Against Competition: Artistic Philanthropy and the Philosophy of Goodness Among Artists (In Search of The Community)

A(nother) manifesto of sorts?

Andrew Carnegie wrote, “The best means of benefiting the community is to place within its reach the ladders upon which the aspiring can rise…institutions of various kinds, which will improve the general condition of the people…in the forms best calculated to do them lasting good.” (From “Wealth”)

The poetry pie is a small pie and there are many forks poised above it—but only so many hands can get close enough to the table to eat it. We know this. We probably arrive at writing poetry with dreamy notions of notebooks filled with verse that (somehow?) make it out into the public consciousness, resulting in some kind of cultural appreciation for our labors.

The reality of poetry is that it has nearly more producers than consumers. This creates a supply distortion: unless every producer makes steadfast use of conspicuous consumption to support the overall industry, it is doomed to fail us. However, to publish poetry in our current cultural moment requires money on the behalf of the artist and provides little, if any, return on the investment. I’m thinking broadly here of investments made among contest entry fees; investments in supplies, paper, pens, white-out, internet access, stamps, etc; and the cost of time—time likely spent away from or hindering other profit-making enterprises in each poet’s life (this does include time away from family because the family is, while loving, also an economic unit).

Because the publishing industry is, at heart, an economy of scale (mass-produced goods generate more revenue than limited runs), poetry won’t flourish there. Unless you are a Billy Collins or a Mary Oliver (and maybe you should be!), it’s not likely you could walk into just any bookstore in America and find your book on its shelves.

Studies have shown that Americans turn to poetry in times of national crisis (to help manage emotions and to seek understanding) or to commemorate special cultural or personal events (lik anniversaries, deaths, and weddings). Unless some poets want to flood the market demand by orchestrating more ill-conceived marriages or by creating a crisis of conscience among our non-reading peers, we probably aren’t going to sell more books. Perhaps legalizing same-sex marriage is the key to circulating more poetry books—more anniversaries and weddings!

It’s clear that poetry exists outside the market economy in America, and maybe this is where it belongs. After all, most among us would probably agree that capitalism dilutes artistic expression somehow—by commodifying “talent.” If the artistic product can be mass-produced, it loses its magical power of cultural significance (see also Walter Benjamin’s essay “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”).

If poetry is to do more than survive, more than just feed the six hands over that exposed pie, it needs to look elsewhere. As members of the community, we must take care of each other and we must caretake each other’s work.

While critical dialogues are valuable artisticitic disagreements absolutely necessary to crystallizing our own sense of poetics and the way in which we create art, there comes a point in a conversation where one or more people should be asked to leave the room, simmer down a bit, and come back when they’re ready to participate like rational, respectful adults.

Poetry and its consumption fall backward onto old stand-bys like the barter system, in which poets trade books, chapbooks, self-published ‘zines, and free internet publications among each other. These are good things, important “counter-measures” to the pressures of sales. “If a book opens in America and no one is around to read it, does it make a sound?” We must be philanthropically-minded about our careers if we are to succeed and to help others succeed. In this regard, competition—while spurring many of us to create better work—is also counter-productive when you look at the big picture.

A Story Problem
Imagine three poets. Poet 1 wins a prestigious first book award, receives many favorable reviews, and distributes (through sales or through in-kind) a full first printing. Poet 2 wins a lesser-known award, is less commonly reviewed, and distributes only a portion of his or her book. Poet 3 never wins an award, but continues to write and freely distribute work through not-for-profit means (bartering, internet, etc).

Thinking About What You’ve Read
Of the three artists above, which is the best poet?

Which is the most significant poet?

Of the three poets I’ve described, whose work will be read and discussed in 100 years?

Which is most likely to win a Guggenheim, an NEA, a MacArthur Grant, or a posh 2/2 teaching appointment at a cute liberal arts school in snowy Maine?

That’s precisely my point. Not only can you not choose, it doesn’t matter.

What matters is how many other consumers of poetry read and respond to the work. Let’s suggest, as Joseph Massey recently did, that Poet 3 is Jack Spicer, who never published a succinct, “full-length” collection of work. Or, even, that Poet 2 is someone like Edna St. Vincent Millay, a poet whose work was never fully respected during her lifetime but that, in the end, found its place among some of the most significant writers in the past century.

This is why we must be philanthropically-minded. We must be ready to be giving of ourselves and our work; to not only support other writers but to promote them.

Furthermore, it is up to us and only up to us to create new opportunities and vehicles to support new and emerging writers who join our community. This means our philanthropy should take forms of mentorship, education, communication, and “thinking-of-each-other-ness”—referring each other to the opportunities for which we may be well-suited.

There are more people living the philanthropic lifestyle than aren’t. But we aren’t yet recognizing the ways we can and do support each other. We need to make it intentional, this behavior, and the resources must be made available to all. When we become more selective about what is and what is not “supposed to be” poetry, we first and foremost limit ourselves and our potential.

If one voice is silenced, there is nothing left worth saying.

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