Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Community vs. cash?

In a recent conversation on poetry, one poet told me that community is "absolutely necessary" to her creative process. She was specifically speaking about a close group of a few fellow writers, but since that conversation, I've been mulling over the concept of a poetry "community."

Anyone relatively active in poetry readings in Northeast Ohio would confirm the presence of a poetry "community" in the Cleveland area, and many who attend readings regularly would also probably attest to the importance of such a community. But I'm wondering exactly what aspect (or aspects) of "community" poets feel is necessary to the creative process.

Open mics and regular readings provide an open forum, but doesn't "community" imply more than that. More formalized groups with paid memberships--like the lately departed Lit--provide workshops, classes, and regular publications, but many of those groups seem to be struggling, or like The-Lit, going under. It's easy to blame it on the economy--people don't have the money to pay for writing association memberships right now. But I have to wonder if such groups might also be going under because they're be
coming obsolete, no longer meeting the needs of poets in 2012.

So now I'm wondering if you would pay for membership in a poetry organization, and what perks you consider to be worth the price of a paid membership. Or do informal gatherings provide you with everything you feel you need in a creative community for free?

(In the interest of full-disclosure, this isn't purely a point of personal interest. As current VP of the Ohio Poetry Association, I'm genuinely interested in feedback on how we could make formal poetry organizations more relevant to members and potential members and what you, as poets, feel are the needs among NE Ohio writers that are not being met right now.)


Anonymous said...

Make it more relevant by not going bankrupt. Give a full disclosure of where all the money went. Once bitten..

T.M. Göttl said...

I can't speak for other groups, but as a registered non-profit, the OPA gives a full financial report at every quarterly meeting, open to members and the public.

Anything else that folks would like to see more of? Or what would or wouldn't deter you from paying a membership to a writing organization?

michael salinger said...

IMHO a successful poetry organization will do these things:

Be a presenting organization - provide a space for readings.

Embrace social media.

Have a strong board who are able and will hold individual officers accountable.

Partner with like organizations across the city - state - country - world.

Remember the organization exists for its members - not a bullet point on someone's resume.

Combine poetry with other art forms in order to grow audience.

Transparency with budgets never really comes into play until after an organization has gone belly up. This is the reason a strong board is needed. There is really no need for point by point transparency if the finances are being sufficiently monitored by an engaged board. Budgets are usually available to members and it has been my experience that members will give them a cursory glance at best.

Rob said...

Organizing artists may be oxymoronic. We work so much in solitude, but are enriched by interaction with other creators. I've been in writers' groups that were very informal. We'd meet at someone's house and everyone would bring what they were working on currently. There were no dues and no organizational goal setting. It was a fellowship of writers, and we all grew and derived a discipline that kept us going (we were all novel writers). It reminds me of the Inklings group at Oxford that gave us Tolkien, Charles Williams, and C.S, Lewis among others. They preserved and developed their individuality in the company of other creative minds.

What I tend to see nowadays is, for the lack of a better word, an academic model. A leader/teacher/expert structures a lesson plan for the wannabees. The price tags vary (MFA's are on the high side), but, in my opinion, they undermine the idea of a writing community by fostering the illusion of a hierarchy of "greater worth" dependent on something like initials after the name or being on the planning team. (Yes, I know that not all writing is created equal, but much of that is personal preference. (I've had "fellow writers" tell me that my books are read because they are simply popular fiction. Their writing doesn't attract the average reader because it is literary. Whatever, that means, it is not helpful to the creative process.)

Back to the topic at hand. Poetry readings with open mikes are useful for that genre in allowing private words to meet public ears. Novelists have to give away their work in hopes of finding readers, and it's a slow, word-of-mouth slog.

When I was more naive, I thought that organizations like the Lit or Ohioana would be interested in discovering grassroots voices. Not so much. Ohioana likes to give "me too" awards for those already recognized by the industry. (That's fine, but I have heard a lot of Ohio poets in a lot of venues, and they write well.) A community of writers, first and foremost, lifts the art without prejudging the source.

~elise said...

I agree that an organiz. needs to offer space for readings and offer readings that are more accessible to the public (thinking the Mirror of the Arts series from long agor)...would love to have workshops, "write-in"s, and a newletter (like the LIt used to send snail mail...remember the loooong yellow listing of all poetry/writing events?). I'd love to see them also foster new, young writers and offer events for youth...

Azriel Johnson said...

*exactly what aspect (or aspects) of "community" poets feel is necessary to the creative process.*

From my own experiences, the exposure to new forms and styles of writing and performing are inspiring. I find myself greatly inspired after WKP events and I've gotten a lot of comments how those in attendance have felt inspired afterwards also.

"So now I'm wondering if you would pay for membership in a poetry organization, and what perks you consider to be worth the price of a paid membership. Or do informal gatherings provide you with everything you feel you need in a creative community for free?"

I would pay for a membership in a poetry organization if my personal budge allowed for it. However, the poetry organization would have to be one that was a "super" organization that was easily recognizable even to a layman. But as it is the free gatherings WKP organizes do fine for me.

We write in solitude (most of us) but we need to have inspiring experiences to translate to the page. If a community exists that inspires us we will support it when we have the cash.

I'm not sure where I was going with that... so there's a penny and half for the bucket. :)

~elise said...

What is WKP?

Anonymous said...

How about a poetry book club? Maybe that way poets will start reading other poets.

Anonymous said...

As a registered Non-Profit the PWLGC also was transparent, they just made the funds they received transparent to point of invisiblity

Rob said...

I was never closely associated with the Lit, but I do have some experience with not-for-profits. First the reporting requirements have increased in the past five years, so, at least the Form 990 should be public and available. (For those who are interested in what the Lit did.)

More apropos for this discussion is to clarify the difference between for-profit and not-for-profit businesses. In general, in a for-profit company there is a direct exchange of value with the customer who is buying my "product". The income comes from payments by the end-user, and business is driven by the bottom line.

In a not-for-profit, the organization has to be driven by its mission statement and revenues may not come from the target group. In other words, the target group may not be the customer at all. I think this would be what works in the arts. If my mission is to support poets, I wouldn't expect the poets to be the continuing source of revenue. That would be a for-profit model and I would have to guarantee some direct exchange of value with my poet customers. The only example I can think of is if my business was to be a paid publicist and book events for my clients. (After some period of time, the poets would know if it worked and either walk or re-up.)

If my goal is to support poetry in the larger community (mission-driven) then I would try to serve my poet stakeholders by finding a way to place their work into the hands of people who want to read and support poets. I think that the Lit had something like this in mind, but they became enamored with the product and had no viable means of distribution to anyone other than the poets themselves (and they did not seem particularly anxious expand their literary contributors' group). They wanted the magazine to reflect a refined image which, in the end, was not marketable to the larger community or reflective of the broader work being done by Cleveland artists.

It's easier to run workshops as a for-profit fee for service. Eventually, however, writers will ask what am I getting for this? We can get together for readings at little or no cost and it requires little organization. What is frustrating is that Ohio artists have no public face that really reflects who we are.

I would be willing to (for a trial time at least) to help pay for a free newspaper-format giveaway (at the libraries?) IF my writing was eligible to be in it and it was going in sufficient numbers to readers and not just writers.

John Burroughs said...

I have difficulty answering the general question "what would or wouldn't deter you from paying a membership to a writing organization?" because it kinda depends on the organization. For example, there are some things I expect/need from a Cleveland-based organization like The Lit that differ from what I expect/need from a statewide organization like the OPA - and I'd expect/need different things altogether from a "writing organization" that isn't regionally based at all. In fact, I'd be more inclined to pay for memberships to all three if they each filled different (but still important) needs (unless I was rich, in which case I'd be happy to support three or more organizations that filled the same needs). The important thing is that I feel they care about my needs and not just about getting my money.

At the risk of seeming to contradict myself, however, there are some needs I have (and that I feel the writing "community" has) that both a local organizational like The Lit and a broader based one like the OPA can and should address, and I think Michael strikes several of these nails on their heads. Easy ways to make a lot of writers feel involved and that their needs matter (which will make them more likely to become and remain members) include engaging them through social networking (don't just drag them to the organization, bring the organization to them), partnering with like organizations, promoting (and providing resources for) a wider variety of area poets (not just members), providing a dedicated (but inexpensive) space for events/meetings (and making it as widely available as possible), not catering primarily to the academics or potential cash cows but also to the writers who have little to give but their writing, and mingling poetry/writing with other art forms to build audience but keeping good writing at the fore (don't make the poetry an also-ran to the visual art as The Lit's Muse sometimes seemed to do).

I could go on and on. But first let me have my morning coffee.

pottygok said...

If I'm paying money for a poetry organization, it would need:

*a strong publication with some sort of member content/control, including poems, book reviews, essays on poetry and poetics, etc.

*a yearly anthology, again with member driven content/control, somehow honoring the best of the best

*local representation of some sort, including local gatherings/meetings

*attempts to increase poetry awareness in the larger community

*education for poets

Right now, there are a lot open mikes in NEOH, but not a lot of educational opportunities for poets to learn from each other. This is something The Lit used to provide, and it worked. I think if these could be organized for a nominal fee ($5 a head, perhaps, to make it work the teachers time) that would be wonderful. Part of my issue with open mikes is that there's a lot of great poetry being written, but a lot of mediocre and crappy poetry being written, too. Any poetry organization should work to correct this.


The poet doesn't invent. He listens. ~Jean Cocteau