Thursday, January 15, 2009

...And They'll Take Care Of You?

Growing up,
I was ingrained with an idea of familial responsibility. Every party, every wedding, every funeral, every sports event, every bat mitsvah, every bar mitsvah, every graduation required the attendance of at least one member of, if not my entire, immediate family. The reason was simple--"We're family." This attendance was returned in kind, and so the lesson became truth. When my great uncle died, I was righteously angry that none of my cousins were there, partially because I was taken out of a poetry class to make sure that I made it to the two gate, one runway Westchester Airport with plenty of time to spare, but partially because so few branches of the "northern contingent" of my family were represented. I felt that we, in some way, were not just letting my aunt and my cousins down, but letting down entire generations of our family.

What does this have to do with poetry? Recently, I nominated a poem of mine for a Preditors and Editors Award, a fairly democratic contest in which anybody with an e-mail is allowed one vote per category. I sent e-mails to all of my friends and family, asking for their support and then, when I realized I actually had a chance of winning, sent out a second round of e-mails, begging anyone who hadn't voted to take the three minutes to vote.

The reaction I received was, in some ways, inspiring, but in others, depressing. Many, many people voted for my poem. Friends, family members, even people--editors and fellow poets--with whom I've only had contact via e-mail. Some very generous people even sent out mass e-mails in my support, asking all of THEIR friends to support me. However, there were some reactions that puzzled and deeply hurt me. A few people wrote back, angry that I promoted my poems in such a way. One friend accused me of spamming, while another refused to vote because they felt the contest was rigged in some way.

I think my gut reaction returns to the idea that, somehow, if you take care of and support your family, they'll take care of you. I realize we're all financially strapped right now (or at least I am...), so I feel it falls upon us to support each other more creatively. In what ways can one support another poet? In what ways can one support the poetry community? One obvious answer is presence--attend readings, host readings, support readings, promote readings, etc. I would have no problem reading to a group of 20-30 people, even if none of them purchased my book that evening. At least I would know that 20-30 people took the time out of their evening to sit and listen to my work for a while. This is especially true in this weather. I recently did a reading in Brunswick where fellow poets battled some fairly nasty weather, job hours, and other heinous conditions to listen and support me. I didn't sell one book at that reading, but the huge hug that I received from those poets who came out to listen made it worth it.

However, I feel that presence cannot be the only answer. There has to be something more, some greater support that one can give. Perhaps it's through contests like P&E, where a community rallies around their writers. Instead of seeing it as a poet desperately trying to beat the bushes for every available vote possible, perhaps we should see it as a way to say that this poet is OURS, this poet is a member of our family and deserves our alliegence. Perhaps it's through organizations like The-Lit. Perhaps it's through an even greater sacrifice, financial or otherwise. In many religions, there is an idea of setting aside a certain percentage of one's income and life for the Divine. Often called tithing or tything, one should set aside 10% of everything for God. Why not do the same for poetry? Or even half of that--5%? At $7/hour, 40 hours/week, 50 weeks a year, one makes $14,000. 5% of that is $700--a LOT of chapbooks, poetry books, etc. Adding up every book sold at a Deep Cleveland Poetry Hour in the past year, I think one could spend between $200-250, which isn't even half of that 5%. If ten people did this each week, or even every other week--2.5% of their income for poetry, many poets would have the financial support they need, and possibly have money to spend on OTHER poets, who in turn would spend THEIR money on poets, etc. What if that 2.5-5% were translated into time? Many record labels have "street teams"--volunteers that go around, promoting concerts, distributing flyers, mailing postcards, etc. to support the bands coming to their town. What if presses had teams like that, promoting readings and events?

What responsibility do you have to the NEOH poetry scene?

What does that responsibility translate into?


Anonymous said...

Being involved in both the local poetry and music scenes, I will say that there is something about communities that center around the arts that make them very much a "family". Go to a handful of concerts/readings/shows, and you'll start recognizing familiar faces. Go to a few more, and there will be hugs and pats on the back as you walk in the door.

Josh, it makes me sad that you would receive ANY negative comments when asking for support. When we support one of our own, we support ourselves. Something as simple as taking two minutes to participate in an internet vote shouldn't turn into a philosophical argument. It should be, as you said, as natural as supporting family.

Back to your comparison to the music scene--musicians and bands do the same thing all the time, petitioning fans to vote in various contests, to attend important shows, etc. And yet, there seems to be a school of thought that shuns poets who try to promote their poetry. And I can't understand why. By keeping that holier-than-thou attitude about poetry, it seems like those poets are only trying to perpetuate the stereotype that poetry ISN'T for everyone, that it should be kept under lock and key, not to be sullied by the likes of internet voting and self-promotion, and--God forbid!--the likes of an artist actually trying to make a buck off his work on occasion.

Self-promotion (or whatever you want to call it) is less about trying to get something for yourself than it is about reaching out for help when it's needed. That's what family does.

Why NOT have street teams!? Why can't we hang flyers and post bulletins and start message boards?! Why can't we take a hint from the music scene?

When my book came out last year, we offered pre-orders, the same way that bands will when they have a new CD coming out. Some folks laughed, but, you know what, it worked for us. And being around some of our local musicians has given me a different perspective on a lot of things.

I guess I've gotten a bit off track, but I constantly wonder why asking for support--either monetarily or otherwise--is such a touchy subject among the poetry community. We all need to do what we can to support our own.

pottygok said...

I like the idea of preorders. What about the great rock standard--the concert t-shirt. If a aging rockers can still sell t-shirts for $25 a pop, I don't see why a poet can't get $10 for a t-shirt. Ordered in bulk (preordered, perhaps?) this wold be a really powerful means of distributing a poem. Another thing that I was considering was stickers. A short poem (haiku, for example!) could easily fit on a small sticker. 250 stickers costs less than $50, and I could sell these, or just post these all over town. I imagine a guerilla movement, where poets chip in thier $50, get stickers, and then invade public restrooms across the city. It would sure beat most of the graffitti that's up there. Diane mentioned an online printing service that occasionally offers deals--postcards, business cards, flyiers, etc.--for little more than shipping. There is a lot one can do with 250 postcards, or 250 business cards. I know that it takes money to make money, but there are very inexpensive alternatives available.

I've heard the argument that, in poetry, "the work should stand on its own". In other words, some how poetry is superior, in some way, or has gathered this mystique about it that says that somehow it's beyond promotion. I'm not sure why it has this aura about it, nor am I sure how to combat it, both in the public as well as in the poetry community itself. Many poets and authors I know have blogs, promote their books, etc. I realize that constant e-mails or updates on Facebook or mySpace can get annoying for some, especially those who already bought the book or voted, but tools like this are great for mass communication and mass marketing. It's a shotgun approach, to be sure, but an effective one. It also allows me to get responses from folks who CAN'T buy my book, but want to. That sort of support is equally valuable. I completely respect folks who have to pay off bills, housing payments, car payments, medical nastiness, food and water, etc. Sometimes, poetry and art must become a luxury in the face of a daunting reality. But just a comment from those people that they are interested in my book, and will considering purchasing it in the future, or will badger their library to order a copy so they can read it for free, is pleasant. There are many times where, as host of DCPH, I can't afford to purchase the book of the featured reader. I hope that they respect that, and realize that I'm trying my best to support them by getting them the stage and promoting the reading. But you're absolutely right, the idea of an artistic community as family is necessary, and the idea of selling a book or asking for a vote or whatever is not begging, but reaching for help that will, sooner or later, be returned.

Anonymous said...

There's a poet/new age musician out of Mansfield (Kate Westfall) who's already ahead of you on the t-shirt poetry thing :)


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