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mana’s musing: what is work? and what do poets make?

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Laura Yoo, HoCoPoLitSo Board Member and Associate Professor of English at Howard Community College

Laura Yoo, HoCoPoLitSo Board Member and Associate Professor of English at Howard Community College

One of my favorite poems is Marge Piercy’s “To be of Use”. It’s a poem that reminds us to make ourselves useful, and its last stanza includes one of my favorite lines from poetry.

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.

Piercy’s emphasis on “work that is real” reminds me of a magazine clipping that I see on the refrigerator door at work. It’s a photo of a child with a teacher and the caption reads: “Far and away the best prize that life offers is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.” These are words by Theodore Roosevelt in a 1903 speech. I am comforted by this because clearly I am doing “work worth doing.”

2016-04-20 13.31.49

But if you’re not a teacher, how might you define “work that is real”? What is “thing worth doing”?  What does “work worth doing” do?  And what does it look like? How does one find such work? How we value or devalue (or over value or undervalue) different types of work? And, really, how much do we pay for such work?

About the poet’s work, Lorine Niedecker says this in her poem “Poet’s Work”:

Grandfather
   advised me:
         Learn a trade
 
I learned
   to sit at desk
         and condense
 
No layoff
   from this
         condensery
I suppose whether the second stanza could start with “so” or “but” determines whether or not poetry is a trade advised by Grandfather. Like the foundry or the tannery where things are made.  Indeed, we often refer to the work of writers as craft, and for this craft of “condensery” what does a poet make?  I should probably answer that question in the fashion of Taylor Mali’s “What Teachers Make,” but right now I am curious about the actual dollar amount, so I search for “what poets make.” An interesting New York Magazine’s 2011 articled called “Livelihoods of the Poets” tells us quite iterally (no, not metaphorically), this is what poetry pays:
$460 for a 36-line poem: The New Yorker
$75 a poem: The Paris Review
$25 a page: Plough-shares
$10 a line: Poetry Magazine

I never knew the number of lines had anything to do with being paid for working in poetry. That’s another “unit of measure” that I had not considered.

What about the book sales? Billy Collins sold more than 18,000 copies of his book which paid him a little over $44,000 in 2011. We’re talking about Billy Collins here; he’s a bestselling poet, if not THE bestselling poet, in America. I’d imagine that Billy Collins’ speaking/reading fees are pretty high, but most poets do not command such fees.  So, according to New York Magazine, basically there is one way to really be paid for poetry:

WINNING THE NOBEL LOTTERY
Approximate number of books sold by Tranströmer in America in the ten years before he won the Nobel: 12,300.
Number of copies of Tranströmer books that have been scheduled for printing since he won the prize:
at least 50,000.
Monetary reward for winning Nobel Prize:
$1,480,000

No wonder. In a recent class discussion about work in my composition class, we were talking about how we categorize work into blue collar, pink collar, and white collar.  One student asked, “Where do musicians or writers and other artists fit in?”  One student responded, “No collar.” Another student said, “Unemployed.” The class laughed and I laughed along but it’s not too far from the truth for many people who want to do work in the arts. I meet many young people in my classrooms who dream of being musicians, artists, DJs, and chefs but give it up for more “practical” and “marketable” jobs. I have also seen people find their way back to their dream after many “practical” detours. And that’s a tough road.

Too many artists, including poets, cannot make a living doing their work, and for this reason some even give it up. Many poets work various jobs during the day and write at night (or vice versa). They ought to live like Piercy’s Greek amphora carrying wine or Hopi vase carrying corn – doing what they were made to do – but often they have to work as a purchasing associate at a Japanese tool company (if you’re Naoko Fujimoto). Of course, poets can do other jobs that are meaningful and fulfilling to them; I don’t mean they should only sit in a chair and write 9 to 5. But I do want to talk about how we count the value of not just their work (product) but also their labor (process) that they do as poets.

There is a prevailing misconception about the work of being a poet in this world, which influences how we value (or devalue) the poet’s labor. They are assumed to get up late in the morning, drink coffee, look out their windows to connect with nature, and pour out the natural creative genius into words onto that white paper. Boom. Done. Poetry. No labor. Just product in the form of a beautiful work of art.

I’m a little bit offended by the tone of an article called “How Much Money Do Poets Make.” It refers to the New York Magazine article that I mention above and says in a tone that is somewhere between encouraging and condescending,

Still, keep at it, poets. After all, money isn’t the reason you’re writing. But who knows? Maybe one day you, too, can win what New York Magazine refers to in its piece as the Nobel Lottery.

Poets, I’d like to know: What IS the reason you’re writing? [Maybe that’s the next blog post.]

Well, it’s not like they sell Nobel Lottery tickets at your neighborhood liquor store or gas station, so the internet is full of money-making opportunities for poets. A website called Writer’s Relief suggests 5 ways to make money as a poet: write greeting cards, teach, start your own business, write songs, and look for “appropriate spin-offs of the poetry publishing biz” (like arts organizations). I’m not sure how I feel about this. Why shouldn’t poets make a living doing their craft, their trade, their “real work” (Piercy) and “work worth doing” (Roosevelt)?

How do we count the worth of any work in a capitalist society? How do we know that one work deserves $7.25 an hour (federal minimum wage) while another deserves $75 (per poem for The Paris Review) and yet another deserves $725 an hour (hourly billing rate for top lawyers and advertising creatives)?

If not by dollars, by what other measure do we count the worth of our work?

 

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1 Comment

  1. […] Fujimoto, a poet I mentioned in my last blog, included a personal note with my book order (and special […]

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