I’m at Borders right now, engaging in my weekly writing time. Don is sitting across from me, at work on his second poem of the night. I think. He could just be looking at porn, though.
Anyway, I took a break from writing a few minutes ago to head for the bathroom. On the way back, I detoured through the poetry section, checking to see if they restocked and if they happened to include the new Hoagland collection (restock, yes; Hoagland collection, no). There was a man sitting in a chair in the area, and a woman standing near here – they were clearly together, as she was looking at titles on the shelves and talking to him. She picked up a thin volume of poems and flipped through, then turned it over to look at the back cover.
“God, look at how much they want for this. Six dollars, for what? The pages aren’t even full,” she said dismissively.
I had a strong urge to confront her, but mastered it quickly. Donna’s New Yorker sensibility has finally rubbed off on me, and I have learned that it’s never a good plan to engage the crazy. However, I was pretty pissed.
I know we live in a culture where knowledge isn’t valued as much as it used to be. As YouTube wonder child Dan Brown indicates in his Open Letter to Educators, information is mostly free, thanks to the internet. Of course, most people on the internet aren’t looking for an education; they’re sadly looking for hot horny girls willing to flash their boobs on videocam (see: my last few experiments with Omegle). And when really useful information is presented on the internet, it’s often presented in neatly packaged, single-serving doses that may or may not be reliable (see: most Wiki articles). I recognize that our society has become so completely infatuated with the idea of immediate gratification, and is typically organized to satisfy short attention spans. But it doesn’t stop me from hoping that the slow pleasure of actually reading a book will engage people.
I think what really pisses me off, though, is the idea that $6 is a lot of money to pay for poetry. My most recent purchase in a chain bookstore (this one, in fact), Marie Howe’s Kingdom of Ordinary Time, cost me in the neighborhood of $15. Though I don’t love it nearly as much as her two previous collections, I found it to be worth every damn penny. I often find that the money I spend on volumes of poetry is infinitely more satisfying than what I spend on novels or non-fiction, perhaps because as Williams says, “men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” Often, in the span of 20 or 30 lines, I can feel a full range of emotions – especially if the poem is a spectacular one. For instance, Anne Sexton’s “For My Lover, Returning to His Wife,” makes me sad, angry, a little bitter and jealous, and finally exhausted. Jean Nordhaus’ “A Dandelion for My Mother” has me feeling sentimental, then turns me toward grief and a real sense of loss.
Is $6 really too much to pay for all that? It’s funny how $6 seems so much to some people, when we will gladly pay upwards of $8 for two hours of mind-numbing thoughtlessness in a movie theater, watching things like Observe and Report that leaves us feeling empty and gross a half hour later.
Too, the idea that $6 is a lot to pay for a book of poems when, in fact, it probably cost the writer quite a bit more than that to create. Let’s look at some simple math, that hopefully accounts for both financial and emotional output:
Based on my hourly wage, I can earn $6 in about 20 minutes at work. The nature of my work makes it difficult to quantify what I can complete in 20 minutes, however I think it’s fair to say that the work I can do in 20 minutes is worth the $6 I will earn.
With that $6, I can purchase:
– a book of poems at Borders, apparently
– a 20 oz. peppermint mocha and a large cookie at Borders
– lunch at a number of small chain sandwich shops (like Roly Poly)
– about 24 Philly soft pretzels from a street vendor in the city
– 5 songs on iTunes
– a scarf and a pair of earrings in a junk jewelry shop on South Street
Now, let’s look at what it takes to write a book of poetry:
For the past 7 weeks, I have been coming to Border’s at least once a weekend to write. I am averaging about 4 hours per weekend here, producing one poem per visit. I am spending at least $5 every time I come here on coffee, so we’re already looking at $35. And that’s just for 7 weeks. I anticipate I’ll spend the next several months working on this – perhaps 6 months, spending $5 per week on coffee while writing. Add to that the gas I spend on driving here and the cost of my computer, and we’re over $2000. But add to that the idea that for each poem I write, there is some emotional output happening. I had to experience something, feel something, and desire to make my readers feel something. How much does that cost? Can you put a price on my life experience? On my emotion? Are my feelings worth $6? More? Less?
Of course, I’m employing the help of my friends in writing. I send my poems to up to five different people each time I write one (you know who you are, and you are awesome). These are people who are, generally, educated in language and writing, who are poets themselves who have spent countless hours and dollars on educations and conferences and workshops and their own writing. How much is their help worth? How do we put a price on their knowledge? Do we include the price tags of their educations? Now we’re well over $100,000.
And then of course it costs me to get the book published. There are reading fees for contests, postage fees, the cost of printing copy after copy of manuscript for submission. There is the cost of the editors who read it – perhaps I don’t pay it out of pocket, but they do earn a salary for these things. And the cost of the paper, the printing, the binding, the marketing, the shipping, the people who work in the bookstores who stock and sell the books. Have we reached a million dollars yet? Perhaps.
It costs so much, in dollars and energy, to produce a small volume of poems. And what you stand to gain from it is worth so much more than what it costs to produce.
Is $6 really so much to ask?