I will have to agree with Olena that now that Sarah is back in Alaska, I can now stop tourettically clicking the refresh button and begin to think about poetry.
To assess the last three months? It’s been an obsessive relationship I have had with the Internet. Occasionally I managed to extricate myself from the cold glow of my computer and transform obsession to action: a stint to Philly, for instance, where I canvassed for Obama in immigrant neighborhoods. While Obama’s Ivy-League education was a handicap to working-class white Americans, all I had to do when speaking to Korean immigrants was mention “Harvard” and “Obama” and they clapped their hands and demanded an extra Hope button for their minister.
But other than those rare occasions, I basically had an intravenous tube running from my veins to dailykos, FiveThirtyEight, talkingpoints, andrewsullivan, huffingtonpost (even a gander at the National Review to see who else might be defecting from the Right) and all online newspapers. I’ve had conversations with poets who moaned about procrastinating due to their helpless addiction to the Internet. Perhaps Nate Silver (he of FiveThirtyEight) should do a graph on the productivity level of writers from the month of September – November. Can you imagine the sharp downward slant marking everyday you wasted hours monitoring polls from Zogby to Gallup? Am I just speaking for myself?

Of course, after the election, there are other means of distracting oneself with life’s realities—such as the economy! I am concerned how it will affect the arts. Many artist friends of mine are nervous. Last week’s auction portends a grim future: no more fat cats hanging out at Chelsea openings, no more glowy features on fresh-out-of-Columbia MFA painters in the pages of Vogue. This could be a very good thing. My boyfriend, who is a video artist (this commercially handicapped genre is kind of like the poetry of the art world), is elated. He hopes for a return to thought-provoking, subversive art that can exist outside the gallery confines. An end to vacuous painting. A return to the 70’s where video artists like Vito Acconci stalked strangers (who shockingly got an MFA in Iowa for poetry! Will mull over this in another future post). Art will be liberated from the wayward clutches of the market.
Will the economy affect poetry at all or how poetry is decimated? Probably not. For the absurdly obvious reason that poets must earn their bread somewhere else like the inner sanctums of academia. Look back to the 90’s recession which blasted away 80’s decadence and injected a political/multicultural awareness in the art world. As far as I can tell, I can’t detect any kind of shake-up in the poetry world during that period. It is a blessed thing—I think—that poetry can continue to be uncompromised by market. (Although a shake up won’t be so bad for the poetry world). One concern I have is how the economic downturn will affect small presses. One marvelous trend in the last ten years or so has been the proliferation of innovative small presses to offset the domination of anointed first-book prizes and major publishers. Many of these presses seem to be funded by universities and I wonder if these presses will suffer since universities will be doing major cutbacks. Will there be less incentive to start new presses and journals because of the lack of funding? Or will there be more? I’m not an expert on this. Just thinking aloud. I guess we will see.

Originally Published: November 16th, 2008

Cathy Park Hong is the author of Translating Mo'um, (Hanging Loose Press, 2002); Dance Dance Revolution (W.W. Norton, 2007), winner of the Barnard New Women Poets Prize; and Engine Empire (W.W. Norton, 2012). She is the recipient of fellowships from the Fulbright Foundation, the NEA, and the New York Foundation for the...

  1. November 17, 2008
     Joseph Hutchison

    It would be useful for someone–some Ph.D. candidate attracted to the depths of the crooked ravine that separates the arts from the social sciences–to do a study of exactly how American poets do make their livings these days, and maybe compare it with how the same class of culture workers earned their livings 50 or 100 years ago. We all talk about academe, and it sure seems from reading the bios in the back of any recent anthology that most poets are to be found there. I wonder, though. Most of the poets I know personally do not make their primary living in classrooms.
    As for funding of journals and presses ... I wonder, too, if there's a future for it. And what does it say about us if we do, in fact, lose a large percentage of literary publishers if government funding dries up? What does it say about the people who start such ventures if they retreat before lack of (government) funding?
    Maybe there's an opportunity here. The upper 1% may be looking for ways to rebuild their tattered image (is there anyone left who does not despise them as a class?); surely some among them are decent, intelligent human beings with interests that reach beyond their trust funds. If there is a passel of Laughlins and Lillys out there, perhaps we ought to concentrate on creating a mechanism for them to participate in poetry publishing.
    Or maybe we all ought to just admit that the Web is the only future and shift all our activities onto it. Between the Web and the Kindle, poetry should still be able to maintain and even extend its mind-share.

  2. November 18, 2008
     Travis Nichols

    Not exactly the academic study you want, Joseph, but there is the NEA study of artists in the workforce, which is a pretty interesting read.
    I've been wondering about this myself lately, Cathy, so thanks for bringing it up. I'm surprised there hasn't been more discussion here, but I guess no one is likely to answer questions like: how many poets have lost their jobs since September? Or how much money did the Poetry Fund lose in October?
    Maybe it will be like the seventies when the state funded the (still in progress) revolution?

  3. November 18, 2008
     Travis Nichols

    Fund for Poetry, rather.

  4. November 19, 2008

    They need to bring this issue of the Times back into print immediately.

  5. November 22, 2008

    When I was in college in the early 1960s, the prevailing wisdom was that a would-be writer should prepare for a career other than writing. By studying business or library science or anthropology one would develop a rich body of experience to draw from and make a living at the same time. Early retirement was the reward, providing one's personal "trust fund" and at least 20 years to draw on the accumulated material.

  6. November 23, 2008
     Paisley Rekdal

    As someone who teaches in academia and is also a poet (and now an administrator), I can say with absolute certainty that the economic downturn DOES affect poetry and poets. Like so many public universities, our budgets have been slashed, meaning that future jobs for poets and writers are threatened and that our visiting writers series will also be compromised. No matter what people may think about poets in academia, university and community-sponsored reading series are two of the major ways in which beginning poets and writers across society get economic support and visibility. This economic downturn also means that many of the writers that DO continue to get supported are the expensive and "famous" ones, because those are the names that administrators and arts programmers are most willing to write checks for, ironically making it cheaper for the creative writing program to bring in a bestselling author than a first-time novelist. The economy's effects on the university means that we all risk overlooking so many great first and second-book poets, simply because (for the time at least) we may have to.