Poetry and Money Shouldn’t be Such Strange Bedfellows

One of the truly amusing things about knowing so many tech and engineering folks (hey, I live in Seattle. Everybody but me seems to be in tech!) is that, when I go to social functions and am introduced by a friend with an enthusiastic “she’s a poet,” people give me odd looks and ask, typically in whispered tones, “can you actually make any money doing that?” 

Then I explain that, yes, I’m a poet, but there’s a day job too, etcetera, etcetera. It’s hard not to put on a wistful face and think of the days when people actually commissioned poems, or when patrons supported poetry, but it wouldn’t do any good to indulge.

I’ve been thinking a great deal about the intersections of creativity and money lately, though. Those who’ve followed this blog for some time know that the journal I edit, Tahoma Literary Review, has committed to paying professional rates to every one of our contributors every time we publish (and that’s 3 times per year, by the way). I and my two trusty co-editors at Tahoma Literary Review—Joe Ponepinto and Yi Shun Lai—were interviewed at the fabulous The Review Review about why we feel it’s so important to pay writers for their contributions to our magazine. We’ve had an incredible response from writers, and we couldn’t be more pleased to know that the stand we’re taking for value and creativity is resonating with the wider writing community. We’ve even heard chatter that some other journals are adopting our practice of publishing our income and payout statistics each time we print an issue, and we applaud that move toward a more transparent and accountable publishing model.

I’m also pleased to learn that writers themselves are making a move away from simply accepting the status quo of no-payment-but-exposure in the literary world and are making personal stands for writing’s value. Poet Jessica Piazza, who, like me, is published by the mighty Red Hen Press (check out her book here), has started what I think is an interesting and worthy project: she’s only submitting her poetry to paying markets during 2015, and is keeping a blog about the experience. I particularly appreciate the approach Piazza is taking to this project—she’s not, as some writers have done, simply writing invectives against the current literary landscape, but is instead taking a very practical approach to getting paid for her work. I’m following her blog with a great deal of interest—I hope to see more writers follow a similar path, and I look forward to a greater cultural push toward literary business models that involve paying the writer.

So, am I only submitting to paying markets this year? I don’t think I’m ready to make that step myself. Yes, I believe payment is important. But at the same time, I’ve been so mightily supported and promoted by non-paying venues in my career thus far that I feel I’d be wrong to write off good people, good journals, and good publications who aren’t fully at a payment model yet; contributors’ copies may not be cash, but sometimes, the most important thing is to get good work into the world. I’ll leave you with an anecdote I drew from one of the best books I read this summer, Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. Bryson says that Edmond Halley (yes, that Halley) came across a manuscript he quite passionately wanted to publish with The Royal Society, but the Society

…now pulled out, citing financial embarrassment. The year before, the society had backed a costly flop called The History of Fishes, and suspected that the market for a book on mathematical principles would be less than clamorous. Halley, whose means were not great, paid for the book’s publication out of his own pocket…to make matters worse, Halley at this time had just accepted a position as the society’s clerk, and he was informed that the society could no longer afford to provide him with a promised salary of 50 pounds per annum. He was to be paid instead in copies of The History of Fishes.

The book? Newton’s Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy. You know, the basis for everything we know about planetary motion, not to mention calculus. Some things are worth being paid for in contributors’ copies.

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