A poet who runs a small press once said in a room full of aspiring poets, “I try not to make money on any of these projects. If I make any money, I put it back into the next chapbook. I don’t want to make money. If anything, I want to lose it.”
Some of us laughed and later in the q&a, a woman in the audience assured him that he could in fact make money on these books. What he needed, perhaps, was a little marketing expertise, and some focused efforts on promotion. The poet listened and nodded and thanked her for her comment. But there were several of us in that room who were pretty certain she had missed the point completely.
I am reading Richard Hugo’s collection of essays on writing, The Triggering Town. In the final essay, called “How Poets Make a Living,” he tells a story from his time working at Boeing. Discovering a man and his wife squatting on Boeing land, the company takes actions to remove them. The man in anger and fear, writes long letters to Boeing, in which he does not so much protest the eviction, as chastise the corporation for its ignorance and privilege. He says:
“This country was built for more than one man to enjoy….You may be making millions of dollars but there will be a day when you won’t be. I am still suffering from some of your dirty work. I know kind of man you are and the rest of your so-called class.”
And later, in postscript, “The Admiral,” as he comes to be known, writes:
“When a man is in the middle of the road I can give a man a drink of water and feed a man. I have done. I only lost homes in my lifetime. These rabbit hutches I’m taking with me and other planks that is loose and lumber. I will have to unbolt the planks to the rabbit house unless you give me a good price for them like you said this afternoon. That money will go to my mother.”
In the years after graduate school, during which I followed a particular kind of career path and wrote little, I thought I had given up on writing (or that writing had given up on me). That had I been good enough, or dedicated enough, I would be able to write perfectly-formed pieces and the writing life would unroll its carpeted pathway for me to follow. That if I were talented enough, it would all come together and that success in a writing life would mean I would make my living through my writing.
I no longer pretend to know what success – in a writing life or elsewhere – truly means. Back now, in another graduate program nearly twenty years after I began the first, I take comfort in the idea that in a writing life, there can be silences. There are ebbs and flows, and if the arc of life is long, one can imagine – rather than straight lines – undulating waves.
In telling the story, and in discussing the poem that this incident prompted, Hugo attempts to answer the question, “How do poets make a living?” He talks about his time at Boeing and his current position, teaching at a university. He says:
“I suppose I haven’t done anything but demonstrated how I came to write a poem, shown what turns me on, or used to, and how, at least for me, what does turn me on lies in a region of myself that could not be changed by the nature of my employment. But it seems important (to me even gratifying) that the same region lies untouched and unchanged in a lot of people, and in my innocent way I wonder if it is a reason for hope. Hope for what? I don’t know. Maybe hope that humanity will always survive civilization.”
Hugo goes on:
“But no job accounts for the impulse to find and order those bits and pieces of yourself that can come out only in the most unguarded moments, in the wildest, most primitive phrases we shout alone at the mirror. And no job modifies that impulse or destroys it. In a way, The Admiral speaks for all poets, maybe for all people, at least a lot of us. We won’t all disappear on a remote country road in the Monroe Valley, but like The Admiral and his wife we are all going into the dark. Some of us hope that before we do we have been honest enough to scream back at the fates. Or if we never did it ourselves, that someone, derelict or poet, did it for us once in some euphonic way our inadequate capacity for love did not deny our hearing.”