Cue the Amateurs
I’ve read three interviews in the last three months with poets who roared on the topic of unpaid written work. These poets (a Canadian, an Australian, and an American) had a shared distrust of anyone who asked them to write, or read, anything without a specific and generous plan of recompense. Admittedly, one of them was speaking about the so-called “corporate blogs” at the time, such as those found on Amazon and Chapters, but further drilling-down on the topic made it look more and more like her real enemy was unpaid labour itself.
My poetry community (broadly defined as all those people who write poems or go to poetry events in the city of Toronto, plus all those people I interact with on the topic over the internet, plus all those people I’ve worked beside in any of the other cities I’ve lived and written in) has a complicated relationship with volunteerism. Surely, without our army of amateur publicists and boosters, our reading series programmers and micropublishers, the community would exhaust itself. These people go a long way towards making the community look bigger and more vibrant than it is. However, I don’t think I’m speaking out of turn when I suggest that there’s a subtle and undeliberate class system built up around the divide between creative types and the logisticians. We ethereal creatures adore and appreciate the support system around us, but I wonder if that love extends to the unpaid labourers who’ve created it? I have a pair of friends who do everything from grant-writing to chapbook publishing as well as being two pretty darn good poets. And I remember responding to news of their exploits one day with a “Gosh, you two are becoming a real pair of cheerleaders.” I didn’t mean anything by it (and being called a cheerleader is no insult, you could go on to be president one day), but I remember it now as personal evidence that the support that’s so necessary to building a sustainable artistic community is often looked down on by those it supports.
There’s a line of argument out there that the best thing a poet can do in the service of poetry is write a poem. That looks valid enough, on the surface. But let’s unpack it, shall we? Let’s say there are 5,000 poets in the country (there’s probably more, but let’s just say 5k). These 5,000 poets produce maybe 20 finished poems each per year (some many more, some less). So that’s 100,000 good ol’ Canadian poems every twelve months. If anyone can give me an argument that making it 100,001 is the best thing a person can do with their time, and not require that argument to assume that said poem would be a once-in-an-era hootenanny of vision and music and wisdom, I’m all ears. But I think there are other avenues to support the art form. And one of the easiest avenues, I’ve learned, is working for free.
A lot of poets stay out of so-called “community building” because they’re either too shy for the social element of the support culture or they think the idea of “community” is stupid. To the former, I suggest the more solitary tasks of magazining and blogging (it works for me). To the latter, I suggest that you may have been a poetry critic all this time and didn’t know it. And if you’re a bright shiny beacon of friendliness, able to talk to everyone from poets to politicians, then your possibilities are endless.
The question I have is this. If, for every ten hours spent dutifully re-arranging commas and staring at blank pages, each poet spent just one hour working in the service of their community, how would this change the landscape of poetry in this country? How would it change what we get out of the other nine? I’m not suggesting we all volunteer for the diamond mines. I’m suggesting we do things we’re likely to enjoy, and do them without the shame often carried by the artist gone unpaid for their art. And I understand that everyone has to eat and pay their rent. But I’m only asking for an hour, though do more if you like (surely I can think of a handful of bloggers and volunteers who usually get their hour done before breakfast). I think that in a healthy artistic community, the supporting practitioner should be the norm, not the exception. I know it’s hard to write poems, and writing good ones takes a lot of time. But writing a good review is hard too, and there’s no good reason why we have so few practicing critics when the internet offers you all the column inches you want, free of charge. In this era of arts cutbacks and non-existent sales, an ethic of committed amateurism may not be the nightmare scenario it’s been made out to be, but rather the very thing that saves and sustains us.
So, dear reader, what supporting tasks do you think you’d be best at? Where would you go to find out?