While the Crowd Applauds, Poets Struggle to Afford a Meal

by Mike Dunphy

“To be a poet is a condition, not a profession,” wrote Robert Frost, and Vermont poet laureate Chard deNiord would like to add an addendum. “If you are dedicated to writing poetry,” he says, “it’s a little bit like a disease. You’re infected with it, so you have to do it.”

And one of the key symptoms of the poetry “disease” is poverty. While events such as PoemCity in Montpelier and others big and small throughout Vermont—not to mention Vermonters themselves—do much to celebrate poetry, it’s worth remembering that there is almost no financial support to even keep poets fed. “There are thousands of poets writing in America today,” deNiord points out, “and only a very select few can make enough to even go out to dinner.”

Of course, whether poetry and moneymaking should even be spoken in the same breath is an open debate, as any financial or business angle seems to many a toxin to the essence of the art. The poets themselves—as with painters, potters, sculptures, writers, and other artists—would probably beg to differ.

“There is no way to do it for a living—be a poet—unless you are in such high demand that your honorarium is sky high, which is almost none of us,” explains poet Kerrin McCadden—winner of the Vermont Book Award and a recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship, a Vermont Studio Center Fellowship, and the Sustainable Arts Foundation Writing Award. “Almost no journal pays at all, and there is no such thing as royalties for book sales. Most poets do their readings for no pay, get no pay for publication of poems, and no significant pay for publishing a book of poems. You’d have to be signed with an agency for a high level of pay, and the number of poets, nationwide, who are signed by agencies is statistically nil.”

In Vermont, despite its arguably greater appreciation of the arts than many other places, the ability of poets to support themselves, or even buy a caffe latte with their earnings, follows suit, with very few opportunities to make any money. That’s not to say there are no opportunities. Indeed, many poets pay the bills by teaching it. deNiord, for example, is a professor of English at Providence College in Rhode Island, while poet Kerrin McCadden teaches English and creative writing at Montpelier High School.

Grants and awards can offer some measure of support as well, but they are few and far between and rarely get above $2,000 at the state level. The Vermont Community Foundation, for example, gave Kristina Stykos $2,000 in 2017 to complete a self-published boxed set of poetry, while the Vermont Arts Council gave poet Marv Klassen-Landis $1,500 to support a six-day residency at Barnard Academy. And Hunger Mountain, the journal of the Vermont College of Fine Arts, presents the Ruth Stone Poetry Prize each year, with $1,000 for the winner and $100 for the runner up.  The biggest prizes, however, remain at the national level. With the NEA award, McCadden earned $25,000, but she’s quick to point out how rare it is. “I was one of about 40 or so ‘winners,’ out of a pool of 1,173 applicants. That represents about a three percent chance of getting the funding.”

Readings are another source of income for poets, usually through an honorarium paid by the host. PoemCity, which received $4,000 from the Vermont Humanities Council, uses some of that amount to pay $100 or $150 to the attending laureates and those conducting workshops. More successful poets like McCadden can earn up to $600 for readings, particularly on national tours. And, of course, if you can actually become poet laureate of Vermont, the income amounts to $1,000 for the four-year tenure.

Perhaps most shocking is the fact that even if a poet can actually ever get published in a journal, or even an entire book, there’s even less money, and in most cases, none, often because the journals themselves are operating on a shoestring budget.  “With most books,” McCadden points out, “you are dealing with a university press, and you don’t get royalties; you get a one-time price. My book made me $2,000, and they gave me 100 copies to sell at $15 each. Perhaps poet Don Marquis explained the situation best: “Publishing a book of poetry is like dropping a rose petal down the Grand Canyon and waiting for the echo.”

For some, making money at poetry means a trip to the “dark side,” which means producing schlock for greeting card companies, advertising firms, and the like. It also means adopting a business-style approach and hustle to marking your work. In New York City, for example, three poets—Lisa Markuson, Erick Szentmiklosy, and Daniel Zaltsman—founded the Haiku Guys+Gals, which blends poetry and performance art by writing personalized haiku poems on typewriters at events at the price of $200 and $250 per hour. “This is the only way that I’ve ever seen poetry become a viable business model,” Markuson notes in an article in Fast Company.

Mixing business and poetry doesn’t sit well with every poet, of course. “If a poet places monetary gain ahead his or her poetic aesthetic, I do think that’s a problem,” deNiord says, but points out that even Allen Ginsberg worked for a Madison Avenue advertising agency, adding, “Who can blame a poet for trying to make a living off his writing?” McCadden is more emphatic in her support for this sort of work. “More power to ‘em. Everybody needs a money-making day job until the world figures out that poets are worth some money.”

Actually, many other places in the world do seem to value poets more, and the proof is often right on the money itself. Tunisia and Turkey, for example, each count two poets on their currency; Ireland has three; Israel and Ukraine have four each, but all are outdone by Bosnia and Herzegovina, which features a poet on every banknote but one, and that one is a novelist.  “You can’t compare what’s going on now in this culture with this hostility toward artists and the National Endowment for the Arts with South American countries or European countries,” deNiord reflects, “where there is often an enormous amount of support for their artists and people think about poetry, say in a country like Brazil, as a vital source of inspiration.”

That’s quite a contrast with the minuscule governmental support poetry and the arts get in the United States. As recently as February, President Trump called for the complete elimination of the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts, although it’s important to note that Congress actually pushed back, awarding the NEA and NEH about $153 million each, $3 million more than last year. However, it’s still a drop in the bucket compared to countries such as Germany, which supported the arts to the tune of $1.5 billion in 2013, or France, which gave $4.73 billion in the same year.

It also underscores the lack of integration of poetry into the everyday lives of the American public, often owing to bad experiences in the education of poetry. For generations, students in U.S. schools viewed poetry as complex puzzles with a single solution, underlined by the dreaded teacher’s refrain of “What does this mean?” As a teacher at Montpelier High School, McCadden knows this issue intimately and is working hard to change it. “There’s a disconnect between the public and the poetry community, where the public is distrustful of poets and poetry—just the whole notion of ‘I don’t understand poetry, I never have.’ I think this comes from the way we are taught about it . . . that they have to know the answers to it and they’ve never gotten them right, which is not the point. The point is to be moved and to experience and see something through someone else’s eyes.”

deNiord sees this disconnect too, particularly on the shelves of bookstores and libraries. “We are living in a really weird time in which there are so many literary journals and so many new books almost every day that the Library of Congress can’t keep up with it, and at the same time you walk into any bookstore. . . and there’s about 12 books of poetry on the shelf, so there’s this huge disconnect between what’s going on the Internet, in workshops, in the poetry world, and what you see for sale in bookstores or in libraries.”

Thankfully, programs such as Poetry Out Loud—a national competition for high-schoolers created by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation—are beginning to change this perception. Contestants recite classical and contemporary poetry while mastering public speaking skills as well as building self confidence. It’s particularly popular in Vermont, according to Karen Mittelman, executive director of the Vermont Arts Council.  “In Vermont, we engage more than 30 schools and 5,000 young people each year, which in a state of this size is pretty extraordinary. This is an outstanding program . . . it teaches the art of poetry recitation, it nurtures a love of poetry, and it exposes students to some of the best writing they are going to come across in their school careers.”

PoemCity as yet another example of how Vermont is outdoing its small size when it comes to supporting poetry. “The whole venture of PoemCity is remarkable,” says McCadden. “I don’t know of another state where you walk down the streets of the capital and see hundreds of poems by local folks in the windows. For the size of the state and its resources, it’s doing remarkably well.”

And, of course, the landscape of Vermont is poetry. “It’s a gorgeous place to live,” deNiord extols, “There are beautiful vistas, mountains, lakes, and hideaways throughout the state. There’s also a legacy of fierce independence, self-reliance, and ingenuity in its residents that epitomizes the practice of writing poetry itself. One of the qualities that endures as a bittersweet yet alluring theme in much of Vermont poetry is the ironic double nature of the state’s character as both an archetypal paradise and formidable wilderness. This seeming contradiction provides the perfect recipe for sublime poetry. For many promising poets, as well as established ones, this call is hard to resist.”

Robert Frost certainly embraced that spirit and channeled it, along with his view on poetry as a profession, into the poem, “Two Tramps In Mud Time”:

My object in living is to unite

My avocation and my vocation

As my two eyes make one in sight.

Only where love and need are one,

And the work is play for mortal stakes,

Is the deed ever really done

For Heaven and the future’s sakes.

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