“How Not to Become Cruel in Living”

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Recently, I was reading an interview with Eileen Myles on living as a poet. In it, she said, “It’s the big question. I mean how does a poet survive? I was hell bent on being poor when I was young because it was my only way to have time and space and reclaim a childhood of the mind. Then by the time I hit my 30s I thought wait wait I didn’t mean really poor. I mean not always! So I had to figure out how to do it really in time meaning aging and growing professional somehow. My only idea has always been to keep simply a poet in some way but also let it fan out into you know performer, art critic, novelist, teacher. I try to never turn into anything else entirely. It hasn’t been easy but I’m less controlled by money at this moment than any other time. I think time is the issue. How to be alone or with your group in time. How to find all the nooks and crannies in it you need to know and develop and laugh and be marginal. How not to become cruel in living. I think poets are kind of symbolic people. While we’re struggling in the hyper capitalist consumer culture doing this radiant thing we’re doing it for everyone. We have to learn how not to hate it.” Read the whole interview over at Vouched Books.

I’ve been thinking about this issues for a while now, as most poets have to. I’ve proposed a panel for the Associated Writing Programs Conference in Minneapolis in 2015 and I’m pleased to say that it’s been accepted. (For a list of all the accepted events, and more information about the conference, click here.) I’m really pleased that Eileen Myles will be on the panel, along with Colleen Robertson Able, Millicent Accardi, and myself. (If you have ideas or models for poets raising money via poetry or related to poetry (not through a day job, etc) please send me a message and let me know about it; I’m compiling a list of best (or possible) practices, to share with attendees.) Our panel is called “From Rent Parties to Kickstarter: Toward a Democratic Patronage of Poetry,” and I think it’s going to be a terrific conversation.

A while back I read Lewis Hyde’s The Gift and started thinking a lot about poetry and its uneasy, maybe untenable position within capitalism. (I wrote a post about it for Metre Maids which you can check out here.) Maybe I’m projecting my own sense of unease within that, but it seems that poets try to fit the model and sell books, and sell poems, and it just never measures up. But I’ve never enjoyed poetry that feels at all like a transaction. I value poetry that feels like a gift, and so making it a transaction has always felt like a mistake to me. I’ve never been totally comfortable selling my book and would prefer to give them away except that I feel people should also get to participate, to reciprocate in whatever way they see fit, besides which I don’t get the books for free myself.

In order to allow people to pay what they feel the book is worth to them and/or what they feel they can afford, I’ve switched over to Dwolla and changed the payment for my book, The Alphabet Conspiracy, to be set by the reader. I’ve also been really interested of late in making more room for the reader, of taking them out of the passive role whenever possible, and letting them decide the price is part of that project too.

I decided to switch to Dwolla from PayPal because I was pretty uncomfortable with what I’d read about one of its founders, Peter Thiel and their fees seem crazy high. Dwolla, on the other hand, charges nothing (that’s right—zip, zilch, zero) for transactions under $10 and a flat fee of 25 cents for other transactions.

I’m really hoping other poets will begin to do this. I’ve gone to a lot of readings where I’ve bought the book or already own the book but I love the poems so much, I feel the poet deserves more. I know a lot of poets, but unfortunately I don’t know a lot of people who would appreciate a book of poetry as a gift, so just buying a copy to give away isn’t always an option. But if a poet had a Dwolla account, I could just give a gift that reflects the worth of those poems in my life. Not all books are created equal, and this would allow readers to determine the value after the experience of reading, not before. It requires trust, and a lot of folks just won’t do it. But even if just a handful did, think of how much more poets would feel appreciated. And they might not be able to pay rent with the results, but it would likely be more than their royalty checks.

Of course, poets also get money from grants and foundations, which I felt better about before reading the first chapter of Capitalism: A Ghost Story by Arundhati Roy (a terrifying book that I highly recommend). She traces the history of foundations and makes you think about the motivations of corporations to support certain writers and artists; I’m not a fan of conspiracy theories, but it does give you pause). And it points out that corporations aren’t people; they aren’t readers. The people who should support writers and artists are just that: actual people. It’s an obligation, and also a privilege, that we shouldn’t cede to corporations.

Poets are a symbolic people, as Eileen Myles pointed out, and they’re sort of like a canary in the coal mine. Maybe we can judge the health of a society, or at least the value attached to meaning and language in a society, at least in part by the status of their poets. And if that’s true, there’s more than the livelihood of living poets at stake here.

If you want to participate by giving me a “tip,” go to The Alphabet Conspiracy page and click on the link, or set up your own Dwolla account and let me know about it. This way if someone wants to use one of your poems on a blog or a pillow or whatever, they can send you a little token of their appreciation, or at least link to your website with the Dwolla account so that readers can.

I’ll keep you posted on my experiment. In the meantime, I leave you with these thoughts from Wanda Coleman: