You will not find it there but in
It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
of what is found there.
Hear me out
for I too am concerned
and every man
who wants to die at peace in his bed
--from "Asphodel: That Greeny Flower" by William Carlos Williams
The City of Seattle would like to offer a residency to a poet who wants to write a poem about the Fremont Bridge.
Well, kind of a residency. The bridge doesn’t offer heat or running water so you can’t actually live there. But you do get to hang out, and it’s a cool space. And you get a $10,000 stipend.
You remember Fremont. It’s that quirky neighborhood in Seattle where Lenin lives that I’ve written about before. A troll lives under the bridge as well. Well, a statue of one, anyway. Eating a VW bug. You can’t even make that up.
In Seattle, 1% of the city’s transportation budget must be spent on art, hence the residency. Typically it’s been used for sculptures or other public art or incorporated into new buildings. To my knowledge, us writers have kind of gotten the short end of the stick when it comes to money from this fund.
Response has been what you’d expect. Seattle’s resident right-wing radio crank (every city has one of those, right?) has lambasted the project and rumor has it one of his listeners wrote a “poem” (quotes mine) about the project and offered it to the city for $3,000.
I don’t know how I feel about this one. I’m for public art, and it’s nice to see writers get a chunk of that money. But it does feel like a lot to pay for a writer who is expected to produce one poem.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how writers get paid (or don’t, which is much more common.) The odds are not good that any of us will ever make a living as writers. That’s a reality. There are too many people attempting it, not enough readers, profit margins on traditionally published materials are low, and self-published isn’t selling because, well, there’s a lot of it and a lot of it is bad. So most of us aren’t giving up our day jobs any time soon.
All of which has me thinking: should we expect to?
I know. It’s a terrible thing to say. People should get paid for their work. And it is work. It is hard work. It isn’t fair that J.K. Rowling and…and I’m a bad librarian because I don’t know the adult writer equivalent, but not fair that they get money and fame and you get a day job and to write on your keyboard late at night.
But it isn’t new. Kafka was recognized posthumously but not in his lifetime. Edgar Allen Poe tried to write full-time but didn’t even get paid for his first book. Composer Franz Schubert couldn’t sell his compositions to his contemporaries but inspired generations after him. If you measure success by money, they were all colossal failures. But there are other ways to measure success, right?
I had a lovely chat with my neighborhood bookstore owner today, and we talked about writers we know who write and have day jobs, or those who did for years before they finally started to make enough money to quit. I’m not talking about aspiring writers with half a novel on their laptop (like me.) I’m talking about real, actual, traditionally published authors. The kind who could legitimately be mad that their work isn’t paying. But they don’t make excuses. If they did, they wouldn’t be published.
I’m rambling, so instead of trying to find an answer to this, I’m going to end with two questions. I really don’t care if the City of Seattle pays a poet, hey, more power to them. And certainly the right-wing talk show hosts and others making a lot of noise about this have no idea how much work being a poet actually is.
But all that aside, do you personally, you writers out there, expect to make a living with your writing? Do you think it’s reasonable to ask society, either through their taxes or through their purchases, to support you and your art full-time? Do you buy enough books to support other writers?
And one bonus question: where would you like to do an artist residency?
Okay, that was four questions. Now let the attacking begin!