Poetry Pays in Strange Ways


Writing is work–a craft as much as the handsomely-paid job of carpentry. Too bad payment for writing is nowhere near that enjoyed by the lads of lumber. Poetry specifically pays poorly. Most often, when you submit to a journal, your compensation is (ta-da!) a complimentary copy.

Which brings us to today’s conundrum–what to do with all of those complimentary copies. My shelves are already looking at me cross-eyed thanks to all the book weight. Like Atlas, they shoulder the load as asked, but they’re beginning to wonder, “Do you have to jam them in so much and slide horizontal books on top of the vertical ones to boot? I mean, really. There’s reasonable, and then there’s you.”

I dare not bring up the complimentary copy topic because they, too, are beginning to spread like a magazine megalopolis on the far left space of the second shelf. At first, of course, I was thrilled with not only the compliments, but the copies. Look! I thought. These poetry journals are publishing me, myself, and I — my three favorite nouveau poets!”

But then, after the thrill flew south, the mailbox arrival of another journal became more pedestrian. And the bookshelf! I had near-civil war breaking out between books and journals. “They’re called BOOKshelves for a reason!” my copy of War and Peace said to the nearest journal. (It’s never good when personification erupts between books and journals, let me tell you.)

And that’s not the end of the story with complimentary journals, either. When they arrived, I found myself reading my accepted poems — always in fear of finding an error — and a few of the other poems but never the whole thing.

The routine often went like this: Open with trepidation to own page, read own poem for errors, breathe sigh of relief, shelf.

Only what to do with them once they’re shelved? In all honesty, I haven’t taken a single one out to read again. In the words of the prophets Simon & Garfunkel: “Time, time, time, see what’s become of me!”

“You could steel yourself and toss them,” one friend suggested.

“But what if my kids want to read them someday? You know, once they live in Posterity, N.Y., and I’m gone like the wind?”

“Do your kids want your furniture now that you’re downsizing? Your appliances? Your clothes? No, no, and no–so who are you kidding? All kids want of their parents’ is money and expensive jewelry.”

I call my friend The Voice of Truth. Then I show him the door, so he can hang outside with Honesty, another impertinent sort.

Eh. Not a big deal, in the end. So if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to settle the latest squabble on my bookshelf….