Poet Richard Jeffrey Newman originally posted this essay at RichardJNewman.com. His poem “Telling Stories” was featured in Issue #1 of Newtown Literary. Check out his site for more great writing!
This cartoon popped up on my Facebook timeline today, but it’s originally from cartoonist Melanie Gillman’s Tumblr. I identified with it immediately, not because I expect that, as a poet, I should be paid the way people are paid for the work they do to make a living, but because the work I do as a poet is devalued by many of the people for whom I do that work in precisely the ways that the cartoon satirizes. More to the point, just like the cartoon does, those people often put the logic of that devaluation in my own mouth. This way—or at least this is how it appears to me—they do not have to question their own, self-serving assumption that I am happy to give my labor away in exchange for the ego boost of an audience’s applause, or the pleasure of hearing someone tell me that my poem meant something to them, or for the usually small odds that, if I have books with me, I will sell enough of them to recoup my transportation costs, or the cost of the meal I ate while I was waiting to read, or the drinks I had, or, in at least one place that I’ve read, the dollar amount of the minimum I had to pay so that I, a featured reader, would be allowed to sit there while I waited to give my reading in the first place. (I would name that place, except that I don’t want to cause trouble for the reading organizer, who has tried to get the venue to change its policy.)
I hope it is stating the obvious, but I’m going to say it anyway. The labor I am talking about is not the labor that goes into writing my poems; nor am I trying to say anything about the value of any individual poem I might write. Rather I am talking about the work I do when I share my poems with people who have come to hear them. I believe that work has value, though this value may be different in different places, and I believe that anyone who does that kind of work deserves some form of compensation for it. At the college where I teach, for example, we run a reading series for the educational value it brings to our students, and we pay those authors because we value the time and energy they give to make their visits worthwhile. In the case of the cafe that charged me a minimum to wait until it was my time to read, they make money off the people who have come to hear me read. Surely they could have afforded to waive my minimum in exchange for the business I brought them.
It is, however, not only venues like that one that are the problem. I have been to too many readings where the host passes the hat and takes whatever people donate entirely for her or himself, sharing nothing with the featured reader(s)—who, of course, despite my title, are not always poets; and I have been to readings where the organizer not only doesn’t pass the hat, but doesn’t even show the featured reader the courtesy of buying her or him a drink. What makes this phenomenon especially difficult is that the organizers of these reading series are almost always poets and writers themselves, and if they, if we, do not value the time and energy that our featured readers give when they come to read for us—if, in other words, we do not value our own—why should we expect anyone else to?
One of the things that makes me really happy about First Tuesdays, the reading series I run at Terraza Cafe in Elmhurst, Queens (click here for the Facebook page), is that, for the 2013–2104 season at least, through the generosity of Poets & Writers, I am able to pay my featured readers $100 plus for the evening. It wasn’t always like this, though. When I first got involved with the series, the woman who was running it didn’t pay her featured readers anything, despite the fact that she collected donations at the door. When I suggested this wasn’t right, that she should at least pay her readers something from that admittedly small pot of money, she agreed and set aside a token amount as payment. When I took the series over in 2012, I changed that policy, splitting what I collected in donations with the feature and then holding the rest of the money till the following month, when I would add it to the donations I collected and, again, split the amount with the featured reader. Depending on how many people showed up, I was able in 2012–2013 to pay readers anywhere between $30 and $70, with the average being about $45 or $50.
When I took over First Tuesdays, I made two decisions that I hoped would make my life as a reading-series organizer easier. First, instead of holding the readings year round, we would go from September through June, and, second, I would book each entire season in advance. The July-August break, I figured, would give me a chance to plan, and booking the entire season in advance would save me the trouble of scrambling for readers month-by-month. Most importantly, however, this strategy allowed me enough time to apply for funding from Poets & Writers. The process is simple enough. You download the application—the full guidelines are in a separate document—get the necessary information from the writer, mail or fax the form, and then wait to find out if the Poets & Writers will give you money. I received funding every time I applied when I was running the reading series at the college where I teach, and Poets & Writers has been very generous in funding First Tuesdays, to the tune of $100 per reader, for a total of $1,000 for the 2013–2014 season. That’s not a lot of money, but it’s more than most featured readers get paid at any of the comparable reading series that I know about, and it has been very fulfilling to watch the look of surprised pleasure on people’s faces when I hand them the check and they see how much it is for.
There is, of course, no guarantee that Poets & Writers will fund my series at the same level in 2014–2015, 2015–2016, or any other year. It will depend on how much money they get from their founders and how many different events they have to divide it among. What I know is that they are eager to use whatever money they have. Nonetheless, while I would encourage everyone who runs a reading series to apply to Poets & Writers, I have no desire to pass judgment on anyone who does not. Filling out the form is a burden, especially if you host more than one featured writer per reading (though, to me, it still doesn’t seem like that much trouble), as can be dealing with writers who are not responsive when you ask them for the information you need. (I handle that by making it clear that if I don’t get the information on time, I will only be able to pay them from the donations I collect at the door.) More than this, though, dealing with money and handling people’s personal information—you need, for example, to provide P&W with your readers’ social security numbers—is a responsibility which not everyone is willing and/or able to take on. People have their own lives, their own stresses and stressors, and it’s not for me to say whether applying for funding, on top of the essentially volunteer time we all give to run our series, should or should not be more than any one person can handle.
What I am comfortable saying, though, is that, if you run a reading series, you should find some way to pay the people who read for you. If they have books to sell, and you a book, good for you! If you collect donations and give the reader a portion of what you collect, good for you! If you buy them a drink, good for you! If you can talk a couple of regulars into chipping in and buying dinner for them, good for you! If you can persuade your venue to buy them a drink, or a free appetizer, or anything else along those lines, even better! One series I know gives its featured readers gifts. I got a book of poetry (or maybe two; it was a while ago and I don’t remember exactly) and two lovely rice bowls that remind me of that evening every time I use them. The point is to demonstrate, in whatever way that you can, that you value their work. I can’t imagine anyone who runs a bar or club asking a musician to play an evening’s entertainment for free, without any hope of compensation, nor can I imagine a musician, except in some very limited circumstances, agreeing to do so. Why should featured readers be treated, or expect to be treated, any differently?
I’m not suggesting that poets and fiction writers—who are most commonly the kinds of readers I am talking about here—should engage in a kind of job action and refuse to read for any series that does not pay. We all, and perhaps especially poets, know that there is little or no money in what we do, and yet we all want, we all need to share our work. So we each have to make our own decisions about when and whether we are willing to do so for free. Nonetheless, I don’t think there is any harm in asking about payment, and I wouldn’t blame anyone who did refuse to work without it. Why shouldn’t we let the people who book us for readings know that, when we read for free, it is our choice, not theirs?
To my fellow reading-series organizers, I offer this post as a challenge. If you do find ways to compensate your featured readers, however you do it, I encourage you to talk it up. Let’s work to make the assumption that readers should be compensated the norm rather than the exception. If you don’t compensate your readers, I encourage you to think about why. I’m sure that you don’t get paid for your labor either, but you choose to do it nonetheless. Why? What value do you get month after month that makes it worth your while? If your experience is anything like mine, that value is tied to the community that has formed around your series and the shared commitment of that community to the value of literary expression. You may be giving your featured readers a stage when they come to read for you, and they may be reading as your guests, but they are guests who, in turn, perform labor for your community, entertaining them, moving them, inspiring them—strengthening, in other words, both the communal feeling that has brought them together and their commitment to the value of literature. Surely that is worth more than a heartfelt thanks and a round of applause.
Don’t forget, good readers, that Queens Writes Weekend is coming up on April 25-27. We still need site captains! Click here for more information, or to volunteer.