Thanks to Jilly and Kelli for the suggested blog topic, fueled for me by this article at nplusone.
I am conflating two ideas here: “How much money does a writer need?”, which begins the nplusone article, versus “What does it mean to be a career poet?” The only way to answer that is to take a look back, and then fast forward to my poetry life now.
This is me and Joseph Legaspi on the steps of Carnegie Hall after our baccalaureate in New York City. We had no idea how we were going to support our lives and our art. We thought it would all just “work out” somehow. We chose grad school and creative writing degrees because we loved poetry. I don't think we grasped the concept of using our degrees in the same way doctors and lawyers use them. All we wanted to do was write good poems. No more, no less.
In 1997 when this picture was taken, I was working full time at Associated Press making a salary in the mid 20s. Since then, I've managed to work steadly in NYC and in the Boston area using my degree in the writing field. And while my salary has increased, it feels as if I'm living off of those late-90s wages with the uptick in gas and food prices. That's for another post.
Does a degree guarantee a successful career as a poet? Well, no. Look at all the successful writers who never stepped foot into a classroom as a student. But it also depends on how we define success. Recently I was paid $50 for a poem in a magazine that most people outside of Phoenix, AZ, will never read. It was the first time my poetry garnered a fee. I call that a rousing success financially, but something I can do without the MFA on my wall. Nothing gives me greater joy than reading to a few interested listeners who are genuinely engaged in my work, though I have yet to earn money reading poetry in front of a crowd.
Being a poet is more than practicing a craft, it is a calling. But can I make a career out of it? I have a hard enough time answering the question, "So, what do you do for a living?" Ever try to tell someone you've just met you're a poet? It's not that easy.
Poets manage somehow to muddle through financial ups and downs. We get by with teaching, odd jobs, and freelance work. Or we go the publishing/journalism route. Maybe you are that rare bird who has found employment in an arts-related position. Or maybe you're independently wealthy and insurance, rent, or kids are not issues. Whatever your source of income, I think it's possible to make a career out of poetry.
My perspective? Career poets always have their hands in something else: leading workshops, working as guest editors, and judging contests, etc. We fill out grant applications by day and write by night, or vice versa. We invite fellow writers into our homes to break bread and share verse. We submit our work with no guarantees we'll see any compensation for what we do, and yet poetry thrives. Go figure.
I worked very hard at NYU to earn a degree that would serve me well in life, yet I knew I was entering a field that would pay next to nothing. But Joseph's book, Imago, is doing extremely well. And my book comes out next year. This is my version of the writer's life, of being a career poet--earning almost no money from my craft. Still, I have that ol' college attitude that says it will all "work out" in the end.