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Poets: Of Primadonnas and Entrepreneurs
by Adam Donaldson Powell Bookmark and Share

My first book of poetry was published in 1987 and I have been published in dozens of literary journals, many of which are long ago extinct. I was asked (or expected) to purchase one copy of each of those journals that featured my poetry to help defray the production costs and postage, since poetry is not exactly (and never was) a big seller. I did so (and still do) gladly, looking at it as an artistic expense and an investment in my art. After all, I would use the publication credits to climb higher up the rung of millions of would-be published poets looking for book offers.

For many aspiring poets today, the question of self-worth and ego is too closely associated with getting paid solely in hard cash. If they have to invest in themselves (i.e. purchase a copy of the literary journal featuring their poem) then the honor of being published there cannot be worth much (in their minds). Similarly, these same poets scoff at all contests which demand an entrance fee to pay for administration, judging, prizes, etc. If you do not want to pay for a copy of your published work, if you do not want to invest in having your work judged in a reputable literary competition ... then do not submit it. Read your poetry to yourself and friends/family that will listen.

A more entrepreneurial approach is to weigh the plusses and minuses of investing to have your work in a particular literary journal or anthology, of entering a competition, of having your book published by a small press publisher that is willing to take a chance on a talented but unknown poet (but who also is realistic about the need to share personal and financial resources so that the publisher does not go broke with one single publication); and to make an overall strategy and plan for your career as a poet. For example: is this publication credit or prize going to help me to advance, or not?

Poets have very low production costs compared to other artists: musicians, actors, visual artists, film makers, and even novelists. To have written a good poem is wonderful - for you! To have written an entire book of good poems that are well-presented is fantastic - to you! But what is your poetry worth to other people? How do you expect others to find it valuable if you do not think it is worth investing in yourself? And when does a poet advance from being an ego-centred hobbyist searching for identity to a craftsman, an entrepreneur who is confident that with proper planning, hard work and investment his/her poetry can actually sell?

So you wrote a great poem ... so what. So a magazine or publisher took note of that - and perhaps a few of your other poems - and offered to co-invest in your work. Sounds great, except for that one word: "co-invest".

Making a good poem is not just hit or miss. It requires skills. These skills are not always repeatable from poem to poem for the novice ... for the poet that has not sufficiently invested in his poetry or poet process. It is not enough to write one or a few good poems. If it is good enough for you, then you are not a poet but a hobbyist. It is not enough for most poets to publish just one book. I have published eleven books to date, and I have many colleagues that have published many, many more than I have and who have won many, many serious literary awards. Not one of these persons rests on their laurels and egos, and thinks "Now, I have made it. Now they have to come to me begging for my poetry!" Most of these poets still pay submission fees for important literary contests, still gladly buy at least one copy of literary journals that carry their work, and otherwise constantly invest in their work (many self-publishing since even well-known poets have a hard time getting lucrative book contracts from mainstream publishers) ... and they invest in themselves, continuously: poem after poem, and book after book. They are professional ... and they do not have time to waste by being primadonnas. You can wait to get recognized or you can do the work to take your deserved and hard-earned place on the stage. The latter is a faster and more steadfast path.

So stop whining poets! Show me a collection of excellent poems that reflect your hard work, your investment in yourself and your writing. Show me your publication credits ... Show me your submissions ... Show me your works-in-progress ... But do not complain to me that you cannot get anywhere with your work because you have to pay to purchase a literary journal with your work in it, which probably costs about the same as a bottle of wine. Both I, and many other authors, visual artists, actors, musicians and film makers would probably consider you less than serious; less than professional ... and perhaps wonder if your poetry really is so good after all.

Are there some literary journals out there that pay poets for their work and do not expect them to purchase a copy of the literary journal? Sure there are! Do you think your work has a chance getting published there before it and you are known? Before you have established literary credentials and contacts? Do you really think that these elite magazines publish lots of unknown poets that they do not expect will become a big name eventually (if not very, very soon)?

Wake up poets! Learn to be entrepreneurs.

Adam Donaldson Powell is an artist and a widely published Norwegian poet 

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May 01,2010
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