Penny for Your Thoughts; on Art and Commerce

On a lovely autumn day I shlepped about an hour and a half away to read my poems to a nicely packed small room full of 20 or 25 people. And I had carefully chosen which poems to read in what order and what to say about individual poems. And the audience seemed to be responsive and to really connect with some of the poems, and clapped long and hard after I was done, and a couple of people came up to me afterwards to say the enjoyed it. And no one bought a book.

And I felt so dispirited. No one connected with the poems enough to want to hand over $15 to bring them home. Fifteen bucks, people! Come on! I thought crankily to myself.

Then I thought, how awful that I am conflating appreciation with commerce.

After all, I’ve left many a poetry reading without buying a book, even if I really enjoyed the reading. So what is that makes me buy a book? It’s not enjoyment alone. I have to overcome my natural cheapness, which is quite a high barrier. And I have to slosh through the mud puddle of knowledge that we already don’t have shelf space for the books we own. Just to get through those hurdles is work.

But I realize I overcome those things when I think the poet or the poetry has something to teach me as a writer. If I adopt a book to bring home to my already crowded space, it’s usually because I want to spend time with it as a student of the art. To find out exactly how this person pulled off their particular magic. To soak in some of that technique or those ideas and figure out how I can use them in my own work. And not all work that I hear and like holds that promise for me in whatever particular stage of development I’m at when I hear the particular work.

So it’s not that I have not connected with the work of these other authors whose books I don’t buy, but rather that my path toward purchase is an obstacle course. That a reader didn’t push me over the barriers is no insult to the work, but a result of the work required for me to catch my breath, wipe off the mud, and pull out my purse, and what I think I need to learn at the moment. Everyone has these obstacle courses and I can’t take it personally, and it’s certainly possible a real connection was made that day between someone in that room and one of my poems, such that something of it went home with them.

I was thinking about all the art I saw in my recent travel in Italy. That angel that caught the afternoon light in its robes. I was thinking about the guy who made that angel. He’s not named in the literature about the art in the church. I have no idea what he may have gotten paid — a pittance, a hefty purse? And here’s the thing: whatever money he got is long spent. He is long dead. I don’t remember how much I paid on airfare to get there, or what the apartment cost that I stayed in, or how much dinner cost that night. But I remember the angel. I can’t seem to shake the angel.

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