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Because A Lady Asks Me: On Poetry & Money

Is there a more vexed subject than the literary prize? Well, yes—but in conversations on poetry and money, maybe not. Many of the major prizes for poetry (those that come with large sums of money) are established alongside the corporatization of publishing and subsequent flowering of small presses that now produce most poetry books. Nothing like a prize system to reestablish hierarchy, control the gate, winnow the field. It comes as no surprise such literary hierarchies cleave for the most part to those of the larger culture, stratified by race, gender, class. So there are these structures, the ways they shape poetry, how poetry sometimes escapes them. The lives of poets, informed by the conditions in any case. Jennifer Moxley leaves no tributary of feeling or thought about that life untraveled here—its entanglements, its commitment to poetry, a fierce private willfulness, a commitment her work exemplifies.

—Stephanie Young

***

         . . . promising “approval”
but no money, which all we finally need
in order to really by free.
“Impervious to Starlight”

That I had a talent for poetry was supposedly affirmed when, as an undergraduate, a poem I had written won first prize in the University of California at San Diego’s Warren College literary contest. Twice. Each time I was handed a check for one hundred dollars, little aware that this was the most, by a large margin, that I was ever to be paid for a single poem. Good gracious! If I could make one hundred dollars per poem, my seven-dollar-an-hour bookstore job was soon to be a thing of the past! But in truth I did not think this way. I knew the cool hundred was a fluke, yet I was still happy to have it. As a student, and now as a professor who oversees several prizes not unlike the one I was awarded all those years ago, I’ve come to appreciate how academia and other institutions—where, like endangered species in a zoo, “the arts” are protected—keep little piles of money in trust for poets. Even if the way these piles are distributed ill reflects enduring aesthetic value or comes close to adequate recompense for, to quote Robert Duncan, the “appalling destiny” awaiting the young poet. Once upon a time I was rather more cynical about the whole “prize economy,” believing it akin to a pyramid scheme: tender hearts writing out checks for twenty or thirty dollars, hoping against hope to be chosen for a first book prize, unwittingly funding the publication of someone more adept at reading “the game.” The after-publication prizes also have their pathos, as many of them are endowed by sentimental versifiers and failed poets, almost as if they leave money to poetry that others may be given the false hopes they once clung to!

But such interpretations are a bit dramatic given the world’s true evils. Now I suppose I see the institutionalization of arts funding and poetry prizes as mostly innocuous good-hearted runarounds of an age old problem: how to slip a few coins to a species of maker whose societal worth cannot be measured by or compensated through conventional means. Such windfalls give poets a little help and a little boost. The trick is not to take this kind of recognition too seriously. The integrity and honesty of the poem, which will stare back at you from the same distance no matter how successful you are, is the only true measure of value. Worldly recognition fizzles, and there’s often a hitch. I was given my undergraduate winnings to spend as I pleased. It’s different now, at least at the University of Maine where I work. The undergraduate and graduate winners of our several endowed prizes never see a dime. Just like wages spent at the company store—that old scam used to rob workers—student winnings get sent right back to the source: they are used to subtract debt owed the university. For a student who owes, say, $10,000, the subtraction of a $250 prize is a barely noticeable blip. How much further they would go toward making a poet if handed over as cash to be spent on beauty, beer, or a book!

I draw a monthly paycheck from this same institution in my capacity as a professor of poetry and poetics. Cash for real work: good, fair, and honest. The effect on the ego is altogether different from heaping a large sum upon a single page you just happened to have besmeared with ink! The poet needs money to live, but the poem needs only a reader. Which is more difficult to secure? In the history of the West, in some perverse way, a poet’s integrity has long been bound up with periodic privation, in love, in luck, in money. Publicare, the Latin root of the English “to publish,” means also “to prostitute,” to make public and ask money for what should remain private, whether your thoughts or your body. Perhaps the whiff of shame in making money from poetry comes from this etymological association, and drives poets to claim penury as their excuse. “For charmed Fabullus / your old friend’s purse / is empty now / of all but cobwebs!” Catullus complains, after inviting his friend to what promises to be a sumptuous dinner; sumptuous, that is, provided “charmed” Fabullus bring the food, the wine, and the girls. In exchange? Catullus will share his hendecasyllables. One doubts Catullus is as poor as he claims, but it makes good copy. Ben Jonson’s financial worries were only eased when late in life he was granted an annual pension from the crown. It included a “tierce of Canary wine” (when I learned of this I thought for a brief moment that it might be a good idea to reinstate the monarchy). Over the years I have had the chance to observe that one tacitly accepted way of being a poet is to wear a mantle of integrity but sponge off others to be free to write. If you find a community that likes your poems and thinks you a fragile and delicate soul who cannot be expected to earn your bread, this might be the way to go. I, for one, have always preferred to work for a living. This is how I was raised. Money that comes to me by other means never feels as free. I have been fortunate. To riff on that love poem about the virtue of the soul, “a person who has not experienced poverty cannot picture it.” What few lean years I’ve had have nevertheless taught me that, unless we are saints, money—its lack, its abundance—changes what we can envisage, binds us to or frees us from the tyranny of others and of time. Having enough of it means not having to think about it, which is the ultimate gift. This is why I have little tolerance for my own or others’ tendency to bemoan the need for earnings, or disingenuous displays of guilt for having what others lack. If you who are reading this have had the good fortune to have secured enough leisure to cultivate your intellect and imagination, for goodness’ sake don’t sabotage it by feeling guilty, or, what’s worse, divert attention from your mixed feelings by becoming a “privilege cop.” Rosa Alcalá’s poem “Governance” mirrors my feelings on this subject elegantly:

Think back longingly to your ancestors, even
the ones smart enough to leave the donkeys
behind. They wanted
this for you. If they were stacking things
or sweeping out the cold cellar. If their arms
went numb at the lever or scraping butter cream
off cheap china. They wanted you
to put your head down on your
desk and let the turkey sandwich fuel
a low-grade, plotless dream.

My maternal grandmother, before becoming a widowed mother of four who had to move back in with her parents, trekked, art supplies in tow, from town to town, hoping to convince their heads to commission stately over-the-mantle-worthy portraits. Did anyone need a painting in the age of the studio photograph? Or was it an aristocratic throwback, designed to trick out election by capitalist enterprise in the finery of ancient bloodlines? I try to convince my chair, my dean, whoever the powers of my paycheck might be, that my poems are actually important. But when alone I have my doubts. Perhaps my poems, like my grandmother’s portraits, are merely the decorative veneer of a university system that, while preferring to fund utilitarian means-to-an-ends education for its rural poor students, cannot fully give up the brochure-worthy veneer of the “liberal arts.” In this case, I’m being used.

As a coda I’ll mention that just a few days after Stephanie Young asked me if I would write about “a time I made money from poetry,” my pre-bedtime email check brought news that my book The Open Secret was a finalist for a prize called Kingsley Tufts. Having no previous knowledge of this prize, or of my publisher’s decision to put my book under its scrutiny, I casually told my husband, Steve Evans, the news. A sometime researcher of the distribution of poetry prizes, he gasped, and then named a very large sum of money. Not once, but several times over he exclaimed this sum throughout the fragile horsehair plastered rooms of our sweet little bungalow—the purchase price of which, I might add, was less than the amount of this prize—repetitions which had the unfortunate effect of making me quite nauseous. The mental game began: “I’ll never win . . . with that amount of money I could pay for our renovation with cash!  I’ll never win . . . I could buy myself a leave from teaching . . . I will never win . . .” and so on. My mind, previously occupied by some caprice of my own choosing, the next episode of Star Trek, my Jules Verne novel, a late-night snack, what have you, had been transported to the fantastical land of “what ifs,” that same country we find ourselves in whenever our fate gets hijacked by slim margins and narrow possibilities: if I only had that job, this prize, that house, could lose those pounds, stop that bad habit, and so on. Happiness is murdered by such thoughts. The worst of it was that I was instructed by those who run the prize to remain mum for over a week while their publicity was put in order. I now was miserable on two fronts: I was forced to keep good news from friends, which made me feel deceitful, and my perfectly adequate income suddenly seemed grossly inadequate. And so I was contorted by my good fortune.

I did not win. Though I never actually thought I would, and was half baffled as to how a career such as mine could have managed to put me in such company, it was painful to be rejected nonetheless. I got a poem and drawing out of it:

Druthers (4)

After not winning a poetry award

I would rather have the dead’s respect
than all the laurels the living bestow,
a good hard cry swell up my eyes
than a poetry prize my ego.

Moxley_image

The whole experience felt sort of like being at a fancy party in shabby dress. My feelings of being emotionally manipulated notwithstanding, during the month-long wait between nomination and rejection the administrators of my university squeezed a remarkable amount of publicity from my finalist status. Announcements went out, newspaper stories were penned, near strangers congratulated me in the halls. I was a micro-celebrity on campus. It is comforting to people to know that the poet among them is not a fraud, and to have that knowledge gifted without the burden of having to actually read poems. For who can tell whether a poem is good or not? I wished my mom were alive. Prizes are, my household decided, “for moms and deans.” I am not impervious to either, and I am driven—though by what labyrinthine contortions of my psyche I know not—to want to please both.

In the end, the death of this moneyed dream led to an unmixed good: a reaffirmation of my commitment to poetry. In camp-honored Gloria Gaynor fashion, I returned from my sojourn in the fantastical land of “what ifs” to find myself ensconced in the place of true happiness: the humble now of daily routine and fierce private willfulness, surrounded by my trove of seemingly insignificant objects and books, all those things which hold in trust my memories and desires, calling forth through their powers the muse-drawn language of the next poem.

Originally Published: April 11th, 2016

Poet and editor Jennifer Moxley was born and raised in San Diego. She studied at University of California, San Diego; the University of Rhode Island, where she completed her BA; and Brown University, where she earned an MFA. Moxley’s poems combine lyric and innovative looks at daily life while interrogating societal...