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will work for food

filed 30 August 2004 | Chicago
by Daniel X O'Neil

It is an article of faith in America that poets are poor. People seem to like it that way. The rat race public, those who scrounge at the feet of corporate America, riding commuter trains and sucking up to middle managers, place their own hopes and dreams at the stylized foot of the poet, the pure creature untouched by the ugly motivation behind making a living.

Poets do their part by cultivating a freako/roustabout image -- the nutty/goofy poet in and out of mental hospitals, the sensitive poet on the verge of tears; the slightly dangerous poet swearing in public -- we all know the stereotypes.

"So here we are, American Performance Poets contributing to the profit margins of bar owners, beer manufacturers, newspaper conglomerates, taxi drivers, and real estate agents..."
Now when I use the word "poetry" here I'm talking only about the genre I call American Performance Poetry: poetry written to be read from a stage in front of a live audience. This is the lifeblood of American poetry that saved poetry from irrelevance. There's another form of American poetry that's really just a subset of boring European poetry and that's called Academic Poetry. Academic Poets have figured out a way to combine the rat race with literature. They call it "tenure". They write about the deep dualities oftownies v. students in some podunk cornfield state university. No thanks.

But anyway, while everyone else goes about the daily tasks of daily bread, poets live in their oblivious worlds, waiting to be trotted out every April on Poetry Day when frazzled Tempo Section editors send out reporters to pound out articles on one of the officially-sanctioned poetry news story themes: "Those darn poets!"; "Poetry is making a comeback!"; or my personal favorite --

"The Beat Goes On"

The idea that a performance poet could make a living off of being a poet is, of course, laughable and scary. The concept is too outlandish to consider. Anyone who would try to do such a thing -— make money off of their words -- is a dangerous radical who must be stopped. It doesn't fit in the prevailing view of the world.

So poets take odd jobs, or pursue traditional careers -— whatever it takes to get by. The passion for poetry conies out periodically in the form of flyers and invitations to late-night bars with the strong scent of institutional soap. And people love working with poets because of the novelty. They can tell their friends "oh, this one girl I work with, she's a poet, and I've like been to some shows, and like, anyone can get up and read a poem, and I got totally wasted and it's like totally cool because it's like in Wicker Park and I saw this one loft there and I totally want to move there."

So here we are, American Performance Poets contributing to the profit margins of bar owners, beer manufacturers, newspaper conglomerates, taxi drivers, and real estate agents while we do our best imitation of a zoo animal—stuck in a cage, working for someone else. People point and giggle on the way to the popcorn vendor and the T-shirt store.

We ought to do ourselves a big favor. Unlock the pre-fab cages of untouchableness, let go of early-90s notions of the "sell-out", and realize that every single activity performed in a market economy is an economic activity. Buying a beer, leaving a tip, publishing a paper, handing out a flyer, competing for the attention of a live audience -- those are economic activities. Let's start viewing our poems for what they are -— intellectual property. Take personal responsibility for the quality of our products. Demand a greater share of the profits generated from our labor and property.

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