December 1, 2011

For What Its Worth

For What It’s Worth
… I am a Poet. My job is writing poems, reading them out loud, getting them printed, studying, learning how to become the kind of man who has something of worth to say. It’s a great job.

Naturally, I’m starving to death….

--Lew Welch--

            In the Spring of '97, I started seeing The Withdrawals on a regular basis.  I was single, making a decent chunk of change, and really didn't enjoy hanging out by myself.   So, like I was still in college, I went trolling for live music.   Nothing compared to the live experience of dancing, getting to know the regulars, the songs, and eventually the band.   Being a regular fan broke down the myth that separated them from me, the artist from the fan.   When my only experience of art was in a museum, a big auditorium, a published book, a radio station, the artist seemed somehow different, somehow special and not at all like me. 
            The Withdrawals, and I got to each of them a little bit individually, weren't really different from me at all.  They just did their thing:   wrote songs, rehearsed, played live, wrote more songs and here they were playing to a room of a hundred on a weekly basis, making money off their art but certainly not enough for them to live comfortably.  They weren't waiting for anybody to come and anoint them as rock stars, as artists.    
            So inspired, I started reading my poems at the various open mikes, only this time it wasn't in a small circle like when I dabbled at poetry right after high school, but up on a stage (a small elevated part of the venue) and behind a microphone.   The feedback was immediate.  If it was funny, people laughed; if it was sad, people would comfort me afterwards; and if it was just simply strange, (which it was a lot of the time) they may not know how to react at all.   And I was hooked.   
            By this time, more and more performance poets were getting paying gigs and making money performing poetry.   I started to make enough myself that I paid taxes every year rather than get refunds.   While writing clearly became my career, I wasn't trying to fit my writing into some sort of institutionally accepted format like academic poetry or genre fiction, yet the motivation was changing my writing.  When I started to read my poems at open mikes, I wrote because I had an overwhelming desire to write, to be a vehicle for the poetry, merely a carrier where writing a poem was akin to giving birth.  But writing because you have this overwhelming drive to get it out (birth something) is different than writing something that people want to hear.  

Art for an Audience
            At first, I didn't notice the difference.   As I wrote different things, the audience's reaction to my work became more predictable.   I started to be able to peg certain poems as "performance" pieces and others as something else.   I started winning slams, getting my name out there as a slam poet.   My aesthetic was changing, but I didn't necessarily see that as a bad thing.   Instead I merely acknowledged that there's a conflict between what is accessible to an audience and what resonates with me.  By producing art that was more accessible, I was developing a "feel for the game."  Pierre Bourdieu, a French Ethnographer and Sociologist, writes, "...a form of the feel for the game, which excludes cynicism, which even demands that you get caught up in the game, taken up by the game to the point of being able to anticipate its future" (148).   The influence of the audience was changing how and what I created.  
            Some poets embrace the change in their aesthetic, and perhaps it is indicative of a change to a more sophisticated aesthetic, but the change is not something that is coming from within.  It is change that comes from without.   I had poems that went from being longer, more discursive, complicated pieces to shorter, tighter, simpler pieces because I could deliver them in 3 minutes or less.   More often than not the shorter version is a better poem, but the process of editing is not one that is arrived at organically but "imposed" from without.  
            As I made the transition from private poet to performance poet, I became a "cultural producer."   Bourdieu stresses the significance of what that means when he writes, "I could say that artists and writers...are a dominated fraction of the dominant class" (145).   While he acknowledges we are no longer dominated in the way that a patron dominated an artist in earlier eras, the influence of the market certainly is a "...form of structural domination exercised through very general mechanisms" (145).  
            So the market dominates, or shapes, how I create.   But in what way am I part of the "dominant" class?  Again Bourdieu spells it out, "They [artists and writers] are dominant, in so far as they hold the power and privileges conferred by the possession of cultural capital and even...the possession of a volume of cultural capital great enough to exercise power over cultural capital" (145). Cultural capital in artistic endeavors bestows upon the holder a "feeling [of being] authorized to speak about the 'people' or of speaking for the 'people'" (150).   It also, as Bourdieu elaborates, means that:
                                the properly symbolic power of showing things and making people believe in
                                them, of revealing, in an explicit, objectified way the more or less confused,
                                vague, unformulated, even unformulable experiences of the natural world
                                and the social world, and of thereby bringing them into existence" (146). 
Thus, according to Bourdieu, artists and writers not only speak for the people but create the world.   Heady stuff.

Created Equal?
            But not all art is created equally.   There is a difference between a writer and a musician or painter.   The first difference is that writing (provided we go to school) is something that we all learn.   Many of us may have been in band, but all of us studied writing from day one in school until, for many, the last day.   So, being a poet is an easy entry art form.   That's not to say it's easy.   But it is easier to create poetry than it is to create music because most of us know how to write.   
            The next consideration is the general state of arts education.   I know many people were lucky enough to have stellar arts education, but most of us had our first experience with poetry by listening to our teacher read Shakespeare or Poe or Kipling to us.    It was a snooze fest.   
            If we take the general state for funding for National Endowment for the Arts as an indication, Arts funding has decreased.   For example, in 2011, the Obama administration requested $161.3 million, which is close to the same as the funding in 1995, but still not quite up to the record high of $176.0 million from 1992.   Undoubtedly, the comparable amount in 2011 does not go as far as it did in 1995 (  ).  And funding from local school boards for arts is drying up as well.  
            Since poetry is an art form that most people don’t experience casually, how it is taught in schools matters.   With music, after school, I'd listen to rock music on my friend's stereo or on a buddy's car radio, so I was certainly exposed to modern music.   With poetry, my perception was shaped by my teacher's taste and most of the time his or her taste didn't include anybody actually living.   The point is...if we want to cultivate an appreciation of poetry, then our schools (perhaps the only place that we'll hear it) need to expose us to what is being written today.   So, if I'm a kid from the suburbs and you want me to develop an appreciation of poetry, then wouldn't I be better served by poetry that understood my experience?  Wouldn't I be better served by Shappy or Robbie Q., or Ernie Kline, or Big Poppa E. than by Shakespeare or Wordsworth?   But back in the late '70s to early '80s that kind of poetry wasn't being produced.   Thus, how could I learn how to examine modern poetry critically if I was never exposed to it?  How could I even see the value of poetry if I never experienced work that spoke to me or my background?   These are pedagogical questions for sure, but they also inform me as a consumer of culture.
            And I'd argue that our teachers have a similar experience.   Most teachers that I met in my education program were the students who loved English, read a lot of books, really dug Shakespeare (I dig Shakespeare, but I certainly didn't in high school).   Yet, most of them don't have any idea how to approach modern poetry let alone modern performance poetry.   

The Value of Poetry
            We argue that poetry should be valued yet we don't even have a well defined criteria for what is valuable.   How many slam poems have you read where the poet actually unintentionally misspelled words, didn't know how to use the basics of grammar?  Then we ask him/her to come into a school setting and teach kids to write?   By all means express yourself, but do your homework too.   
            I'm not trying to be snobbish about it.   What I'm saying is that since the general lack of arts education is not preparing the students who are now the teachers, then the criteria for what is considered good is a really low bar.   Thus, the value of poetry is set incredibly low.   So why not see if you can get a poet to perform for free (and many of them do) because they pretty much just wrote what he/she is performing that afternoon and didn't bother to try and hone it as a musician would or a painter would? 
            Now, I know this is an exaggeration, but if we want to be valued as artists then we need to value our art.   And we value our art by being well versed in the art form (not just the canon or modern poetry but hip hop, comedy, political speeches, etc.), understanding the basic conventions of the language (grammar and spelling), and talking and discussing it critically.   As a poet we have to show we value our art if we expect it to be valued.  
            And we have to be honest.   
            I'm not in this thing to make money, so I pretty much don't say "No."   But I don't have any issue with any poet asking point blank, "Is there any money available?"  It's similar to going to the grocery store and looking at the price tag.   No one begrudges a grocery store from advertising their price on oranges or paper towels or tampons, thus no one should begrudge a poet if he/she says, "I need to get paid."   
            But does my willingness to do a free show work against someone else's wanting to get paid to do it?  Perhaps?  If a high school teacher asks me to do a gig, I'll more than likely do it for free if my schedule allows it.  I won't call in sick or take annual leave from my real job, drive very far, nor put much thought into my actual performance.  By asking me to do a free gig, he's getting what he paid for.   Now, if someone else comes to me and says, "I want you to come perform at my school and I'll pay you $500."  The lengths that I'll go to will be much greater and I'll put on a better show.   My point?  If you want to get paid to do your art, then you better be great.  Cause if I can come in and do basically the same show and do it for free, then why should they pay you?
For What It's Worth
There's something happening here
What it is ain't exactly clear
There's a man with a gun over there
Telling me I got to beware
I think it's time we stop, children, what's that sound
Everybody look what's going down
There's battle lines being drawn
Nobody's right if everybody's wrong
Young people speaking their minds
Getting so much resistance from behind
I think it's time we stop, hey, what's that sound
Everybody look what's going down
-Stephen Stills-
            When we sign-up to be a poet, our motivations may not be entirely clear.  Maybe, like me, we just need to get things off our chests?  Maybe we're intrigued by the musicality of a particular phrase or have a compelling story to tell?  There's, perhaps, a hundred different reasons for committing pen to paper, for taking up the mantle of poet, but realistically making money is never really a consideration.   Yet with success comes a desire to do more, and this more requires time; and time requires money.  So why not try and do both?
            For me, poetry is worth more than the tiny amount I can earn off it.   When I realized that those five guys up on stage were no different than I was, that their input was valued and deserved to be shared, no amount of money seemed to be an appropriate amount.   The art, the practice of sharing it, became its own reward.  If the muse speaks to me, I don't want to have to listen to it, reflect, and then wonder if what I'm creating is marketable.   I just want to write, commit what the muse is whispering to paper then get up on stage and read/perform it.   And I don't want that simple desire to be cluttered up with other considerations. 
Work Cited

Bourdieu, Pierre. In Other Words, Essays Towards A Reflexive Sociology. Stanford University  Press, 1990.

Status of Arts Funding:  “Arts advocates asked for more Tuesday, saying the NEA's funding should be [2007] $254 million if its 1992 funding were adjusted for inflation.”

NEA Budget this year:  “Today, the President released the details for his FY2011 budget request to Congress. This included a $161.3 million request for the National Endowment for the Arts, which is the same level the President requested last year.”

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