by Scott Woods


National Poetry Month is coming and poetry requests are in the air…or rather, free poetry requests are in the air. While I have written elsewhere on the mind-boggling and pioneering concept of paying for the performances and work of poets like any other artist, it remains a necessary observation to make now and then.

No one can stop you from asking a poet if they will come feature at your event without compensation, nor am I suggesting that there aren’t times when a freebie isn’t warranted if it can be negotiated, say, for charity or fundraising or as a favor.

That said, there are lots of reasons why you generally shouldn’t.

For instance, I don’t believe I’ve met the poet who believes that no other poet should try to make a living off of their art. Despite this observation, I have met plenty of people who don’t think they should be the one that contributes directly to that reality in any concrete way.

How to ask: Lead with what you are offering.

Do not lead with a date to see if a poet is free. Forget that it is unprofessional; you put the poet in the unnecessarily awkward position of having to ask if the trip is worth the considerable effort they are likely to spend to get to and perform for whatever audience you have. A lot of poets clam up when put in this position and don’t ask about money, make the trip, do the gig and then leave with nothing for their trouble, cursing all the way home…all things that could have been negotiated by simply putting what you have to offer on the table. What the poet offers is clear; what you offer is not.

I do free gigs sometimes, sure. I allot for that in my mission, budget and needs. But don’t make me the bad guy for asking. Every hour I take off of work to go do a gig is an hour I don’t get to use for vacations or when I’m sick. I know how much an hour of day job work pays, and what it cost. If you can’t at least match that, I’m losing out on the deal.

If you intend to pay out of the door but can’t guarantee what that amount might be, that should be made clear up front. Don’t hook a poet for nothing, then make it “better” by giving them something at the end of the night. It will be appreciated, but if this is how you handle all of your features anyway, just say so and let them make an informed decision. Why risk being turned down flat when you had every intention of paying?

I don’t need to be paid for every gig. I need to be properly informed of the important details up front so that I can make a decision that benefits all parties and doesn’t waste anyone’s time.

If you can send a team of poets to a regional competition or the National Poetry Slam or on a field trip to a show in another city, you can carve out $50 for an out of town poet. Hell, $50 was the going rate over a decade ago. If you aren’t/can’t pay that in 2013, you’re already under the fucking jail.

If you charge admission but don’t pay a dollar to a performer who is headlined on your press, that is wrong.

You can afford gas money. If you cannot afford gas money, you should spend more time figuring out how to do so instead of figuring out how to fill every week on your calendar with a free poet.

When economies tank the arts are the first thing to suffer. Art is the thing that audiences can trim from their budgets. Even when economies are fat, arts struggle for attention and support. You do no one any favors by committing them to gigs that pay nothing but potentially cost everything. A parking ticket, moving violation, getting towed, or sudden repair can send a traveling poet’s resources right down the toilet. Don’t compound that by being cheap.

Be honest about what a feature is actually bringing to your show in real dividends. You may discover that having a featured reader isn’t making or breaking why people come to your show as opposed to sitting on the couch. Take some time to determine if this is how you should be spending your time and resources. You may discover (as I did) that by creating a better show in other ways enhances the experience for your audience, and costs you little or nothing to implement.

Allowing a poet to sell merchandise is not payment. It is what you were supposed to do anyway.

Networking is not payment. We live in the age of the internet. Networking is happening when we’re asleep, if you have any following at all. Do not sell access to your coffeehouse clutch as “networking,” not unless your audience has A&R reps from publishing houses in it.

When I ask someone to perform for free at, say, the annual poetry slam at the Columbus Arts Festival, THAT is payment vis-à-vis exposure and networking. I’m going to put you in a primo spot under the best conditions that can be negotiated, and where the whole city potentially gets to see what you do and all you had to do was show up. Many festivals work this way because they know that exposure – real exposure – can be a boon to artists. Your coffee shop reading is not a festival.

Time versus pay.
I confront this matter differently than a lot of poets. I break out my costs based on what you want me to do and by how much time you want me to commit to it. So there is no free workshop followed by a free feature followed by the free “opportunity” to MC a portion of your show at the end of the night. I can’t speak for other poets, but I spend a lot of time and energy developing really strong workshops, poems and MC skills. It is wrong to give away that set of resources with any regularity and then wake up every day complaining about how much you hate your day job.

There are plenty of poets who are more than happy to perform for nothing, or for the experience. While they don’t care that they didn’t get paid, I do not believe they should have to work for free.

You don’t get to dictate how much another artist’s dues should cost unless they ask you to.

None of this is about ego or anger or reputation. What it’s about is the cost of gas, wear and tear, vacation time usage, driving while black, getting towed, parking costs, taxi fares, airport security hassles, and getting back merch costs. Nowhere in this essay have I mentioned how a poet’s reputation, experience or quality of work should change the rubric of paying for what you get. That is because if you can’t agree (not “can’t do”, but “don’t believe in”) on the basic principle of paying for an artist’s work then it doesn’t matter who that artist is…you’re wrong.


Originally posted online at LiveJournal 3/16/2013


One thought on “10 Observations on Paying Poets

  1. i set up readings for poets frequently – this is some great advice whether you’re the pr rep for your business or the poet themselves. thanks for the insight!

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