Poetry News

Belladonna* reading sparks discussion, manifesto about poets' material needs

By Harriet Staff


On Tuesday night, in what could have been the living room of Dixon Place founder Ellie Covan (her original work/live space, which was a haven for avant-garde solo performance in the 1980s and 90s, has been transformed in recent years into a multimillion-dollar theater that's stayed true to its support and development of the experimental and in-progress arts, despite its new scale), we descended upon a Belladonna* reading. So you see we're telling a story! The two readers on this (eventually) crucial fall night were Belladonna* co-founder, poet and scholar Erica Kaufman, and German poet and translator Uljana Wolf. The reading itself was tops, to say the least; and if you know the work of these two at all, that's no surprise. What was surprising was the discussion that ensued! Poets and audience members addressed questions to the readers (with mediation from Belladonna* co-founder Rachel Levitsky) about their material lives in relation to poetics. Essentially this became a larger group conversation about academia, state-supported arts in Germany vs. the States, the job market within and outside academia, its affects on actual poems, personal transparency, and the general struggle to survive as a working writer. Also considered: Why are there so many arts organizations dedicated to the practical well-being of the artist; and why the seeming lack of such assistance in the poetry world?

Cf. Fractured Atlas (first headline on their site: "Need Money for Your Art?"), NYFA, LMCC, for instance. We're not talking prizes, giant grants, and contests. All of which are great! But these orgs are a bit different, treating their respective members (some of whom, granted, are writers) as professionals (i.e., workers). There are often--comes with membership, we'll note--discounts on health insurance; workshops on grantwriting; tax and financial advice; community dialogue; information on job openings, studio space, and other resources. How to shift our poetry institutions from presentational or research-oriented (both also very necessary) to spaces in which a primary focus is the material reality of the average poet? And how does this all relate to an increasing dependency on the university for survival? A long conversation (this was a small start). Another start is the "Working Poet's Manifesto," written by Ana Božičević and published today on the Belladonna* site. She writes:

It’s hard to figure out what kind of work is appropriate for a poet. A few months ago a poet I admire wrote on a blog that a poet should not be a bureaucrat and administrator -- a poet should be a poet, live for the art. Blue collar work was not even mentioned. So, let’s see, regular jobs are unpoetic, but then I read elsewhere that teaching is even worse – academic jobs are somehow deemed “not real,” as though academia were a virtual realm like the internet but counted even less. Staying at home in a different arrangement also doesn’t seem to do a poet good – mom poets are not paid for their work of mothering and often can’t go to readings and travel, poets fortunate enough to have a private income can’t mention it lest they be dubbed trust-fund babies, itinerant poets who move from colony to colony can’t keep a boyfriend or girlfriend to save their lives, poets with government grants are sellouts. Most of you in the room have been pegged as one or the other. Prestige & stigma are doled out in a random system of poet-castes that shift & refract differingly depending on the site you’re reading, the people you’re chatting with.

I listen and I am confused. I eat. What should I eat? I sleep – where? Does it have to be uncomfortable? Can I earn my rent or must I only accept donations, like a fortuneteller? I really don’t like being told what to do, especially by people who are not paying me. Why should a poet be a stranger to any human experience? Maybe it’s only my communist upbringing speaking. All I know is that everything is real and every work counts. Writing counts. Bricklaying counts. Pushing paper typing pouring coffee counts. Mothering counts. Everything counts and everything belongs to a poet, belongs in a poem.

What should a poem do? Auden wrote in lovely flowing lines that Poetry makes nothing happen. Maybe it’s just atomic physics, but nothing looks a whole lot like everything to me from here. How does it make you feel if you switch those two and say that Poetry makes everything happen? Now substitute Poetry for Poet: a poet makes everything happen. Now turn around and look at your friends here – isn’t it funny? It’s completely true: Aphra Behn: a spy, Marianne Moore a library assistant, Diane di Prima and Anne Waldman and Amy King teachers, Vanessa Place an attorney, Hanna Andrews an editor, E. Tracy Grinnell and Rachel Levitsky publishers – poets are making everything happen all over the place. And that means that we also change everything.

Originally Published: October 13th, 2011