Thursday, November 1, 2012

A Poet's Diagnosis

One of the best rivers ever Tuesday past! Never-satisfied, River Writers proudly provides a thought-provoking piece from the poet Christopher Shipman; this diagnosis speaks more to the larger context of reading series in general, not specific, and the trouble contemporary poets experience independently traveling the nation to publicize and sell their work:

A Poet’s Diagnosis

A friend mentioned the other day that poets seem to undervalue themselves because they will often read for free. This friend is a great poet himself, but fails to see the source of the problem. Perhaps some poets really do undervalue themselves and their art, and maybe this is the real reason why they don’t expect compensation for their talents. But why do something you don’t appreciate yourself?

The real issue here is that the majority of the American public undervalues poets, which is of course the biggest problem, but what’s more is that poets undervalue other poets, forcing those who really love writing and reading poetry to be more pragmatic about what kind of compensation they can expect from venues and their guests.

There are 3 major indicators that reveal the nature of this problem:

1.) Sometimes poets drive or fly hundreds and hundreds of miles for readings in cities that are known for having good literary scenes and good MFA programs to find maybe 3 people in attendance.  Sometimes the room may be packed with twenty to thirty listeners; then poets will sell maybe two books. And there is always at least one person in the crowd that approaches the poet after the reading to say how much they loved the work...But instead of buying a book, for maybe 15 bucks at the most, the congratulator finds his way to the bar and never considers he could have bought the book while buying his third beer for 6 bucks. In other words, instead of saying it, buy the shit you like.

2.) Oftentimes the poet who has driven the hundreds of miles and has maybe sold two books and has said thank you to the congratulator, becomes that very congratulator at another reading. Why does this happen?  I know a lot of poets, some are good poets and most are good people, who don’t go to readings and don’t buy books. Why not? What new poetry are they supporting? Or valuing? Many poets go to their own readings and apparently don’t care about what other people are writing. This is a way to build a community that is valued by other communities or in the very least its members. If I like what is being read to me, and I am not on the verge of starving, I will purchase the book the poet has so lovingly brought along, and at some point in the near future I will actually read the damn thing. In other words, contemporary poets aren’t  buying and reading enough poetry.

3.) An interesting and perhaps more detrimental indicator of this problem is that poets today have such narrow tastes and styles that they seemingly don’t acknowledge poetry that doesn’t fit into the confines of their own niche. This makes poetry stagnant.

What I really want to say is that I love poems.  I fucking love the poems, and the possibly of publishing and interacting with poets. I can live with the whole world not loving poems so long as poets themselves love them. Support them, read them, hear them, throw them in the river, bury them, and stuff them in your breath. Let’s value each other so others will value us. But if you don’t love poetry, maybe you should just stop fucking pretending.               

1 comment:

Jordan Soyka said...

There are two main issues here, I think. The first is priorities. I'm perhaps less idealistic than Chris. There have been times where I was low on cash (not starving, but struggling), and I put off buying a friend's book. I don't really feel bad about that. The book doesn't vanish, and I make an effort to buy it later. HOWEVER, it's that "later" part that becomes the issue. Once you put off buying a book, it's easy to keep putting it off.

That brings me to the second issue--inertia. The energy of a writing community feeds (and feeds off) itself. If you blow off buying a friend's chapbook, that not only means less money for the friend who put a lot of time & energy into the book, it also feeds into the overall enthusiasm of the community. Even though money isn't THE motivating factor for being a writer (and if it is, you haven't thought this through very well...), it is an important part of the overall equation that includes everything from going to readings to sharing people's work on Facebook. Some parts of that equation take more energy and commitment than others, but they're all necessary.

I think this is a good time for us all to re-commit ourselves (is this starting to sound like an NPR pledge drive?). I'm sure we've all been guilty of not being as supportive as we can at some point. But guilt isn't a useful emotion. There are a lot of exciting things going on right now amongst our friends. Get involved!