On Words Alone: Can A Man Survive Solely On Poetry?

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by Ron Hayes

Poetry doesn’t pay. Let me be the first to welcome you to Planet Earth if that happens to be news to you. (Welcome! May I suggest buying a book or two while you’re here?) As writers, we all know that the fruits of our labors are hardly fruitful enough on their own to allow us all to multiply. Not to turn this into a pissing contest, but, as the poet of our gang of 5, I would submit that, of our agreed-upon modes of scribed art, poetry is decidedly the worst of the lot when it comes to financial solvency. Where the average Joe, if pressed (and perhaps given access to Google), could come up with a list of people who can legitimately write “Novelist” down on their 1040s every year. If pressed, the average Joe, I’d say, could likely scrounge up a handful of screenwriters, essayists, and playwrights who sustain themselves solely through their work. I can’t believe the same would be true for poets, no matter how hard I’d press the good ol’ Joe. Consider the best-known living poets among us: Billy Collins. Robert Pinsky. John Ashbery. Nikki Giovanni. Natasha Trethewey and Charles Wright (the two most recent US Poets Laureate). Not a single one can say they earn a living simply by writing poems. Poetry just doesn’t pay.

I’m not here to get on my soapbox to rage about the state of poetry in the US, or poetry’s place in the world, or the indecipherable priorities of our fellow human beings here on Earth (much as I might like to…). Our purpose this month on 5Writers is to talk about what it means to be a writer and what it takes to support ourselves as we endeavor to wrest beauty and resonance out of nothing. In that, I’d like to introduce you to the only man I know who actively strives to be able to write “Poet” in that special little box on his 1040EZ each April. His name is Cee.

Cee Williams is the founder of the International Fellowship of Poets and Spoken Word Artists (I.F.P.S.W.A) and proprietor of its home, Poets’ Hall, right here in my hometown of Erie, PA. Currently the Hall is the only poetry and spoken word venue in the US that is NOT operated or subsidized by a college or university. Cee does much of the work himself, though he does have a core group of friends and fellow poets who help him catch as catch can. Since 2010, Cee Williams has made it his goal to provide a place for local, regional, national, and even international poets to come and read, to share their ideas, and even to foster the aspirations of younger poets. A poet and spoken word artist himself, Cee does what no other poet I know of has ever tried to do: subsist solely on poetry. For the most part he’s succeeded over the years.

But don’t let me romanticize this. It isn’t necessarily a success story. Poets’ Hall is a gritty reflection of the Rust Belt roots of my town, a blue-collar bastion of urban blight and ethnic multiplicity, public housing walled in by easy suburbia, an economy shifting shakily toward tourism now that manufacturing’s fractured foundation has crumbled. At Poets’ Hall you won’t find Cornelius Eady or Naomi Shihab Nye waiting in the wings on a Friday night feature; those national names are reserved for the cool comfort of our local college campuses. Instead, Cee opens the doors to folks like Keith Moses, whose spoken word slices through the fleshy niceties of our society to lay bare the bones of social injustice. Cee welcomes Veronica Hopkins, recently named as the Community Poet Laureate (an award exclusive to Poets’ Hall), and Chuck Joy, child psychologist by day, indefatigable local poetry icon by night. He hosted ME on my way to becoming Erie County’s third Poet Laureate (different from the Community Laureate award).

Next to the stage, on a second-hand end table near the door, sits the biggest fishbowl Cee can find. By the end of each Friday night, Cee hopes it’ll contain enough ones and fives and maybe a ten or two to help pay the light bill, the gas bill, the rent. On Saturday morning Cee will clean up the joint and wait for noon to arrive when a handful of musicians, poets, and free spirits descend on the Hall’s stage for its weekly drum circle. Next October, inner-city families who’ve never heard of the Hall will pack themselves in, take seats on donated couches and love seats and folding chairs, and listen politely as their babies recite Elizabeth Bishop and Edgar Allan Poe poems from memory in the first stage of the national Poetry Out Loud competition. Then they’ll leave, often ignoring the fishbowl, and come again only if another of their babies tries to recite again next year. But here’s the problem: There may be no next year. The I.F.P.S.W.A and its base of operations, Poets’ Hall, aren’t enjoying the fellowship they deserve.

And it makes sense. Remember how I opened this post? Right. Poetry doesn’t pay.

The truth is, our local poets and spoken word artists would love to be able to drop enough into Cee’s fishbowl to help keep the Hall afloat, but the fact is, they can’t. They’re living on Rust Belt incomes themselves. And one further truth? Friday night features and the open mics that follow are a little too much like grade school plays and funeral homes: people only go when there’s someone there they know.

For four years Cee Williams has lived the dream he’s had for most of his adult life~he operates a physical manifestation of pure Poetry, a place where this most ancient of arts can come alive so people can listen and learn and share and feel and celebrate and enjoy the scribbles we set down on paper, the truths and literary lies that reflect and define our existence. It’s a place I would like you all to know, a place I’d like to invite all of you to come visit and share YOUR words and become part of the fellowship, part of our community. I hope one day I can.

This month we 5Writers are posting about the writing life and paying the bills. Me? Easy. Like Billy, Robert, John, Nikki, Natasha, and Charles, (and Brad and Jennie for that matter), I teach. Nothing special there, tons of writers also teach. But where so many of us say we live to write, so very few of us can say we write to live. Cee Williams can say that. His words opened the doors to his dream and our collective words have kept that dream alive. How can you not respect that? There’s something, well, poetic about it. It deserves a happy ending.

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I’m not sure the propriety of this request—I know we’re all struggling writers—but it’s worth the risk: Cee is looking for $1000 to keep the Hall afloat and has begun a membership drive to help make that happen. I know I have 600+ friends on Facebook and a hundred or so on Twitter. If each of you can throw in for $2—less than a Starbucks run, depending on what you drink—Cee can keep the doors of Poets’ Hall open. The membership drive is going on now. Do me a solid and make this world a place where a man can write “Poet” on his income taxes and survive the inevitable audit that follows.

Poets’ Hall Membership Drive:

http://www.gofundme.com/KeepTheHallAlive

for more about Poets’ Hall:

https://www.facebook.com/PoetsHall

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