This text was written for oral presentation at the Babelsprech international conference „Lyrik im Grenzgebiet“ in LCB Berlin on 27th & 28th July 2017. Its title derives from the film Jerry Maguire (USA, 1996, dir: Cameron Crowe).
THE THINGS WE THINK AND DO NOT SAY
by Anja Golob
Translated from Slovene by Katja Šaponjić.
Tell me, you people out there, what is poetry anyway?
Can anyone die without even a little?
Mark Strand: The Great Poet Returns
Let’s begin by assuming we are all now here. If that’s true, poetry isn’t dead – yet. So the title of this conference (”Die Lyrik ist tot”) cannot be anything but an undoubtedly deliberately provocative figure of speech, used for its effect of grasping our attention, particularly when captured in flamboyant graphic design.
But the devil is to be found in details … that yet … poetry actually is, if not yet dead, at least in an accelerated process of dying – because we are not writing it any more. We, namely, have no time. We are busy; we travel, we are just on our way to a festival or a reading, to a literary evening, a debate or a lecture, or we are staying in a writer’s residency.
Those are basic standards of our success within our occupation as poets, along with quantity of publications in specialised literary magazines and anthologies, along with a list of translations of our poems in foreign languages, and along with awards we have received. We have to be happy about invitations we get, possibly feeling a touch of pride at the thought that it was us they invited, that this or that organizer is willing to pay a plane ticket and a hotel and even give us some kind of fee, so eager is he or she to have us present at his or her event. We have to be happy at the perspective of getting to know our colleagues, at the perspective of socialising and creating ties which would at best give rise to even more collaborations, translations, readings and projects. A ”project” – unquestionably a word with the biggest letters in the Word Cloud of our lives.
All of the above, including projects, are platforms for selling our past merits and past work. I know no person, myself included, who would be able to write productively during festivals and travelling. Participating worthily at events (what we are paid for) requires, at least for me, thorough preparations, which in turn requires time. Packing, planning, arranging travel documents and bookings, putting your life on hold for the time of absence – all of this equally requires time. Coming home, taking rest, restarting daily life, as well, time and effort, particularly if one is not 25 any longer. Nobody pays us for that time, it simply doesn’t exist for the organisers; our joy over an invitation and new acquaintances, a possibility of visiting somewhere new, covered travel expenses and a hotel, all of that has to be enough. So: no time – no poetry.
Years ago, I was invited by a famous Slovenian promoter of reading to participate at a literary evening. She said nothing about a fee, so I asked. I believe we should be paid for our work. And I believe poetry is work – not a hobby, work. She replied by saying that participation itself was a brilliant promotion for myself and my work. This in itself was supposed to be enough. There was an undercurrent of reproach in her voice because of my apparent ingratitude.
Last year, almost two months after the release of my third book of poems, one of the Slovenian dailies reproduced one poem from it in its Saturday supplement – without authorisation, despite the e-mail address indicated in the book specifically for such purposes. When I confronted the editor in chief, he made excuses about lack of time and reminded me of publicity the daily was making not only for me but for the whole of Slovenian contemporary poetry. This in itself was supposed to be enough. There was an undercurrent of reproach in his voice because of my apparent ingratitude.
What am I trying to say? These are only two examples of practice very well known to us all who are having to do with writing: this patting on the back in a sense of ”money is not everything anyway, particularly not to you with so much more noble goals, right?”. Both individuals concerned thought it inconceivable to pay for poetry in one form or another, and it didn’t cross their minds that an (unasked-for) ”publicity” may not be perceived as adequate payment. But a poet, despite his or her etheric poetic existence, as some may see it, still depends on real food and real payment of real bills. In short, money is still a condition for his or her existence, which is a pre-condition for existence of poetry. No money – no poetry.
Besides funds earmarked for culture in budgets of individual countries, and besides various private initiatives which in different ways invest in and support certain segments of artistic creation, the majority of money for culture is now probably available through the programme Creative Europe, which is ”the European Commission’s framework programme for support to the culture and audio-visual sector. Following on from the previous Culture Programme and MEDIA programme, Creative Europe, with a budget of €1.46 billion (9% higher than its predecessors), will support Europe’s cultural and creative sectors.” Here, a note for the sake of easier understanding’s in order – the budget share that Slovenia, my home country, earmarked for the entire cultural sector for 2017 amounts to no more than one tenth of the above mentioned resources (since 2009 when that share was 204 million EUR the resources are constantly being limited). This fact bears more weight than we may imagine: it namely not only directly determines whether poetry is dead or not, but it also more or less directly determines, for example, what will be published – and what won’t be. Let me give you one example: it’s called The EU Prize for Literature. It is being awarded since 2009 and is defined as follows: ”The aim of the European Union Prize for Literature (EUPL) is to put the spotlight on the creativity and diverse wealth of Europe’s contemporary literature in the field of fiction, to promote the circulation of literature within Europe and to encourage greater interest in non-national literary works.” To my knowledge, since the beginning of its introduction no book of poems has been awarded this prize. When a publishing house applies for funds distributed through the Creative Europe ”Literary Translation Projects”, for example, its application is reviewed according to four criteria. One of them, which can bring up to 15 points out of 100, is including the awarded books into its programme – every such book brings 3 points. In this way the EC directly influences programmes of more opportunistic publishing houses across Europe, which simply decide to include one or more of those awarded (dictated) works in order to get additional points and so get the funds. But even that can only be done by publishing houses that publish novels or short stories. For specialised publishing houses, however (the one that I work for specialises in Slovenian translations of graphic novels) 85 is the new 100. Herein lies the answer to the question why the publishing houses specialising in anything else but prose find it so hard to survive, why you keep hearing that nobody reads poetry any longer nor buys it, why there is such big difference between authors of novels and authors of poems, and why the latter are often perceived almost as a curiosity. Maybe people would buy it – if it would be there to buy. It is for a fact harder to sell a poetry collection than to sell a novel, yet this will never change without a conscious decision to change it – from a place that does have means to do that. I know of no Creative Europe programs that would give extra support to genres they themselves see as ”less represented”. As the example of Slovenian state budget above shows, it is beyond crucial to obtain EU-funding, especially in small and under-financed markets, especially for ”less represented genres”. What severely worries me is, how EC instead of a concept that would truly change the reading habits, the horizon of expectation, that would educate, provoke people to want to know more, dig deeper, offers us a simplified, lazy alternative of what was already obvious. This leads nowhere new. But the old we know already.
In short, things are the way they are also because the European cultural policy is not interested in awarding, promoting and distributing poetry or in publishing poetry translations. Things are the way they are because the EU cultural policy is obviously openly discriminatory regarding some literary genres, like poetry or graphic novels. This is why you sell less than you could, why you are less translated, hence your work reaches less people in less countries, and you, in turn, have to accept to much more personally engage in promotion. Lets have a closer look at that.
At a discussion in the framework of Poesiefestival about a month ago, someone has pointed out that one of the differences between rap and slam poetry on one side, and poetry in a classic sense on the other is – a body. Rap and slam poetry without exception demand that the artist be physically present at the event in real time, as performing is basically indispensable for their success – rap on paper is more often than not a caricature; it only comes to life when performed live. In principle, it used to be quite irrelevant for poetry whether one has actually heard it read by the author, if the author was actually present; some readers even swore by reading it quietly and alone at home. This is not enough anymore. Our creative branch has been „modernised“: it is now essential for the author to accompany his or her work, to actually appear – in voice and in body. Under new terms, poetry now demands a whole person. Not so long ago, this phrase would still be understood as a metaphor. Well, not anymore. I’m not talking here about the different ways of approaching poetry; I’m talking about how one cannot not participate, should one not want to. This I call the industry of poetry, or the Uberpoetry (surely enough without the Umlaut). In reality it’s namely like this: the more the latter demands, the less of a poet is left for the former; and so less poetry is being created.
Let’s have a look at a few examples: most contracts for art residencies state that a proportionate share of funds will be deducted from the author’s fee in case he or she disrespects the rule of minimum period of absence. He or she is usually obliged to have at least one reading during the time of residency. Participation at festivals has become the measure of whether the poet is „in“, whether he or she takes part in the happening, whether the name rings a bell. Or doesn’t. The number of invitations defines the poet’s success. At festivals, he / she has more and more additional activities: interviews, meetings with students, participation at evening discussions, and the latest trend – being filmed for short videos, then being patch-worked into something polite, sepia-filtered, something to the liking of the mighty Mother Europe. A poet is more and more a promoter of festivals at which he or she participates. I may not be so wrong in assuming that the most-eager-for-business among us are already sewing logos of sponsors on their shirts. And that more than a few from our field of work when hearing this think, with a sigh: wishful thinking.
In ancient times, poet’s body belonged to the poet, and then occasionally to another naked person (or more naked people) in their close proximity. This is not possible any longer, which produces side effects: first od them, the most obvious one, being, that beautiful – by common standard – people among us find it easier to do their job, although Proust himself already warned us to ”Leave beautiful women to men without imagination.” Nevertheless, these days a poet of all genders needs to be at least cute, if not handsome. It is only a question of time when this requirement will figure in the official job description. It sounds funny, but it really isn’t: I know of a female poet who has been told it was not at all important what she wrote – as long as she didn’t stop working out. And this brings us to the next important question: how much body is enough body for the contemporary poetry industry? Some people are beautiful by nature, but most of us are made beautiful – and this costs money. Creams and lipsticks cost money. Pretty shirts and shoes for performances cost money. Yearly tickets for gyms and swimming pools cost money. It’s interesting, isn’t it, that costs related to the above are not included in the calculation of our fees, when on the other hand there is such urge for filming us, taking photos of us, publishing us on various networks? For the promotion or praise of those who contribute money, black-and-white written reports are not enough, it has to be pictures in colour.
To summarise: consequences of the described situation may not be striking, but they are apparent and most worrying:
- We are on the road most of the time. We are busy doing promotion of our work, so we write less or even stop writing. The quality of writing is worse, the quality level of poetry in general is lower and lower. So the question is: what will we promote tomorrow?
- Besides doing our core work we are also secretaries, accountants and organisers, because most of us don’t have enough money to afford an assistant. This leaves us with less time and concentration for writing.
- We are not getting any younger, but we are not getting any richer, either. The price of „fame“ or promotion is rising; our colleagues from other genres, for example authors of novels, are paid more for their work, and their work is taken more seriously. Poetry in comparison to prose is underestimated and set aside.
- Fees are generally the last in line when we start talking about our participation at a reading or at a festival. This is utterly unfair: we are their program, why are we then left with peanuts? Most of us accept the proposed amounts without negotiation, which is bad. Someone has to pay for our time. If not a festival, then clearly us – who else?
- Most of us have no basic health and pension insurance, but this seems to be no one’s concern but ours, and even we think about it when we are forced to, usually when we fall ill.
- Female authors are often discriminated – from the perspective of appearances and from the perspective of motherhood. It is a near miracle that a woman poet can have a child and yet does not fall out of the system of scholarships, residencies and participation at festivals. Personally, I know of one such example, and then of many others who are childless.
- If we are successful, we are so often away from home that our family lives and our relationships are seriously jeopardized . Relationships are broken, particularly with people who work in other fields and have fixed timetables, so they cannot afford to come and visit us in our residencies.
- Under the strain of conditions for application, mentioned above, a diversity of content in poetry is changing, the value and the meaning of poetry being lesser and lesser, and poetry itself being pushed to the side track.
To conclude: we, poets, are exhausted. Bad news: poetry is maybe truly close to dead. But worry not, to a bad news, there’s always a worse news: the Uberpoetry is very much alive and kicking.
P.S.: In light of the above, my suggestion to festivals would be: hey, consider investing funds not in promotional material but rather in production of condoms with your logos. For poets the festivals now, namely, signify one of really rare spaces where they, after full days, late at night have at least some time to still afford a bit of human intimacy, in which it’s possible to claim back their bodies, not give a fuck about the money, pension, health insurance etc. – and where, if nothing else, at least in the morning, when a new day is rising and a ray of light coming in through barely drawn curtains of a less than spacious hotel room’s window is throwing shadows on the wall above the TV-screen in which filmed flames of a fireplace are dancing, one can perhaps at least get inspired to write a new poem.
Das Artikelfoto stammt von Livio Baumgartner