There’s value and there’s cost.
For practising poets, for example, there’s the cost of sending work out to magazines. There’s the cost of paper, and stamps and envelopes and printers and toner. The cost of travelling to readings and festivals and open mikes and workshop groups, and paying to get in. The cost (maybe) of entering competitions. The cost of enrolling for courses and even qualifications. And the emotional cost: investing years of your life making things out of words that will probably never achieve . . . whatever it is you want them to achieve. Readers? Wings? Publication? Money?
But what about the cost of reading it? For poetry readers (as opposed to writers), this is about pleasure. You buy just as much (or as little) as you want, or can afford. If you don’t like the look of it, you don’t buy it at all. Why would you? Desert Island Risks: which eight poems would you take with you? You don’t need a lot.
But reading for the jobbing poet is another matter. It’s part of the business. First there’s the reading over the centuries, to research all the tricks and literary stratagems that have ever been tried. These are part of your armoury, your craft and your initial investment. Then there’s the keeping up: reading contemporary magazines (which means subscriptions to several) and new books. Poets complain there aren’t enough publishers. And maybe there aren’t. But still there are dozens and dozens and dozens of new collections. They spring up like meerkats: ‘Read me! No – read me!’
Some practising poets these days send only to ezines. Cheaper but not the same. Nothing like an ephemeral paper publication to quicken the blood. And for me, I like to read poems on paper. I can (and do) read them on a screen, but two thirds of the aesthetic pleasure is lost.
I keep a tally of what I spend and set it against tax. Buying poetry is part of my business. It supports the others (we are a network, after all) and I need to keep up with the reading. But I buy more poetry than I read. Behind me, in front of the poetry books and not yet shelved, are about 80 books acquired in the last year. There are more at the side of the bed. I have read most of them but with varying degrees of dedication. Poetry has to be read more than once, doesn’t it? – probably at least three times to get a handle. I don’t read all the books I buy three times, but I do read all the poems inside them that I like at least three times.
Oh but what about the guilt list? I carry this round in my head, ever-lengthening. I feel permanent remorse for all the poetry books I haven’t yet bought and read. Some of them are written by my friends! They stack up reproachfully in my memory bank. Despite the purchase of several volumes each month, there are always more I haven’t yet got. And always more newsletters from publishers telling me the latest wonderful thing I know I want to get. But how to get them all? How to read them all?
I relate to poetry readers with careful purses. Take care of the pennies and the pounds will take care of themselves. But my buying of poetry easily adds up to between £500 and £600 per year. Magazine subs will add another £100 at least. I could spend much more but I can’t read much more.
And now – to add insult to injury – I’m a poetry peddler. I sell the stuff. So I want the ordinary Desert Island Risks readers, and I want the jobbing poets. I want them to buy stuff from me. Often I think how much easier it would be to sell paper clips. Or yoghourt. Or tea-towels. Or bait for fisherfolk. Or tin whistles.
But let me tell you about the new HappenStance pamphlet you’re going to want to buy. Have you ever come across someone who liked bluebottles? Calliphora vomitoria – blimey, what a name! Meet Helen Clare, poet and entomologist, an mind in which literature and science meet. Entomology is full of insects and behind the insects, as in most poems, are human concerns. It’s a love story. Love and loss: the two great themes.
If insects really creep you out (but don't you just love the cover?), try fruit. Rosemary Hector whips up a mean syllabub from a quince or a cranberry, a pineapple or banana, in Knowing Grapes. And as for plums – well!
I know poetry costs too much. I know you need to spend money on the garden, and the bathroom and servicing the car. But this is different. Food for thought, a pamphlet. And not too long: just enough for reflection without pain, rehearsal without curses. Just £4.00. Only £3.00 if you’re a subscriber.
And after that, you’ll need to buy some stamps if you’re sending me poems with SAEs enclosed (please read the guidelines first). The July window opens on Tuesday, though several packets have already arrived, and at least one is sitting waiting in the sorting office (understamped).
Dear poets – what a business all this is! But isn’t it fun? It’s it marvellous to be part of this society of scribblers? Isn’t it great to make them and read them and hobnob about what’s missable and unmissable? Can you imagine a life without poems? Can you imagine not having an ill-fitting line to worry away at like a loose tooth?
Doesn’t the value infinitely outweigh the cost?
It turns out that the knack my mother had
of seeking out and bouncing smoothed flat stones
off the surface of Lake Bala depends
on water meshing, like a trampoline
returning the fallen to the sky,
or the atmosphere pushing off spacecraft.
Water clings to itself like mercury,
avoiding air, forming drops as it’s sloughed
from drenched dogs. Insect legs stretch the water’s shell:
they paddle without piercing or wetness.
It’s true too that a mosquito’s footfall
does not break dreams, as the skin—oblivious
to air—shrugs off the countless touches
of the day. Talk to me now of ripples.
- Helen Clare (from Entomology)