Exposure Won't Pay the Rent
It is clear to us that the largest subsidy to the cultural life of Canada comes, not from governments, corporations or other patrons, but from the artists themselves through their unpaid or underpaid labor.
— from the Applebaum / Hébert Federal Cultural Policy Review Committee (1982)
Over three decades have passed since Louis Applebaum and Jacques Hébert reported on the deplorable economic status of artists. Their 1982 report was the first review of Canadian cultural institutions and federal cultural policy since the Massey Commission report of 1951, which directly facilitated the founding of the Canada Council. (This long neglect of a policy paper already speaks volumes to the neglect and disrespect of artists in this country.)
Despite some improvement in the circumstances of some artists through grants and programs afforded by the Canada Council for the Arts and the Conseil des arts et letters du Quebec (CALQ), it still appears that the average writer in Quebec, if not Canada, is unable to earn respect and/or a decent wage from his or her art. Poets are, without a doubt, worse off than their fiction-writing cousins for reasons that have more to do with the genre they have chosen than the quality of their output. It’s basic economics. Fewer readers mean fewer books sold. Fewer sales mean less money. It’s no secret that most poets have at least one day-job to help them pay the bills.
The average print run of a Canadian poetry title is 500 copies, many of which end their days warehoused in the basement of the small literary press that believed in the work enough to publish it. (The demise of too many independent bookstores has further exacerbated the situation). The few slim volumes that find their way onto the shelves of Heather Reisman’s soap-and-candle emporium – also known as Indigo Books and Music – barely have time to gather dust before they’re shipped back, unsold, to their distributer.
The sad truth of the matter is that poets in our society are undervalued – and seriously underpaid – despite voices that resurface from time to time echoing Shelley’s declaration that they are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.
There are a number of reasons for this. Most people never revisit poetry after high school except, of course, when they need a thoughtful quote for a wedding or funeral— an eloquent couplet that aptly captures what it means to be human in an increasingly dehumanized world. And these days, there’s no need to step into a library or bookstore to do it. In 0.37 seconds, the Google search engine will spit out hundreds of websites with thousands of quotes to plug into your speech. Where there is love, there is life. Love one another, but make not a bond of love. Etc.
But I digress. The point is, zero sales, zero income. And this is assuming that there’s a published book in the first place, a book with a price tag on it, occupying a bookshelf. (Many poets don’t even get that far.)
And if they do? After the initial palpitations and sweaty palms, it isn’t long before reality sets in. Taken aback, the dewy-eyed poet discovers that a standard Canadian contract pays only ten per cent in royalties (translation: a book priced at $10 in the store earns the author all of a buck). They do the math. If they sell the entire print run (the aforementioned 500 copies) if they sell every single one of their beloved books, they might be able to cover half a month’s rent. I can’t imagine a poet who would call five hundred bucks “laughing all the way to the bank.”
Certainly, no one forces anyone to become a poet. No parent, in a heart-to-heart with her child, says, “Don’t be a doctor; be a poet.” Most just feel it’s their calling. At least that was my experience. I felt poetry wasn’t any less a vocation than accounting, for example. Poetry was serious work and real poets did not write poetry as a hobby. It wasn’t like golf or lawn bowling. If I earned a dollar every time a wealthy professional told me they’re going to “take up poetry” when they retire, or maybe even write a book, I’d be rich by now. Maybe I’ll take up surgery when I retire, I say.
I’ve gotten used to people ragging on about artists and poets, people in the real world with “real jobs.” People who keep reminding me that art is a luxury we can’t afford in tough economic times. Or, as I tend to see them, people who can’t see past their bank accounts. (I often wonder what would happen if they were told to remove the art from their walls, denied books and movies and visits to the symphony.) But the real insult comes from those who should know better. I’m referring to teachers who understand the impact a visiting author can have on their students, how they generate excitement by bringing literature to life.
Several years ago, the Quebec government instituted a program, which subsidizes two-thirds of the cost of school visits by artists of all stripes, including poets. Before massive cuts, it also provided a free class set of an author’s books for each day of visits to a school— a win-win situation for schools and writers. As one of many writers included in the directory, I’ve travelled all across the province giving workshops and readings.
Unfortunately, despite the accessibility of this program, there are still teachers out there who have the audacity to ask me if I would drop by and give a free workshop to their class. They pat themselves on the back for their kind offer of “exposure.” I may very well be “chuffed” or “flattered” at being asked to share my expertise, but what about all the time and effort it takes to plan a successful poetry workshop? Doesn’t that deserve to be remunerated? Teachers, more than anyone, should recognize that one doesn’t just walk into a classroom and deliver a compelling lesson. It’s taken me no less than a decade to create and fine-tune my presentations. As for exposure, one can’t pay the bills with it. Exposure can’t replace the lost income from a day job. One can die of exposure.
Of course, I don’t blame teachers for wanting to go above and beyond the call of duty, meaning the Quebec curriculum. Thumbs up, I say, for wanting to introduce their students to a living, breathing writer. Thumbs up for their initiative. But asking for a freebie, they are effectively undervaluing the work that I do and the subject they teach. Would these same teachers take on an extra period every day without being paid for it? I doubt it.
Perhaps some of the blame lies squarely on our own shoulders. We’re too eager, so desperate to be heard that we undervalue our own work. Perhaps if poets got together and lobbied to educate the public and promote a cultural contract that would value our commodity, people would have a better sense of who we are and what we do. Perhaps then Canadians would understand that culture is a necessary and integral part of our lives.
In the decade or so that I was a member of the League of Canadian Poets, I never saw an increase in reading fees paid out by the Canada Council for the Arts. It has remained stuck at $250 for a solo reading and $125 for a half or joint reading, despite the increasing cost of living. For all the years I’ve participated in Quebec’s writers-in-schools program the honorarium has never moved beyond $325 for a full day of workshops. And while some might argue that this is ample pay for “getting up and reading a few poems,” or “leading a workshop” it is important to note that there is a cap on the number of readings/workshops one can give each year, a rule that severely restricts the annual income of an author.
The fact of the matter is, many times we aren’t even paid for our public readings because these series are dependent on funding from national organizations such as the Canada Council and there is simply not enough of the pie to go around. The same is true for publication in literary journal. Often, the only payment for a poet’s work is a year’s subscription to the magazine or a complimentary copy. How is that supposed to cover the rent?
And what about “friends” who expect poets to hand over a free copy of their new book? I wouldn’t dream of asking hardworking people I know to do something pro bono for me. It would be downright disrespectful. In fact, people who attend book launches or public readings should really go with the intention of buying at least one copy, of supporting the poet, especially if they are friends. Fifteen or twenty dollars, the average cost of a poetry book, is not too much to dish out. Most of us never think twice about paying that to see a movie.
The bottom line: Poets, like me, work hard. Sometimes we juggle two or three jobs just to pay our bills. Respect our worth and effort. Read our books. Pay us a fair wage.