Writer in Residence

Poet for Hire

By Barry Dempster

I heard a few days ago that a colleague did a major job of editing that took the better part of a year to complete for a mere five-hundred dollars. I happen to mention this to a friend who works as a mechanic for the Board of Education and he was flabbergasted. How can anyone be so undervalued? Five-hundred dollars doesn’t even cover half of an average annual house insurance bill. “She must be crazy,” he diagnoses. I don’t dare tell him of the major judging job I took on last year for no money at all, although I got to keep the books.

When I start thinking about poetry and cash, my anxiety levels overflow the aquarium and drown all the pretty fish. Like most poets I know, I make less than nothing. Sure, I do it for the love of the art and would still do it even if it didn’t pay a dime. While this certainly sounds lofty, it doesn’t seem particularly smart. I can’t imagine a chartered accountant living on a pittance just because she loves adding up numbers, or a surgeon who’ll slip out your gall bladder for less than five figures. If I heard a story about a plumber making less than ten thousand dollars a year, I’d think that he must be a bad plumber. Why then do my fellow poets and I think that being starving artists is acceptable?

There is no choice, I realize. No one is making a fortune publishing poetry, in fact most of us aren’t really getting by on our poetry at all. We’re taking on all sorts of part-time jobs. We’re begging for grants, entering contests, taking on teaching gigs. We might as well be playing the slots at Casino Rama. How’s that for smart?

Today, with these money thoughts swirling in my head, I sat down to write a poem that will probably end up costing me more in paper and ink than it will ever make. Not surprisingly, it didn’t turn out to be a very good poem. I might as well have been laying bricks or writing wills or stocking shelves. Not everyone gets to do what they love for a living. Why do I think that I’m a special case? If I was offered next year’s major editing job for five-hundred dollars, I’d probably say yes as well. And I’d do a boffo job of it because it’s about poetry and I love poetry so much that I often work on it for free.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Barry Dempster, twice nominated for the Governor General’s Literary Award, is the author of fourteen poetry collections, two novels, The Ascension of Jesse Rapture and The Outside World, two volumes of short stories and a children’s book. His collection The Burning Alphabet won the Canadian Authors’ Association Chalmers Award for Poetry in 2005. In 2010, he was a finalist for the Ontario Premiers Award for Excellence in the Arts. He is also Acquisitions Editor for Brick Books.

For more information about Invisible Dogs please visit the Bricks Books website.