Friday, October 17, 2008

Poetry in the Age of the Fellowship

Of the poets I know in Portland, Oregon, one is an adjunct at a local community college, another is an HR temp, and another was recently laid-off from an editing position. As for myself, I am a marginally-employed substitute teacher and hand-to-mouth freelance writer. Obviously, the economy is faltering for young writers.

Who doesn't lament the loss of programs like the Works Progress Administration? Howard Zinn, in his People’s History of the United States, says this short-lived project of massively funding artists in the Depression was never to be repeated. NEA aside, of course he is right.

Consider a less-widely known branch of the WPA: the Federal Writers’ Project. It was essential for hardscrabble wordsmiths. Poets employed by the program included Claude McKay, Kenneth Patchen, and Kenneth Rexroth. Writers like Saul Bellow, Studs Terkel, and Ralph Ellison contend that the WPA deeply influenced their later work.

But today it is with little surprise that I read a press release from Portland’s Regional Arts and Culture Council, announcing that poet and writer Kim Stafford had won the organization’s $20,000 fellowship, which he will use to take time away from his career at Lewis & Clark College to work on a project.

I find these “awards” troubling. How can I not notice that those who win grants, more likely than not, are artists already published, comfortably employed, and financially secure? The apparent purpose of “grants” and “fellowships” seems not to be in support of artists and writers with demonstrated financial need—those very creative-class types who tend to be young, trying to get their foot in the door of the writing community.

I am not begrudging Stafford, or any of the other writers who have won this award. I myself won a grant from RACC last year to attend a workshop with Marvin Bell, which paid for not only the $1103 tuition, but the experience and poems I gleaned.

Yet the granting of grants seems to closely resemble the structure of the rest of the economy: resources are allocated to those who already have resources. The rest of us are left to fend for ourselves not only artistically but fundamentally and economically. If the rich get richer, the poor take temp jobs, come home exhausted, and write poems about it.

What is the purpose of a grant? Is it to award accomplishment or to encourage new voices? With capitalism so firmly entrenched in literature, how are new writers to put out books (especially in a culture dominated by reading fees for first-book contests)?

Yeats said a poet should never get to comfortable. With this in mind, should young writers simply alienate ourselves entirely from the Arts Administrators? That is, is the best poetry to come from lack while lackluster poetry comes from "the best"?

1 comment:

Brittany said...

Thank you for saying this Sean. True and well said. Glad I found you here. I have enjoyed your other offerings on The Imagined Field.

Most of the writers I know are in the same boat. I cook so that I don't have to fight that race. When I got out of undergrad it seemed much harder to get somewhere in writing than in cooking.

Although I have been surprised in the past year with Tom Blood winning Oregon Book Award and another friend being signed with a major publishing company. These are two undereducated struggling artists that are still struggling from what I can see but they have at least made it to another level I don't see anyone ever make it to.

As you said, feels like the grants are awarded to the established or at least extremely educated. But with a few breaking through I have hope that occasionally they see us down here. Before that it seemed completely impossible.