Sunday, January 11, 2015

What You'll Get

After the reading, the man comes up and asks, If he does write a poem, what will he get?  Then he adds, to make sure I understand, “How much?” He doesn’t go as far as rubbing his index finger and thumb together, but he might as well. I wonder how to respond. 
You’re usually paid nothing for poems, just copies, (and with the internet not even that).  This horrifies people who don’t know, and it can result in an awkward moment as if I’ve just revealed a dirty secret. You can feel the shift in respect from “wow, you’re a published author” to “wow, you’re some kind of sucker.”
You can make more in any job from babysitting to selling papers on the corner than from poetry.  And, the time might be better spent doing something else:  cooking, hiking, learning a skill, even cleaning out the garage of someone you love.
And the satisfaction of creating something can be muted when it’s so small. A poem isn’t a novel, a bridge a building;  it’s just a few lines, a handful of words. When I’m asked “What did you do today?” I often flash on Charlie Brown at Halloween saying, I got a rock. What did I do? I made a poem.  I feel I can sense the pity, the futility.  Oh, Sorry.  We’ll put it over here, out of the way, and maybe you’ll be more productive tomorrow.
Imagine if Jack had come home having traded his cow for poems rather than magic beans. They would get thrown out the window and grow . . . into nothing. (Okay, yes, some poems may grow inside you, but that doesn’t
help the starving old woman, does it).
So I look at the man who wants to know what he’ll get, and I remind myself that he’s here, at a poetry reading, that maybe he might not be thinking what I think he’s thinking or anything I’m thinking.  Maybe he does want answers, and although no one should go to poetry for those since the best are as shifty as Delphic oracles, he’s asking the poet, not the poems.
But the question has nothing to do with poetry, does it.  It’s about him. And that’s why I can’t answer it.  What does he get when he eats soup?  When he dresses?  Sings?  Stretches? If you bother to live, what will you get? If you bother to wash, to love, to walk? 
Finally, I say, I guess it would depend on what you write.  He nods, satisfied, as if this is exactly what he expected.


  1. Just last night a former student (I teach high school) was bagging my groceries at the market when he asked how many books I had sole---the one he saw advertised in the local paper. When I told him 'probably five' he flipped out, "No!" he shouted. I didn't have time to explain things, so I just put on my best 'trust me' smile and told him poetry doesn't sell. It's my most dreaded conversation.

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