When poets talk about economy they're usually referring to the economy of language. But this year, as another Poetry Month passes, there is growing concern about Canadian poetry's financial future.
A quick glace at the headlines might at first be reassuring: the Governor General's Award has gone up to $25,000 from $15,000, the Griffin Prize has risen from $40,000 to $50,000, and poet laureate positions keep popping up like mushrooms in small towns and cities across the land.
Behind the scenes, though, the Harper government has left the mass of Canadian poets a net pay decrease. Despite a lobbying campaign by Margaret Atwood and others in the Writers' Union, the feds have let payments to the Public Lending Right Program, which reimburses authors based on the number of books they have in Canadian libraries, fall behind the rate of inflation for the first time since 1990 - thus eroding most writers' only dependable baseline cash source.
As well, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty has ignored pleas to restore the $11.8 million in cuts from Foreign Affairs for the promotion of Canadian artists abroad, another blow to scribes' opportunities to earn a living.
Faced with continued threats to the infrastructure, poetic entrepreneurs have honed their own solutions and philosophic creds.
Some cope by carrying around memories of better times.
"Back in Bosnia, published poets were treated as part of the working class,' says Goran Simic
, who during the bombing of Sarajevo's library, when charred bits of text were falling from the sky like volcanic ash, risked his life rescuing the remaining books.
"Poets had a pension plan, social insurance, plus they didn't have to pay taxes on the money they earned. Since the market for poetry was small, they were at least protected from being poor," he says.
The thought of impoverishment in this country, however, has not kept Simic from dipping into his own pocket to fund his new imprint, Luna Publications, which he takes pains to describe as "not a vanity press."
"I will try to protect publishing from the army of non-talented poets. Hyper-production can kill Canadian poetry as effectively as negligence."
I ask poet Maria Jacobs
why she continues to toil in the poetry mines, acting as poetry editor at publishing house Wolsak and Wynn, which after many years, still doesn't break even. She explains: "Poetry expresses the inexpressible, allows the unallowable and makes the unbearable bearable.'
I always liked Jacobs's poetry, but when I heard her read aloud, the softness of her voice made me want to shout, "Speak up!" Recently I read A Safe House, her account of childhood in wartime Holland, and was glad I'd resisted the urge. The reason for her ingrained quietness is clear and noble: her family hid three Jews throughout the war.
"Before the war, my mother loved poetry and read it aloud to me. But when the war came, who could read about the 'whispering leaves in the springtime woods' when the idea of a tree meant heat in the stove? Who could feel lonely when there wasn't even a moment to be alone? And you wouldn't need to read about death. To my 13-year-old mind, though, it was a consolation that poetry would be there when the war was over."
It's this same big-picture idea of poetry's lasting value that keeps some industry folk going. "If we think back 200 to 300 years, what we remember is not whether interest rates were up or what the dollar was worth,' says Scott Griffin, founder of the Griffin Prizes and owner of House of Anansi Press.
"All those economic questions that are so important to us at the moment pale by comparison to artistic and cultural dividends,' he says.
And just to illustrate how important Griffin deems poetry to be, consider how willing he is to bend his own fiscal guidelines. Generally, government grants are not a healthy addition to publishing, he believes, and he usually doesn't seek them. Not so when it comes to poetry, though.
"The industry itself is structurally flawed, and if it doesn't have support it will go under,' he declares emphatically.
has approached market failures in the poetry business in his own self-made way. A highlight of my poetry year was attending his sold-out When Brothers Speak event at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts. Incredibly, Morgan repeated the miracle with When Sisters Speak a few weeks later.
Morgan's company, Up From the Roots, was born of necessity. "Once I realized that people were listening, I wanted to be onstage all the time, but I couldn't find a lot of places to perform. To rectify that, I started an event production business. This has been my full-time job since I was 18.'
Poetry does not always grant such fast returns. But eventually, they say, you get out of it what you put into it. And , for my money, is a good investment.
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