Literary Citizenship

What Comes Next: A Statement on Payment

Recently, writer Jessica Piazza opened a conversation regarding payment in the literary world, specifically regarding poetry (head over to her site to see writers and editors weigh in.) She was kind enough to invite me to share my views. I sent her my post below; it is as much a statement on payment as it is my views on the role of editors in advocating for new writing.

What Comes Next: A Statement on Payment 

I hold two separate stances on the idea of payment that create a whole ideology. First, payment for my work means little to me as a poet. Second, payment for your work means a great deal to me as an editor. 

Over the course of eleven issues we at A River & Sound Review, an MFA-affiliated online journal, have been able to pay out nearly $7,000 to our contributors. We’ve managed to do so without university support and without charging for general submission fees. Due to declining donations over the past few years, however, we’re forced to examine ways in which to generate income for the future.

Our expenses are minimal, our editors volunteer-based. The simple solution, of course, would be to eliminate payment and carry on. Writers would still submit, we’d still publish. And to be quite honest, I have reservations about money. I worry it may further skew the power imbalance between writers and editors (Poets do yourself a favor and repeat this quote by Dena Rash Guzman: “remember that the true honor is the publisher’s. Without our work, poetry journals would be empty.”) I worry that “everything is organized in pursuit of the dollar,” as Terry Wolverton writes, and this pursuit can lead to dead ends creatively, emotionally.

And yet here I am, awake when I should be asleep, contemplating the nature of money, merit, and value, brainstorming ways to continue paying our writers, even if it’s more beer money than career money. Why? Because I believe poetry deserves our money. Because I believe payment reinforces to people outside the industry what we within it already know – that writing matters, that poetry isn’t simply a hobby but is difficult, beautiful, important work. I believe payment can encourage a writer to see the value of their voice in a mainstream culture that continually questions it (more so to authors traditionally underrepresented.) Although the checks we send won’t afford a poet rent it can buy a cup of coffee, a book, a subscription to a new journal, anything that may help the writer get to their next great piece. And that, for me, is really what payment to our contributors is about. As an editor who considers himself first and foremost a devoted and passionate reader, I am invested in creating a literary landscape where poets will continue writing. Payment isn’t about buying one poem; it’s about giving the poet another means to engage the community. It’s about setting the stage for what comes next.

As for what comes next for A River & Sound Review, I’m not exactly sure. General submission fees? Soliciting the university for money? An ice-bucket challenge? All I know is after reading submissions for over six years I have no doubt there are far more poetry producers than consumers. Among these producers a fair share haven’t read a poem since that famous road diverged in the woods. I worry these writers don’t know (or worse, don’t care) how to interact with the community except to seek publication, which puts a large strain on our time (the only thing we can afford to give out) and most often wastes theirs. It’s a lose-lose scenario that offers one small hope – that perhaps the poetic economy isn’t as closed as it appears. Perhaps there are those who want to access the community in a meaningful way but simply don’t know where to start. If so, I hope all of us, writers and editors alike, do what we can to invite them in. I hope all of us steer the conversation away from publication toward the practice of poetry, of advocacy, and of conscientious engagement.

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