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.

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."

Radio, of course, remains an excellent way for poets to reach a wider audience, but newer technologies offer other, perhaps more profound ways for poets to connect with readers and listeners.

Belz's experiment on Craigslist, for example, differs in an important way from radio or public readings because it introduces the poet to a non-specialist audience at the point of a poem's creation -- not just at the point of its performance. When he receives a request, Belz asks for source material­ -- photographs, videos, text documents, or whatever might be needed to meet his clients' request -- and often does a bit of additional research himself to make sure the poem responds to the specific demand.

It is also an example of how thinking entrepreneurially, as Paglia suggested, can reintroduce or reemphasize the trade and craft elements of art. Belz notes that his Craigslist experiment pushes him to create work that his audience (or patron) enjoys: "My son has a bicycle shop. It's hands-on work that requires skill. Bicycles are not as vital as food or shelter, but people like to ride them and are happy to pay to have them repaired. 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."

While crowdsourcing websites like Indiegogo and Kickstarter facilitate fund-raising rather than the exchange of goods, they still offer an intimate and early connection between artists and audience. And if that intimacy is broken, say, by creating "Incomprehensible garbage" (unless, of course, that's what was funded), it will make it difficult for the artist to fund future projects.

At Slate, Alison Hallett writes about Ryan North's Kickstarter campaign that raised nearly half a million dollars for To Be or Not to Be, an illustrated riff on Hamlet. She notes contributing to the campaign "felt like being a part of the creative process, and having a front-row seat to an artist giddily realizing that his biggest dreams are now possible" and was happy with the outcome.

Rightly or wrongly, poetry's doomsayers continue to argue that contemporary American poetry is in bad shape. But an increasing number of younger poets (like Belz), who are less inclined to repeat the errors of the past, prove that there are ways poetry can re-emerge from its catastrophic turn away from society. Now is the time for them to make a definitive break with the cliques of poetry's subculture; embrace the idea that the free market that can help, rather than only hurt, their endeavors; and create poetry that matters.

*Correction: This post originally stated that the chocolatier who requested Belz's poetry services was located in California. We regret the error.