d have to do because I’ve worked in publishing for most of my life. I knew there was a potentially huge readership out there—eight million widows in this country alone!—and I knew that nobody else had done this kind of anthology before.

More experienced poets in The Widows’ Handbook, wrote widow poems because writing poems was what they always did. Lise Menn, my co-editor, wrote her widow poems particularly as a way to communicate her feelings to her therapist, because at first she couldn’t talk about her grief directly. But some of our contributors hadn’t written poetry at all before they were widowed. They started writing, sometimes in the context of therapy or writing groups, as a way of coping.

Continue reading “Interview with Widows’ Handbook Editor Jacqueline Lapidus”

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”

Boston Area Poetry Readings for October and November 2015

I usually post only the upcoming month’s reading so as not to overwhelm you, gentle reader. But Daniel Bouchard, the poet who compiles these listings, sends dates much farther into the future. Time moves faster in the fall in Boston, so here’s a cornucopia of readings for the next six weeks. Get some dates on your calendar now before it’s full of harvest festivals, Halloween parties, and turkey dinners.

Thursday, October 15, 7 pm
Central Square Press Editor Enzo Silon Surin and Afaa Micheal Weaver
Trident Café and Booksellers
Boston Poet Spotlight Series
338 Newbury Street
Boston, MA

Continue reading “Boston Area Poetry Readings for October and November 2015”

Poetry Workshop Update and Field Trip

This Thursday is the penultimate workshop of the fall term. I’m really pleased with how the group has come together. I have a nice core of participants who have been there since the summer but also have room for new people. I’m also getting more confident in developing a model that differs from other workshops I’ve attended.

dreamstime_head_tree_logo_72dpiThe metaphor of a garden of words really applies here. With its focus on positive feedback to new drafts, Toni Amato’s workshop is a wonderful place to nurture seedlings. With its focus on poetic technique and ruthless revision, Barbara Helfgott Hyett’s workshop is excellent place to thin and harden those seedlings. My vision is to create a hybrid of those two models: to develop both fluency and objectivity when looking at our work.

In earlier sessions we focused primarily on sprouting new seedlings. Germination happens through free-writes, the use of different writing prompts, and a close reading of a “host poem” — one which I feel has something to teach us about technique or language. We give first drafts written in workshop nothing but positive feedback  Now that we all seem to have developed a greater level of confidence — both in ourselves and in each other — I’ve asked people to start bringing printouts of more finished drafts. Something happens when you transfer a poem from longhand to type. I almost always end up revising as I go. Seeing it in print also gives me emotional distance. We’ve begun critiquing one another’s drafts, but in a manner that I hope is gentle and supportive. Other members of the workshop seem to appreciate this second phase of the poem-growing process.

If first and second (and third, and fourth, and fifth, and more) drafts grow a poem from scratch, the poem finally bears fruit with publication. It can be hard to keep all three balls in the air at the same time. I find that I usually fluctuate between creating and revising my work and sending it out for publication. Starting in January I made a concerted, consistent effort to send out my work and got much better results than I expected. I’ve given my students a few pointers on where they can find open calls, but the focus of workshop right now is still on creation and revision. I’m curious to see how that might grow and change in future sessions. In the meantime, I continue to be humbled by how much I learn myself while facilitating workshop. Artists really do develop in tribes, just like Julia Cameron says. I’m happy to be following in the footsteps of my teachers by creating one of my own.

Our small tribe will be taking a field trip to the Chapter and Verse Reading Series this Friday, October 9 at 7:30. The Jamaica Pond Poets are talented and welcoming bunch. I look forward to both the featured readers and the open mic that follows.