Friday, May 23, 2008

Suggested blog topic: The Career Poet and How to Make Money & Influence People

This seems to be on the minds of a lot of us. I just saw that Jeannine was thinking about this as well and has two links to two other poets who are thinking about this too.

Maybe we're thinking about money and "careers" more because our economy is an ugly mess. With the extra we're paying towards gas, the less we have for things in our lives that really "fill" us (no pun intended).

But first I have to comment on the term "career poet," I think it's an oxymoron. You can not be a "career poet" just as one cannot guess the weather in Topeka for the next thousand days, we have no control of the weather in Topeka and as writers, much of our writer's life is responding to what happens *to* us. Yes, we can submit or self-publish, but our so-called "careers" are controlled by others and we can take a hundred different routes to the same goal.

I think we need to define "career." If we mean by "career," a way to make a living, I'm not with you. But if we mean by "career," as a way to make a life, then you have my attention.

Here are some "career" definitions I learn towards--

1) The sum total of your life experiences including education, paid and unpaid work, and community, volunteer and family activities.

2) A profession or occupation that one trains for and pursues as a life work.

I do not see poetry as a career sport in the way one would pursue a career solely for the paycheck.

Plus, if you're in poetry for the money, you might as well take a cardboard sign and write this haiku:

will stand here for cash--
unemployed poet with time
to smell the daisies

because most likely, you will make more through the generosity of others than you will through selling your books. (Though note, you could be highly successful, this is a generalization of most poetry books which may or may not be you and/or your book.)

However, don't take this as hopelessness or one of many fears I've read from poets of "there too many poets graduating with MFAs" or too many poets. That's like saying there are too many wildflowers, lighten up a little. There's enough room on the island for everyone.

But the career poet, I don't believe it. I believe in following your passion. I believe in getting paid for your work when you can. I believe in buying and selling books. I believe in supporting poets and independent presses. I believe in writing, in discussing poetry, in discussing art and the writer's life. But I don't believe in the career poet, but in making a life from your writing and doing that however you are able.

I think it was Ilya Kaminsky who called himself a "practicing writer" or "practicing poet." And I like that term a lot. It says so much as we are all practicing. Even call yourself a working poet. Find a verb to describe you, the nouns will bring you down every time.

In one of the posts Jeannine posted, the writer wrote this--

There are four ways to survive as a writer in the US in 2006: the university; journalism; odd jobs; and independent wealth. I have tried the first three. Each has its costs.

***But in each of these, we are not actually surviving as a writer, we are surviving as citizens who need to eat and have a place to live. We each have this challenge, whether an artist or not, we need to pay the bills. But surviving as a writer and/or poet is different, to me it means living in the world with intention and in giving focus and time to your art.

Let us all be surviving writers, be alive and writing despite the GW economy or the price of gas, or the propane bill, the heat bill, the parking ticket.

Whether or not you are earning money from your work does not equal whether or not you are a successful poet, writer, or artist. Many of things that matter most to me in this life are not "cash cows." Somehow we've confused successful with rich, successful with profitable, successful with money-making.

How did this happen? How did rich become synonymous with successful, they are two completely different words.

You are successful as a writer if you find what you do rewarding to you as a person. You are successful as a writer if your work connects with another.

It has nothing to do with how much income one has generated through their writing. And on the other side of that, I do not think someone is a successful writer because they've earned a lot of money, they are a rich writer or a writer with a bigger disposable income, but in my thoughts $$ doesn't always = success. They can go hand in hand. Great writers can get great money, and when that happens let the confetti fall on all of us, but great writers can also be overlooked and underpaid, and many times, they are.

* * *

So, if it comes down to cash, how do we make money?

Some writers write freelance articles or do technical writing on the side. Some are skilled in other areas and do website or graphic design. Others work in bookstores part or full time. Some are baristas.

I have sold things on eBay for extra money. I have taught workshops or done readings and hoped to sell a book or two. From Sept-June, I work privately with a few poets and help them with their work. This summer, I'm having a garage sale. I'm applying for a very part-time job in the fall. We do what we need to do to pay the rent and feed our families, and to have some extra money to buy books.

But if I were to base my self-esteem on whether I bring in X number of dollars every year as a poet, I might as well squeeze the blood out of my paper as this is not a way to live.

What I can tell you-- life is temporary, we must live it the way that makes us happy even it goes against what the rest of America is doing. You are not your Coach purse. You are not your khakis. Do your best and follow your instincts. And if you find yourself wondering how your "career as a poet" is going, go write a poem instead. This writing life, it's a journey, not a destination. To some of us it's spirituality, to others it's sanity.

We will never get exactly where we are going anyway, but we can have fun trying. And the money thang, we all struggle with it, even the richest folks struggle with money because we've somehow built a country that believes you are your paycheck--you are not your paycheck.

Try to have enough money to eat well, sleep in a warm place, follow your passions, and a little more to give to others.

As Forrest Gump said, “Momma always said there’s only so much money a man needs, the rest is just for showing off”.

And the bumper sticker I saw this morning--
The best things in life are not things.

I hope all our banks accounts are full, but I also hope as humans we are filled in a deeper way. We have to be. We have to be.


  1. I like "working poet". That suits. I am a poet and I am always working. :)))

  2. "The best things in life are not things." Love it.


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