Why Poets Should be Paid Well for their Work-

Since I wrote why I don’t put a price tag on my poems and that I believe if people want to have a job full of monetary reward, the role of “poet” may not be the best job for you, I want to write the other side of this—that while I believe that if you are writing poetry *solely* to make money, you may have boarded the wrong train—I honestly do believe poets and all artists should be paid better AND well for their work.

What? You ask, You just wrote a whole post how you give away poems and you aren’t in this to make money. Yes. That is true. But do I believe a poem is worth as much as “The Break-Up” starring Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn. Yes, I do. In fact, I think poets *should* be paid as much those two, and especially as much as Cameron Diaz—actually *I* should be paid for having to sit through a Cameron Diaz movie, but that’s another issue.

I guess I just want to clear up the idea that I think poets need to be poor to be 1) creative 2) interesting 3) honorable. I don’t. I would love to see every poet I know get a $500K Genius grant and not have to rely on a 1) teaching job 2) part time gigs 3) stealing. I would love to see our books on the bestseller list, and do I think they deserve to be on there with all those long works of fiction? Yes, and again, even more so.

I guess my biggest issue with artists and money is when the money becomes the motivator for what one creates. For example, let’s say pig poems are popular and they are selling like sausages. Journals like the Bacon Review start popping up. Every time you read a poem it’s about a pig or some aspect of a pig. Why? Because consumer demand is changing who we are as artists, they become the source that dictates what we create. We want to write a poem about depression or loss, but happy pig poems are selling and so that becomes the poem we write-- and the poem we want to write, we need to write, disappears into the vapor.

I guess my biggest disagreement with Wendy Cope was how far she had taken it, how there didn't seem to be a gray line. She was annoyed because people forwarded her poems onto someone. Again, I guess I just do not see how this can be a bad thing. Most people in the world have not heard of Wendy Cope, if they get a poem by her and they like it, there is a bigger opportunity for one of her books to be purchased than there would have been when the person had no idea who she was.

I think people share poems because they love them. I know when I send someone the poem “New Poet,” by Linda Pastan, it’s not because I want to take royalties away from Linda, but because I am so in love with that poem I want to share it with someone I feel would love it just as much.

As poets, as writers, and as artists, I think we should support each other both emotionally and as with our checkbooks. Yes, if you like someone’s work, buy their book. It’s a win/win—you’ll get a book you cherish and they (or their press) will get some money from it—poetry will be supported. But again, I return to the idea that most artists (I think) don’t become artists because they are looking for the big pay-off. I’ll return to that Jasper Johns quote again:

I assumed that everything would lead to complete failure, but I decided that didn't matter - that would be my life.

I write poetry because the payoff is not just monetary and so far, I’ve had a few prizes and grants that have helped me enormously that I am truly grateful for. But I didn’t come to poetry because I thought that it would lead me to riches. If down the road, I sell as many books as Billy Collins or Mary Oliver, I’d of course be thrilled. If I could write poetry without worrying about money, bills, if I can attend this conference or not, the price of gas, etc. etc. because I’m getting enough back from book sales, royalties, prizes, grants, art donors, Oprah, tv interviews, cameos in movies, or in any other surprising way that happens, then yes, my life would be a lot easier financially for me. But if that never happens and I happily go to the mailbox and get my $25 check from the North American Review or just a note that says, “We’ve accepted your poem. Your payment is a subscriber copy,” honestly, I'm happy as well. Because I will write poetry even if no one pays me for it. And I think that is what all people should always ask themselves with any job. If no one were paying you to do this, would you still want to?

I don't believe money is the root of all evil and in fact, I think money can actually do a lot of good for people. Dear poets, I want your pockets to be filled with cash, for each of you to sell a ton of books, and my wish is that we can all be financially independent so we can focus on solely on our art. I understand the importance of artists and writers being paid well for their work and wish it to each of you. I wish it for myself as well.

But I also understand we write poetry because we cannot not write poetry. And I’m not convinced that poetry’s payoff is necessarily written out in check. I don't think a poet should feel annoyed with others for sharing your work. I think in living the life as a poet, a writer, an artist, there is far more to grateful for than there is not. I am thankful for having the time to write a poem. I know that by not working right now, there is a sacrifice. I can't purchase everything I want. I have to think about the dreaded words "living on a budget," but I am thankful every moment for the time I have to sit down and write. And mostly likely, next year, I will getting a part-time job and my writing time will dwindle a bit, so I'm even more thankful for the time I have right now. And I feel lucky and grateful for all that I have.

But I guess I've learned that happiness, satisfaction, or any of those feel good words cannot be tied to money. Poets and artists should be paid more. They should be able to live off their art without having to sacrifice their creative time to pay the bills. But ironically, I like to think of writing as its own version of the MasterCard commercial--

Ream of paper: $4.50
Pencil: 25 cents.
Chai tea at the local coffee joint: $3.23
The satisfaction of writing a poem: Priceless.

Poetry: There are some things money can't buy.


  1. Hi Kelli --- I have been reading your blog entries, the linked articles and people's responses with great interest the last few days. I actually have purchased more poetry books since I started reading blogs, including your book which tapped on subjects so close to me that I couldn't even write about how much I love your work on my own blog. Thanks for addressing these responses, but also thanks for writing poetry, even though you are not making the "big bucks."

  2. Karen,

    I forgot to leave a big Thankyou here! And "big bucks" is relative, I feel rich in many ways.

    Thanks for your note and I'm glad you're enjoying my book.



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