work life

Last year, while speaking to a writing class at Medgar Evers College, I let slip a terribly-kept secret: there’s no money in this poetry thing. So we have to find other ways of making a living. A student in the front row expressed his dismay at my admission. Not at the idea that, if he chose to pursue poetry further, he would be accepting a life of poverty, but instead at my apparent resignation to the low earning potential of my writing. He thought my claim belied a lack of drive and ambition. “You’re selling yourself short,” he said. Interesting choice of words.

Once when I acknowledged to another poet that, if given the opportunity (i.e. through sudden windfall of cash via lottery winnings, discovery of buried treasure, money tree, or similar), I probably wouldn’t work at all, she said, “You see, you’re buying into the idea that poetry isn’t work.” Which isn’t quite what I meant. Yes, of course, I’d still write poetry, but I still wouldn’t be getting paid for it. Not in any real way, not in a way that would sufficiently cover my electricity bill or supply me with the monthly sacrifice demanded of me by the monster of my student loans. Because, as we all know, poetry doesn’t pay that way. Should it? Maybe. But at the moment, that’s not how it is. And I can live with that.

Am I selling myself short?

I wondered at the way this poet chafed at the idea that poetry could be considered something other than work. I think work is something we, as Americans, are a little in love with. We tend to define ourselves by our work. But in this context, when I say work, I mean how we make a living. When someone at a cocktail party asks, “What do you do?” they don’t mean, “What do you do for fun? What do you do because you derive satisfaction from it? What activity do you engage in that gives your life meaning?” They don’t want to hear about your needlepoint or Netflix bingeing. Unless you’ve turned these things into a business. (If anyone out there has turned Netflix bingeing into a business, please get in touch. We should talk.) They’re asking what you get paid for. This is, so often, the first thing anyone wants to know about you.

I’ve been working at some job or another since I was fifteen. There is value in that work, I think. The kind of work you work hard at, not because you love it, but because you have to, and, for some of us, you want to do it well. But that kind of work isn’t what defines me. Yet, so often, your work is understood as who you are, as the most valuable thing you have to offer society. And in our society, value is generally understood in economic terms.

So maybe what was so bothersome about my statement was that, by this logic, if poetry isn’t work, then poetry has no value.

Poetry exists, for the most part, outside of all of our capitalist systems and constructs. And this confuses many people. There’s no money in it and yet WE JUST KEEP WRITING IT WHAT IS WRONG WITH US??! Poetry is dead! Poetry doesn’t matter! If it’s not making money, then what’s the point?? It’s clearly irrelevant! Wake up, poets! You’re living a lie!!

Obviously, we’re not in it for the money. We all know the work of poetry is worth much more than that.

That, of course, could be said of any art. But I think poetry is unique in just how little money can possibly be made. A novelist might score a big advance, or several, if they keep selling. A filmmaker might hit it big with a blockbuster. A musician’s record could go platinum (that still happens, right?). A visual artist could make a name for themself, sell their work for, oh, I don’t know—more than I can afford. But poets have so little hope of wealth. It’s not a money making business. It’s not much of a business at all.

Sure, there is some industry here. There are the MFA degrees so many of us are still paying for. There are publishers trying to make books and get by. But no one’s really getting rich off of this. We’re barely able to make a living. Being a poet, I feel as if I have two jobs—the one that feeds my bank account, and the one that feeds the all those intangible parts of me. I recognize that within our current system of assigning value, it’s sad and problematic that poetry ranks so low and earns so little.

Sometimes I wish things were different—that I could focus more of my time and energy on my creative work, and less on the work of making ends meet. But in my sunnier moments, I think maybe it’s a blessing that poetry isn’t my primary source of income. That it’s not much of a commodity, not very commercially viable, not just another product for sale. There's something liberating in its impracticality. Or this is what I tell myself. This is how I steel myself against the tsunami of bills that threaten to swallow me up every month. I’m not saying I’d turn away a healthy annual salary for writing poetry. No more than I would chop down my imaginary future money tree. But I’ll keep this up no matter what. I can’t sell out, because no one's buying. I can’t kowtow to some bigwigs waving a big check because that big check doesn’t exist. I don’t ever have to worry about fitting myself into a more marketable box, or censoring myself, or editing my vision down to something more saleable. I don’t have to compromise creatively in order to put food on the table or pay my rent. There’s little chance of making any of that happen through poetry alone.

I can do whatever it is I am moved to do, because there’s nothing to lose.

As I told that disappointed student, don’t be misled. I have ambition. I don’t wield it overmuch. My ambition is just one portion of the kindling that keeps the woodstove going in my gut. Sure, I want to make it, but whatever that means, it doesn’t mean money. And mostly, I want to make and make and make a thing that burns you up. Yes, I suppose it is work. It’s work because it’s damn hard. Whether or not there’s a paycheck involved.

Originally Published: April 9th, 2014

Born in Portland, Oregon, poet Camille Rankine earned a BA at Harvard University and an MFA at Columbia University. Rankine’s nimble, urgent poems are often concerned with landscape, history, and intimacy. Slow Dance with Trip Wire (2011) was chosen by poet Cornelius Eady for the Poetry Society of America’s New...