A Shout Out to Poetry Organizers and Editors
Poetry is hard. I don’t mean that it’s hard to read. It’s not. If you practice a little negative capability, a little willing suspension of disbelief, and delay the gratification of understanding until the second or third reading of a poem, the emotional center will usually come through pretty clearly and powerfully, and most of the details will add up to a fairly coherent experience (or at least as coherent as most real-life experiences are).
What I mean is that poetry is hard to write, certainly to write well, but more specifically what I mean, is that it is hard to be a poet. There are few external rewards for poetry. Virtually no one has gotten wealthy off poetry, and very few have managed to sustain themselves on the income poetry produces. I, for example, have published 14 collections of poetry and more than 1400 individual poems, given more than 200 readings of my work, received more than 2 dozen awards, judged about 3 dozen poetry contests, and taught about the same number of workshops at schools, libraries, conferences, and other community venues. When I tell experienced poets that in my best years I managed to make about $5000 (before expenses) on poetry (including book sales, workshops and speaking engagements), they are surprised at my success. Of course, when I tell them what I spent those years on books, travel, paper, postage, etc., their admiration diminishes significantly. When I share these figures with inexperienced poets, they either become incredulous or disheartened.
As a professor of poetry and a poetry workshop leader for 20+ years, I have literally taught thousands of people how to write poetry better, sometimes why to write poetry, and sometimes even how to be a poet. Immediately after they leave my class or workshop, most of the people I teach seem inspired to pursue poetry. Of those I have encountered 3 or more years later, however, a very small percentage report having continued to write. Almost all report the same reason for the cessation. It’s too hard. It’s hard to find time to write. Since no one pays you to do it, it has to be a free time activity, a hobby, and a very time-consuming one at that. It’s also hard, they say, to stay in the right frame of mind for writing poetry. Every day presents real and immediate distractions that kick you out of the observant, meditative, associative reverie necessary to see how details connect to create a poetic experience. The rest of your life, sometimes even the most loving members of the rest of your life, demand your time, focus, and attention, and are jealous of the time you want to give to poetry. Finally, to be a poet suggests that you not only write poetry but that you manage to get that poetry read. And pursuing publication also takes time and features a much higher rate of failure than success, a rate that easily leads to discouragement even more severe than the lack of income.
If poetry lacks traditional external rewards, the question, then, is why do people continue to write it. The simplest and most universal answer is that most people who write poetry enjoy doing it, just as others enjoy gardening, cooking, reading, binge-watching Netflix, or any of the other endless variety of hobbies people return to habitually, perhaps even compulsively. For many who write poetry this enjoyment is enough. For some, however, there is something more to it, some sense that writing poetry makes a difference. The difference may only be for the poet. He or she may value the way writing poetry helps them process perception or experience, helps them think about things, helps them find or maintain a satisfactory perspective on things, helps them notice things, pay attention to things, or see connections between things they might not otherwise see. With publication, however, this difference-making can extend beyond the poet, helping others achieve greater awareness, appreciation, perspective, either in general (as I think poetry encourages deeper thinking and closer perception) or in particular areas that form the subject matter of specific poems.
In my ideal world, everyone would read poetry and everyone would write poetry, and as a result we would all be more sensitive, thoughtful, considerate, appreciative, and whole. In the world I actually live in, though, few read poetry and fewer write it. Because of that lack of popularity, poetry produces little capital. And while that is certainly lamentable for the poet, it is perhaps more so for the poetry organizer and often the poetry editor. For while poets can anticipate the occasional book sale or workshop stipend to help offset the cost of their involvement in poetry and provide the necessary encouragement to keep them moving forward with poetry, poetry organizers, those who facilitate readings, open mics, workshops, and edit small magazines, cannot. They volunteer their time out of a love for the art of poetry, out of a desire to make poetry accessible to a wider audience, and out of an appreciation for those who write poetry.
April is National Poetry Month, and while it is an opportunity to show our appreciation of poetry, it should also be a time to remember those who labor to make poetry available through conferences, workshops, associations, readings, open mics, and small literary journals. As you deal with your reading organizers, association officers and volunteers, conference and workshop coordinators, and journal editors, keep in mind that most of them are purely volunteers, receiving no compensation for their time and effort, and often covering the cost of their operations out of their own pockets. Be kind to them this month and every month; express appreciation for their efforts; understand that they have few resources available to them; be patient as they try to get everything done anyway; and recognize that they have to make choices. A rejection or exclusion is never personal but a simple function of limited time and space, and a necessary part of trying to promote the success of poetry.
David James, A Donut for Tom Lux
Joe Mills, What I Understand Now
Joe Mills, Interstate
Joe Mills, Braids
Joe Mills, Lot’s Wife
Sally Thomas, In That Place
Sally Thomas, Storm Season
Sally Thomas, Laundromat
Joanna White, Sunday Paper
Joanna White, What to Do About Winter
Day Holley, Complicated
Stephean Mead, I’m Not Religious
Ann Christine Tabaka, Daymare
Timothy Gordon, Voice in the Dark
Andrew Hubbard, The Snowman
Ronald Moran, The Year of Mole Mounds
Sharon Waller Knutson, My Father Returns from the War
Ann E. Michael, Markings
Jenny Bates, I Still
Jamie Elliott Keith, Days Like This
Joyce Compton Brown, Spring Chill
Jordan Makant, Review of Nick Laird’s Go Giants