Many thanks to Jeanine who posted this article about the economics of poetry on her blog, which got me thinking about money and how much an average poet makes doing this crazy poetry thing. I always joke that the money that I’ve made from poetry would probably, with a dollar, buy me a cup of coffee. In reality it’s probably around three grand (for 14 years of serious writing, pretty sad), which includes my Poetry Center prize for a third of that, and most of the rest, workshops I’ve been paid to and reading honorariums. Since I’m bound to Chicago and a full-time job, I do less of these probably than someone without these restrictions, but still, even without them, it’s probably not much. You can add in a little for royalties and the occasional paying journal, but I have probably made more money publishing and selling my own projects and /or selling author copies from other presses than I have in royalties. If you compare this to my income from visual art and crafty things (about $10,000 after taxes per year on average since 2007) it’s pretty sparse…luckily I’m not about to quit my day job.
This discussion brought to mind this other article I’d been meaning to write about the last couple of months. Admittedly, I never had any ambition when it came to being a teacher of creative writing (which seems like it requires another sort of temperament and skill set than actually just..well..writing). Also, I always thought teaching it might (the same as if I had to put a pen to paper 8 hours a day, 5 days a week) make me less likely to find any sort of fun in it. Simple English Lit might have been okay , but at one point, straight out of undergrad and planning to get my Ph.D in the late 90’s, I'd already resigned myself to the glut of scholars in a very small field (let’s not forget my own ambivalence toward serious scholarly work) and decided to look elsewhere for a means to a living (pretty easy since I still don’t think I have the amount of patience it takes to run a classroom nor the required extroversion to not dread it.)
All along, whatever it was I planned to do to make a living (ideally a fun, bookish job that allowed the time/mental space to create) I still saw poetry as the center of things. When I went for my MFA, I felt like sort of a rare bird as someone who wasn’t interested in academia. I was primarily in the degree program to further my own writing since I already had a job/career in library work. I had also already embarked on editing projects (had already started wicked alice a few years prior, was about to start dancing girl press) when I enrolled, so it’s hard to look at that time as something that was necessarily setting me up in a career of any sort. Was it useful? Of course, so much as a sustained period to focus and work on my writing, launch various projects, forge connections and look for feedback. Did it further my “career”? Probably, but more in intangibles (see previous sentence). Would I consider myself successful? Well, in America, “success” usually equals ”money”, so obviously, those folks coming out of programs who eventually land tenure track jobs, that’s an easy thing to track. Publication is a little trickier, since royalties even for laureates are pretty small beans in the publishing world. Maybe prizes, grants, fellowships, are an indicator if you seek them out.
Honestly though, I’ve been thinking about the whole “successful” question and I think it boils down to one simple consideration. Are you still writing? Are you still working on things (published or not)? Does writing poems still make you happy? Feel like something worthwhile despite the financial bleakness. Or even more generally, for some people, who perhaps write less than they did in their MFA years, but who devote their time to other things ( journal, presses, readings series). Is poetry still important and central to your life? Is it worth it even knowing the fiscal rewards are pretty slim and sometimes it actually COSTS money to be a poet (in SASE’s, in entry fees, in funds for projects). And even if you never ventured into MFA territory, are you still doing the things it takes to put poems out in the world? To further and develop your work? If you answered yes to any of the above, then hell, yeah, that is success. I remember someone once throwing a statistic around that only a certain very low percentage of degreed writers were still actually writing 5 or 10 years after graduation. This feels almost like an urban legend to me since I would venture that most of the folks who graduated the same year I did are very much still writing and publishing their work, and many have gone on to do even more interesting writerly-related things. They don’t all make a living at it, but they are very much still doing it.