Agent after literary agent says ‘No poetry’ in The Writer’s Handbook. Why? Because there’s no money in it. Ten or fifteen per cent of nothing is still zilch. The poet Paul Hyland puts it another way in his wise and witty guidebook, Getting Into Poetry, published by Bloodaxe, one of the largest independent poetry publishers in the UK. Chapter Five is called ‘Riches’ and it begins:
Poetry and money. If you’ve turned to this chapter first, I suggest you go back and start at the beginning of the book. This is a very short chapter. If you know how a poet can make a fortune out of poetry please write to me without delay. Poetry and money are mutually exclusive. Almost.
The chapter is two pages long. ‘Professional’ poets advise, and immature amateurs soon learn, that competition is fierce, pickings lean and waterholes overcrowded. According to Charles Osborne, former Literature Director of the Arts Council, ‘There is something intrinsically difficult about adopting poetry as a profession.’ Even by the optimists, poetry is described as the Cinderella of the arts. My copy of The Writer’s Handbook has a detailed and practical article by Peter Finch called ‘Poetry — Too Much of a Good Thing?’ and of course poetry proliferates on the web, the home of unchained, unchallenged verbosity and verbiage.
There is also an American publication called Poet’s Market, another contradiction in terms, which no doubt sells to oxymorons like me. In a moment of transatlantic aspiration, I bought my copy on spec one Sunday afternoon in 1995 in Venice Beach, Los Angeles, where there were many competing forms of street entertainment. I remember in particular a brilliant showman of a fire-eater and chair-balancer who passed the hat round after his act. Poet’s Market cost me $21.95, I see. I can’t say that I have yet recouped the cost.
What I particularly enjoy about the book are the guidelines offered by the little magazines to would-be contributors. These range from the wistful and world-weary to the downright comic aggressive rant. For instance, Alms House Press ‘are open to experimental forms as well as traditional forms. Any topics as long as the poems are not whiny or too depressing, pornographic or religious.’ Meanwhile, The American Cowboy Poet Magazine in Eagle, Idaho, wants ‘authentic cowboy poetry… We will not publish any more poems about Old Blackie dying, This old hat, If this pair of boots could talk, etc.’
On the other hand, Arrowsmith in Texas says, ‘All styles of poetry considered, as long as well crafted…No greeting card doggerel, clichéd statements of self pity, obtuse odes, preachy polemics or Sunday school verse.’ Artful Dodge in Wooster, Ohio, ‘don’t want anything which does not connect with both the human and the aesthetic. Thus, we don’t want cute, rococo surrealism, someone’s warmed-up left-over notion of an avant-garde that existed 10¬–100 years ago, or any last bastions of rhymed verse in the civilized world.’ Attitude Problem in Prescott, Arizona, is a ‘multipurpose nonconformist rag’ looking ‘for poetry that speaks with passion and clarity about the realities of life. We do not want to see indecipherable academic masturbations. No sweetness and light.’ The quarterly ELF (Eclectic Literary Forum) is ‘looking for well-crafted poetry. No trite, hackneyed, ill-crafted effluvia.’ The editor of Family Earth in Gettysburg wants ‘No laments abusive to working mothers. I am still receiving a high percentage of negative – world is awful will end any minute – poetry. Anything with a positive attitude has a good chance.’
The ecological biannual Green Fuse is ‘looking for accessible free verse – with strong concrete details and images – that celebrates earth’s beauty, the harmony in diversity, and poetic sanity and truth in an age of prosaic lies and madness… Sentimental and religious work, poems submitted without SASE and work stinking of nicotine will be folded into origami.’
My favourite set of requirements comes from Hyacinth House Publications, which produces PsychoTrain in Fayetteville, Arkansas. PsychoTrain uses ‘bizarre, avant-garde material with a delightfully psychotic edge. Heady and chaotic.’ The editors want poetry that is ‘avant-garde, confessional, contemporary, erotic, experimental, gay/lesbian, pagan/occult or punk. Also Dada, surrealism and decadent writing at its best. […] People who send us material that isn’t in some way twisted, bizarre or weird are wasting both our time and theirs. We’re seeing far too much ‘straight’ writing. Be bold. Morbid humor is always a plus here. We prefer two-fisted, dynamic, very intense poetry.’ In case that wasn’t clear enough, Hyacinth House adds, ‘Anyone sending us material should be aware that we don’t like pretentious, windy, overly-serious poetry; we also dislike smarmy, trite rhymes about God and family. Send those to your hometown newspaper, not us.’
As for payment, it’s usually nominal or in copies of the publication concerned. ‘Pays 1 copy’ is standard. ‘Pays 2 copies’ seems to be generous, especially if the print run is a mere 200. As Andrei Codrescu, the editor of Exquisite Corpse in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, puts it: ‘Payment: Zilch/ Nada. You take your chances inserting work into this wit machine.’ In his opinion, ‘Rejections make poets happy. Having, in many cases, made their poems out of original, primal, momentary rejections, the rejection of these rejections affirms the beings forced to such deviousness.’ Ironic or what? I leave you to work out whether or not you agree with him. More positively, Laura Boss, the poetry editor of Lips magazine advises poets to ‘Remember the 2 T’s: Talent and Tenacity.’
But there is also another T: Time. Poets have time on their side because their only real deadline is death itself. ‘A poem is never finished; it is only abandoned’, as Paul Valéry is famously said to have said. I have also heard it remarked that the lowest paid writers per word but with most control are poets, whereas the highest paid per word but with least control are Hollywood scriptwriters. Most poets simply do not earn enough directly from their poetry to live off the financial rewards. Readings, performances, reviewing and other forms of writing may help to support the enterprise but most poets also have a day job and keep to it. Sometimes the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society will collect revenue for us on copied items and the modest annual cheque gets a warm welcome. Otherwise, poems are so relatively easy to copy and pass on that many people do so without even thinking of copyright. After all, poems may consist of only a few words on the page or screen, often with a lot of white space around them, and words are common currency anyway.
Nevertheless, because we poets value the art so highly and because Faber, for example, is afloat on income from Old Possum and the musical Cats as well as a superb backlist of twentieth-century poetry, we may like to imagine that there is high value in the art we so assiduously practise. What poets might like to hope for in exchange for their work is lots of life-affirming dosh, cash, lolly, dough. Even more, they value readers. Yet these too can be hard to come by, especially as supply of poems far exceeds the demand.
Publication and payment may also confer some temporary status on the writer of poems but I suspect that poets write for other, much more complex motives, as only a fantasist could imagine for long that poetry can be far removed from pittances and poverty. Our richer and more metaphorical income is the unpredictable arrival of poems themselves, which can be crafted into existence out of love for and dedication to the art. I suppose I write partly because some other people’s poems mean and have meant so much to me and I would like my own efforts to mean as much or even more to myself and then to others, if only that were possible.
For all that, I have been told occasionally that my poems are ‘commercial’. It’s a back-handed compliment, I think, from other poets or paranoid poetasters. It probably implies light, slight, trite, accessible tripe. But if my lines are commercial, I have yet to receive the offers and reap the rewards. ‘La Brea’, one of the poems included in my Selected Poems Lifelines, won £2000 in the TLS / Blackwells Poetry Competition back in 1997. But that’s a fluke, a lucky strike, a lottery win, a unique stroke of good fortune, an unrepeatable one-off, a once and once only, I keep telling myself, hoping it might happen again and again.
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