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“Flat Langston” theft sparks debate around Busboys and Poets

By Harriet Staff

The Washington Post reports that the theft of a cardboard cutout of Langston Hughes, assumed at first to be a prank, is actually a work of protest against the venue from which it was taken. Thomas Sayers Ellis, assistant professor of creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College, claims he stole “Flat Langston” to draw attention to how little of the profits from DC restaurant Busboys and Poets make their way to the writers whose readings are the primary draw.

“You would think that an establishment that makes as much money as Busboys would have set in place a reading series with a respectful pay scale for writers,” said Ellis. The restaurant gives poets a venue, but also profits from their talent. The literary community, he says, doesn’t know if Busboys is the “good guys or the bad guys.”

Could be that the restaurant is a victim of its own success: it’s a commercial enterprise and hangout for writers. The rookies are happy to appear at all, while some of the bigger names (who command large appearance fees from libraries and universities) believe they should share in the wealth.

While Ellis took the cutout on his own and few are stepping up to defend his methods, there’s a sense among other poets that this conversation needed to take place.

“I have no issue with Andy making money,” said poet Kyle Dargan, an assistant professor of literature at American University. There’s been “some grumbling” among D.C. poets about the $50 payments: “peanuts,” he said, compared to Shallal’s revenue from the weekly readings.”

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Posted in Poetry News on Wednesday, February 9th, 2011 by Harriet Staff.