Have You Ever Tried to Sell a Poem on Craigslist?

One poet's successful effort to peddle custom verses online shows how entrepreneurial methods can help poetry reconnect with modern readers and reinvigorate the art itself.
Flickr user Susan Sermoneta

On July 31, Aaron Belz­ -- author of three volumes of poems and editor of "Curator Magazine" -- posted the following ad on Craigslist: "Poet available to begin work immediately. Capable in rhyme and meter, fluent in traditional and contemporary forms. Quotidian observations available at standard rate of $15/hour; occasional verse at slightly higher rate of $17/hour. Incomprehensible garbage $25/hour. Angst extra."

The ad is funny, lampooning both American business English and the clichéd self-importance of too many contemporary poets ("Angst extra"). But Belz insists it is also part of real effort to earn some extra money in a tight economy. It has sparked some buzz on Facebook and Twitter, and a number of people have already responded to the ad. (In fact, his rates have increased because of it.) One individual hired Belz to write a poem insulting him. Political pundit Ben Domenech hired him to write a poem responding to actress Aubrey Plaza's (Parks and Recreation) 2005 Sea Hag poems. (He did so here.) And a chocolatier in Missouri* requested he write a poem comparing mass-market and artisan chocolate.

But the ad also does something else. When the services it offers are put into practice, the sale of Belz's poetry shows how technological and market tools -- like Indiegogo, Kickstarter, Craigslist, and Etsy -- can help connect poets to a wider audience and reinvigorate poetry itself: by emphasizing the practical, craftsman side of the art that is too often overshadowed by conceptual and "post-avant" posturing.

Camille Paglia observed last fall in The Wall Street Journal ("How Capitalism Can Save Art") that contemporary artists have long had a predisposition to eschew market tools, disregarding the entrepreneurial side of artistic craft in favor of retreating into "an airless echo chamber" -- in which artists listen and respond only to other artists. They shouldn't, she wrote, and suggested that a renewed emphasis on the trades -- where artists "see themselves as entrepreneurs" -- could help them to break free from the "ideology and cant" that have continued to decrease art's impact on the world.

In poetry, this retreat into the echo chamber began at least as early as 1951. In his influential essay that year for The Kenyon Review, "Advance-Guard Writing," Paul Goodman argued that American capitalism had alienated poets from their audience and proposed that they respond by writing for a small circle of peers to create an alternative society in which poetry would flourish. Goodman was important to many poets at the time, including Frank O'Hara, John Ashbery, and Allen Ginsberg, whose coterie name-dropping and paratactical fragments many later poets came to imitate. Rather than salvaging the communal aspect of art, however, it created an ever-wider divide between poets and other members of society, as poets explored their ideas and themes in language that was intentionally exclusive or offensive.

"My son has a bicycle shop. It's hands-on work that requires skill. What I'm doing on Craigslist is not so different. I have a particular skill and I try to use it to write poems that work."

Over the past 20 years, poets and critics have addressed this problem with increasing regularity. In his 1991 essay for The Atlantic, Dana Gioia was one of the first to evaluate poetry's "subculture" and offer a number of suggestions for how it might escape it. One of Gioia's proposals was that poets should make more use of radio: "Mixing poetry with music on classical and jazz stations," he wrote at the time, "or creating innovative talk-radio formats could re-establish a direct relationship between poetry and the general audience."

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Micah Mattix is an assistant professor of literature at Houston Baptist University and the editor of Prufrock, a daily newsletter on books, art, and ideas. 

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