Poet Gary Mex Glazner has a lot of experience with making a living with his art, and his book, How to Make a Living as a Poet was published recently by Soft Skull Press. I interviewed him about the poetry scene, his book, and spoken word. The transcript is below.
Jamelah Earle: A lot of people are forced to read poetry in school and then make a point never to touch it again because it was boring or they didn’t understand it or their teacher smelled like mothballs or some combination thereof. Say those people were to read this interview — what would you tell them? Is poetry something necessary (outside of the echo chamber of poets, teachers, intellectuals, etc.)?
Gary Mex Glazner: First let me say how much I appreciate the forum LitKicks provides to do this interview. Last summer I was working in a poet-in-the-school program with a group of students who had all flunked at least two classes, these kids were culled from all the middle school students in Santa Fe. It was a really hard class, we were in trailer, no water, no air conditioning and three classes of twenty-five to thirty students.
It turned out their average reading level was fourth grade and they were acting out a lot to hide the fact that they couldn’t read, couldn’t pronounce words, just had really low skills. The day before the class ended one of the students as he was leaving said, “You’re looking for a Columbine.” At first I just blew it off, but later that night I thought I should tell someone. We had a meeting with the principal and the school therapist. The student denied even having ever heard of Columbine. It was chilling, later it came out his father had a large collection of guns and had been reported to the state Child Protection Agency for beating the boy. It was only the Friday before where that kid in Arizona had shot his family. As I left that meeting someone hit me in the back of the head with a rock. Ouch, taking a rock for poetry!
As a poet I see a value in poetry that can help kids to be creative, can help them to learn language skills and public speaking skills. Those skills are useful to most professions. Studying poetry isn’t the only way to get those skills but seeing that there is something practical and useful in poetry can help to reach students that otherwise might dismiss poetry.
I think it can be a great outlet especially for young people. I was lucky after that experience to start working with a group of students at Desert Academy. The class is an elective so all the kids want to be there. The group is called the Precision Poetry Drill Team and they were featured on NPR’s “All Things Considered” in April, you can check out the broadcast at this link:
I don’t think we should force people to learn poetry and I think in general that after the basics are mastered students should have more say in their curriculum.
JE: Is there anything you really hate about the modern poetry scene? Why?
GMG: The division between academic poetry and performance or slam or cafe or street poetry — which ever name you choose to call poetry outside of the university system — bugs me. When it gets down to it, both sides love the art form and have more in common than what they have in common with an avid football fan. The so-called poetry wars would be laughable if the academic side didn’t control so much of the funding for poetry. If I could echo the famous line, “Can’t we all just get along?”
JE: A common perception is that the general public doesn’t have an interest in poetry, making it hard (if not impossible) to make a living as a poet, yet that’s what you’re doing — making a living as a poet. Even so, from your experience, would you say this perception carries any weight? Are you a special case, or is poetry something anyone can pursue as a career?
GMG: If poetry is of use to the community, it is pretty easy to get paid. I am the director of the Alzheimer’s Poetry Project, alzpoetry.com and have recently received funding from the City of Santa Fe Arts Commission to expand the program to include a Spanish speaking poet and a Native American poet. The State of New Mexico awarding funding to help expand the program to rural parts of the State.
That is just one of the programs I talk about in How to Make a Living as a Poet, and of course I hope this interview will point people to the book. I have about ten interviews in the book with other poets, including Mary Karr, Sherman Alexie, Naomi Shihab Nye all touching on different aspects of generating income from poetry, so I don’t think I am a special case. I am working on a follow up book that will come out next year that has about twenty-five interviews with poets who make their living from their poetry, so it can done.
If I say to you I am a free lance writer, people don’t automatically say, “But what is your day job?” I see being a poet as similar. I put poetry at the center of all my actives in generating income. I have done radio, digital film, set type and run old printing presses, worked with everyone from YMCA after school programs, to MFA graduate students, to Alzheimer’s patients. Don’t limit yourself to what poetry can be, be as creative in bringing poetry into the world as you are in writing it. In the fall, I am going to start working with a program that puts poets into the break-room for ER doctors and nurses. The idea is they can hear a poem, or write one them selves. It’s an intense environment and I am looking seeing if I can make poetry work there.
JE: Online writing (from blogs to messageboards) has become a really popular medium in the past few years. While it has allowed people who may have never had a chance before to find an encouraging audience, do you think that the proliferation of online writing has helped or hurt those hoping to make it as writers?
Check out my blog: http://howtopoet.blogspot.com.
I think blogs can be useful tools in helping to build the audience for poetry. I am also very interested in podcasts as a way to get poetry out and help build the audience. I will be teaching a literary journal class this year at Desert Academy here in Santa Fe and plan to have the students explore both blogs and podcasts, as well as learn how to set type and how to run the old printing presses at the 400-year-old Palace of the Governor’s Museum.
JE: Your book, How to Make a Living as a Poet, serves as a guide to turn writing into an actual profession. Why did you think it was important to write it?
GMG: I kept getting requests on how to get sponsorships, how to pull off some of the projects I was successful in doing, like the Slam America tour with Grande Marnier. (Here is a scoop for LitKicks, the film “Busload of Poets” which documents the tour, just sold to the Documentary Channel, a new cable channel which will launch in November.) So I kept getting phone calls and people pulling me aside and asking about getting funding for their poetry projects and I realized I had enough material for a book. Soft Skull liked the idea enough to make it a three book series, so the second book, How to Make a Life as a Poet (working title) will come out in April of 2006 and the third book, with the working title of The Readers Respond will come out in April of 2007. The idea with the third book is to gather stories on how readers have used the first two books, how the ideas have worked, good or bad and tell those stories. We are collecting them at http://howtopoet.blogspot.com/
So there is a chance for LitKicks readers to get published. I would also be interested in essays on the general topic of making a living as a poet, pro
JE: To switch gears a little, you’re attuned to spoken word and the slam scene and also ran the Bowery Poetry Club for awhile. With all this experience, you probably have some opinions on poetry readings. What do you think makes a good poetry performance? What makes a bad one? Does it take a special kind of writing to sound good when read live?
GMG: I am a big fan of the “Naked Poets” from L.A., also, drinking helps. In general though if the poets are to be clothed, I tend to drift to something original, in presentation, form, subject matter. “Make it new,” says Ezra Dog Pound. Bad for me are most open-mics, but I think that might have to do with starting to attend them in the late seventies, I just have been to so many bad open-mics. I like to hear more of one person, in a featured reading setting, give the person a chance to shine, an opportunity to push themselves and present a range of their work. Having said that, some of the hip-hop flavored open-mics at the Bowery Poetry Club have been amazing, the late night “Crunk” works for me.