Why does poetry feed our souls, but not our stomachs?
Author of the Week: Spain – Madrid
- Mum, I’d like to be a poet.
- That’s great, darling. And how will you make a living?
I don’t know if this sounds familiar or if it has by any chance happened to you in the past. But that is what my mother said to me when I told her I had the uncontrollable urge to be a poet, when I realised I wanted to be a poet, or rather, that I was a poet, when I realised that there was no other thing I could be in this world. She was worried, but then again, who wouldn’t be?
That moment comes when you realise that what you think about the world is very different from what others think about it. Especially the way you talk about it. Sometimes I like to think it’s like coming out of the closet and letting yourself, your true self, be seen. Children do not usually say, ‘Mum, when I grow up, I want to be a poet’. They say something like, ‘Mum, when I grow up, I want to be a firefighter, a doctor, an astronaut, a lawyer, a barber.’ Maybe because being a poet is not something you decide, but something you are born with. Or maybe because being a poet will simply not make you rich.
Ironically, there are a lot of firefighters, doctors, astronauts, lawyers and even barbers who are also poets. There are a lot of mechanics who are also poets. There are a lot of maths teachers, policemen or businessmen who are also poets. The difference between us and them is that they make a living from these other jobs. It is likely that you once had your car fixed by a very good poet or your teeth checked by an even better one. All these poets had to find other jobs to do as well because they could not simply make a living as a poet.
It makes no sense that poetry, despite teaching us how to live, is not appreciated by many people. Only a few poetry books are sold every year (compared to other genres) and poets typically make very meagre profits from these sales. Performances and readings are other ways to make a living. However, they are a minor source of income and are not organised frequently enough. It is a universal truth that making a living as a poet poses a substantial challenge. Poets’ struggle to make a living sheds light on the complicated nature of the relationship between art and economics. As we continue to explore the nature of this relationship and find an answer to the question of why it is so hard to make a living as a poet, we begin to understand the challenges modern poets face today.
In a world where efficiency, pragmatism and economic wealth is highly valued, poetry seems to be outside that scope. Even though it can feed our souls, give us complete understanding of our identities, and give us the ability to understand one another, poetry cannot fill our stomachs or satisfy our basic needs. By saying ‘poetry feeds our souls but not our stomach’ we are referring to the idea that, despite it not being able to provide us with literal food, it is essential to the human experience.
Other artforms like music, film and commercial fiction tend to reach wide audiences through commercial platforms, which is not the case with poetry. I have yet to meet a poet who can sell out stadiums like Santiago Bernabeu or the Wembley Arena. The commercialisation of poetry is often a challenge because of its lyrical nature and focus on expressing one’s deepest thoughts and feelings. Moreover, publishers are reluctant to invest in poetry projects that lack commercial appeal. Therefore, poets usually feel the need to find niche audiences, which can be good for building a sense of community with their readers but may also reduce their income. Festivals, poetry events, literary magazines and self-publishing are not viable options for keeping the poets from drowning in debt.
What poetry means to society plays a key role in making a living as a poet. When people think of poetry they think about its inherent elitistism. It has no place in modern society. I know some poets who have read their poems during a fire to draw the attention of the public, but those are just stories people eventually forget. Poetry will never be appealing to the masses, and we do not intend it to be. We only ask for a poet’s work to be paid for its importance and not for the number of people it is able to attract.
Society values poetry so poorly because they believe a poet cannot earn a decent income. Poets earn very little money when compared to other jobs, which might also lead to the wrong idea that art does not deserve a fair payment. The lack of information about the economic value in poetry makes it harder for us to make a living as poets.
Furthermore, the digital era has completely democratised the publication and distribution of poetry books. On the bright side, it has helped poets share their work. Nonetheless, it has also saturated the market in a way that undermines poetry’s literary value. Nowadays, self-publishing and social media platforms make it possible for anyone to share their poems online, which has flooded the market with free content. But it is a double-edged sword. The word ‘free’ has a beautiful meaning in the English dictionary, but not in this context. Having a saturated market means poets fail to find an audience. It means small presses now need to make enormous efforts to promote a poet’s work without ensuring suitable financial returns.
I think poets are like superheroes. Not because we perform heroic deeds or have special powers, but because poets, just like superheroes, usually have two jobs. There are a bunch of examples. Let’s look at Superman for a second. He did not only do his job as a superhero, but also worked as a reporter for the Daily Planet under the name Clark Kent. Wonder Woman worked in the US military and young Spiderman used to make a living as a photographer for a mediocre newspaper.
Even though it is hard to make a living as a poet, a lot of poets explore career paths that are still connected to literature. That way, they are able to earn an income while at the same time keep doing what they love most. A lot of these poets decide to teach or hold workshops. They share their passion and knowledge of poetry and help inspire and raise future generations. Some poets even find job opportunities in the publishing industry and decide to work as publishers, proofreaders or literary agents. This type of job keeps them immersed in the literary world while at the same allowing them to keep nurturing their creativity.
If being a poet were a matter of decision, what would be the point of writing this article then? If you could choose not to be a poet anymore and have a different job instead, if you could forget about words that keep you up at night, we wouldn’t have this problem in the first place. You could open a furniture shop, a fishmonger’s or a car wash. You could start selling insurance policies to people or shear sheep. Then you could just enjoy your new job and stop worrying about things like grammar, immeasurable love and the fear of death.
Personally, I would love to have no need for money, but I still have to pay rent and feed my children. I don’t think there is a single poet who goes into poetry solely for the money because that would not be poetry, it would be something else. I also don’t think that there is a single poet who dreams of becoming rich one day, even though that idea is purely poetic. Struggle makes us stronger. It keeps us awake. But it would also be great if poetry could fill our stomachs.
Peru Saizprez is one of the most singular poets of his generation, but who isn’t? He has a special way of escaping from that and everything that can pigeonhole him. Neither regularity, or collaborations, or prizes, or complicity. Nothing that will help us to classify him. His live performances are his poetry. He has written four books of poems: Sexo Satélite, Un Corazón con Pelos, Mesa sin Cuenta and Hotel Trip Càrnival. He has co-written two theater plays: Madrid Laberinto XXI and La Vida Imaginaria de Bonnie and Clyde together with playwright Darío Facal. He is the ideologue of Universal Poem and is co-founder and co-director of POETAS Poetic Festival. Peru Saizprez is also a co-founder and co-director of himself.