The title of this book makes the most absurd statement, of course. Poets don't make a living. This is axiomatic. It's as real to assume poets make "a living," as Peter Pan made a living. But Gary Glazner has found a way and discovered others who have found a way and presents it in a tidy little book published by Soft Skull Press.
The wonderful thing about Glazner's book is that it does give the poetic type hope. It can be done. Here are some of the tools. Let's outline a few of these as presented by Glazner.
Make a simple mission statement. "I am a poet and I will make a living doing what I most love." Follow that up with the need not to be passive to what you believe fate holds out for you. Get active. Believe in what you do. Believe in the power of poetry and its grandeur. Be as proud of being a poet as a great ballplayer is playing ball or some actor playing his bit. Be the entrepreneur that connects poetry with people who may or may not know what it is; what the magic is.
Be Allen Ginsburg chanting in front of 100,000 people in Golden Gate Park circa 1966 during the great Human Be-In.
The question of how each culture treats poetry and poets is very instructive. It teaches about all one needs to know. Years ago I was intrigued by the Poets Village, located somewhere in the Caucasus Mountains. I couldn't find any reference to it online but I know I read about it. It left an impression on me. Once a year poets from around this mystical, spiritualized, weird, and fascinating region would come together in the Poets Village and have at it with competitions, some of them to the death.
There are slams here but no one has died yet as far as I know.
Glazner goes through a lot of venues and ideas. It's all here: College crowds and poetry festivals. There's a great story by Larry Jaffe of doing his poems while holding on to the railing of an Los Angeles subway car.
Of course we come to the first dilemma. To "make a living" means to "be in business." For that to occur you have to have a robust client-base.
There is certainly an audience for poetry; a good one. However, it's one fragment in an Jonah-like culture. Does the critical mass exist to support a large number of poets? The fact of trying to be a "professional poet," when the numbers aren't there has something of the mock heroic; "we will defy time itself and run amok along the simmering ridges of the old, rotted Empire."
Good. Dance and run amok at the speed of light. Remember, when you are a professional poet you are an entertainer, first. And any form of entertainment competes with, among other things, rock music and minor league baseball for an audience.
We should mention that the fragment of poetry in this Jonah-like world is fragmented like thin pieces of bone scattered about the Whale's belly.
The strength of poetry is that it has no place in the competitive world. It is hidden to protect its value. Why should valuable things be easy to attain? They should be difficult so when the man or woman, dried out in hot, dry desert of the Whale's belly discovers it, alons! They never let it go.
But that is only my eccentric view of the matter.
There are wonderful, dedicated, and heroic types who are trying to make poetry a full-time gig. As a young man I tried it. It nearly killed me. I wrote poetry and would go to clubs and perform, usually to drunken students. More importantly I saw myself as, "the poet of my dreams," and was ecstatic about it most of the time. When I needed money I worked in a warehouse in the industrial section of Berkeley or up at the "non-profit" hospital we dubbed, "The Hotel." I did some freelance writing at the time and, frankly, spent no money. I owned nothing. I had an old bike. I walked and rode public transportation. I lived on the "otherside of the tracks," literally and rode busses with the wonderful poor who told me their tales of woe. "Do they know that Baudelaire lives among them?" I would silently ask myself. Poets think this way. I was able to read a good deal, no question. And the characters around at that time still make an impression on me.
Even though I gave up my quest to be a full-time poet, I admire anyone who tries it and wish them well.
There are two worthwhile chapters in this book. In one, Glazner interviews poets about their lives and activities. The one with Mary Karr struck me with two profound insights. One was the fact that poets produce only a few poems worth digesting. "Eat good poems," she says. And she claims Yeats produced 15 poems worth eating and that's a pretty good record.
Near the end of the interview Karr says, "Pay attention to history and screw the marketplace." It is a dangerous wisdom and not to be taken lightly, not to be frittered away by some mock alienation or stupid ravings so common these days. The marketplace has all this awful vanity and necessity to it. History is the reality of time; time that flows in and out of ourselves for eternity carrying on its back objects, as the tsunami carried monstrous objects through modest beach towns in southeast Asia.
The other resourceful chapter gets information from publishers of poetry about what they look for and how they try and help the poet. This is useful information for anyone who wants to publish. They all agree on one thing. The poet must promote his or her own work. A lot of wonderful innovations go on in this area. One famous poet told the poetry editor at C/Oasis that she couldn't be a judge at the Austin International Poetry Festival because, "I live out of my bag, going from gig to gig."
The formula seems to go like this: Poets teach, they write poems, they publish, they perform. They perform primarily to promote. He or she who can promote will get published.
When there is no more performance in the world, then poetry will be a great performance.
I would recommend a classic text on performing called, "The Performing Voice in Literature," by Robert Beloof and published in 1966 by Little, Brown and Company.
How To Make A Living As A Poet by Gary Glazner
Published by Soft Skull Press.