The poetry world hates poor poets. Discuss if you’ve ever been told your poem has been accepted for publication (hurrah!) but there’s no fee (how do I afford the time to write more poems and pay the rent?). Does your publisher receive the majority share of any, often-paltry, royalties but refuse to buy three bottles of wine for a launch party? Discuss further if you’ve been asked to pay £10 to go to a poetry reading, or £14 to enter a poetry competition. The latter is not mandatory but without a win or two, a poet with a so-so publisher may go unnoticed. In other words, competitions are a way up if you’re ambitious.
Well, I hear an imaginary reader say, get a better publisher. Good idea, but have you noticed the field is crowded with Very Young poets who get to be published by Very Big publishers with their first joined-up collection? I wonder how many of these lucky poets have an academic background, or parents who are poets/writers? In other words, is the Old Boys’ Network alive and kicking in the poetry world? What does this mean in terms of poetic originality? Why would you write poetry that challenges the status quo if it’s working for you? Following on, do we carry inherited, internalised ideas around money?
If your family was exploited by the rich does this fill you with fear about poverty in the future? Could this lead you to do the Sensible Thing and get a Proper Job which, as many of us know, means there’s very little time/headspace for writing anything at all, much less for processing/learning/digging deep until you reach your power as a poet. It sounds gloomy. I can offer ideas, but you’ll have to pay me first.
Coda: After finishing the above Poetry Wales were kind enough to offer me some extra money to set out my ideas so here goes: Could every poetry competition offer ten free submissions, with no proof needed? I know some do already but if it was standard would it be an incentive for people on limited budgets to seek out competitions they might have dismissed as too expensive?
Zoom events are often free but could live events offer a number of free places for all open miccers and a few audience members? Also, if events ended earlier more people might be prepared to walk to and from them, therefore saving on transportation costs. This only seems petty if you’re earning a fairly decent wage.
The bigger publishers could actively scout for new poets in places like libraries by offering regular workshops. Also, every publisher worth its salt could offer at least one paid mentorship a year to a promising poet who identifies as working class. The poet would not have to edit or judge but just write and be given the enormous confidence boost of regular feedback.
Finally, might there be deep, internal, emotional work on self-worth and value that has to be done by poets in order to shift blocks around money?
This article is republished from On Value, Pay and Problems of Capitalism: Poets Talk About the Challenge of Economic Stress, in Poetry Wales, issue 59:1
Jenny Mitchell is a winner of the Bread and Roses Poetry Award, the Poetry Book Awards 2021 and a joint winner of the Geoff Stevens Memorial Prize 2019. She also won the inaugural Ironbridge Prize, the Bedford Prize and the Gloucester Poetry Society Open Competition. The best-selling debut collection, Her Lost Language, is one of 44 Poetry Books for 2019 (Poetry Wales), and a second collection, Map of a Plantation, is an Irish Independent ‘Literary Find’ and on the syllabus at Manchester Metropolitan University. Her latest collection is called Resurrection of a Black Man.