Charles Coe: State of Poetry

This is the thirteenth  in our series of essays on the state of poetry. For others, check our list.

An Open Letter to Poetry Reading Organizers

Charles Coe

Charles Coe

A couple of months ago I gave a poetry reading where I’d been paid no appearance fee and no one but the event organizer bought a copy of my book. (I don’t know whether she really liked it or was just embarrassed; I suspect a bit of both.)

So I’d spent my entire Saturday afternoon to make $13.95. Actually less than that, since I buy copies from my publisher. Plus, it was a three-hour round trip; while grinding my teeth on the drive home I did some hard thinking about how I believe presenters should approach poets to read at their events.

1. Mention money early in the conversation.

I can’t count the times someone’s invited me to read and never even brought up the subject of money. I always say, “It sounds like an interesting event, and I’m available that date. What compensation are you offering?” Often they start to sputter and mumble, like I’d asked if it would be okay to read in my underwear.

If you have no budget, say that right up front. NEVER ASSUME AN ARTIST IS WILLING WORK FOR FREE.

2. If you can’t pay an appearance fee, find other ways to compensate the poet.

If the reading’s a grassroots, volunteer-run affair, take up a collection. After all, the audience hasn’t paid admission; most people can certainly afford to drop a few bucks into the hat.

If the presenter’s a non-profit organization with a low (as opposed to no) budget, even a twenty-five or fifty-dollar honorarium—gas money and a meal–would be appreciated. Or board members and volunteers could solicit tax-deductible donations from local businesses (restaurant or bookstore gift certificates, fruit baskets, and so on.) in lieu of cash.

“What about bookstores?” you might ask. “You don’t make any money there.” Well, that’s not exactly true; you make whatever royalty off each copy of your book the store sells. But that tiny bit of cash obviously isn’t the motivation to read at bookstores; the store will have the poet’s book propped up near the door, prominently displayed for a month or so, and that visibility is a form of compensation. And besides, people who run bookstores—especially independents—are heroes, and authors need to do everything they can to support them.

3. Support book sales.

Point out when promoting the event that the author will have signed copies of books available for sale. (I’m amazed how often reading announcements neglect to mention this.)

Repeat this while introducing the poet. Tell people that buying art is the most tangible way to show your support for artists. Tell them books make great presents and encourage them to buy an extra copy. Heck, tell them they can buy a bunch and cross a half dozen people off their holiday shopping list. Don’t be shy.

I do a lot of gigs at series that include an open mic, and I realize many of the regulars come mainly for a chance to read their work. It’s probably not reasonable to expect those folks to buy a book every week. But remind your audience that never isn’t often enough…

Poets need to take a stand.

Some people get squirrely when a poet talks about money; they seem to think we’re happy to read for free as long as someone can scare up a dozen people to sit and listen. No one expects a mechanic to change their oil for free or the vet to worm their dog, but it doesn’t occur to some folks that a poet is like anyone else who’s put in time and effort to learn a craft and has a right to be paid to practice it.

In my opinion, poets who feel “uncomfortable” at the thought of seeking compensation for their work and aggressively marketing their books should ask themselves one question: is poetry a hobby they’re willing to subsidize out of their own pockets or are they professional artists running a small business?

To those who simply enjoy sharing their poetry and don’t really care about making money I say, “Live Long and Prosper.” But I urge poets who want to be compensated for their time and effort to stand up and raise these issues the next time you invite them to read at your venue.

After all, if poets don’t value ourselves as working artists, if we don’t take ourselves seriously…who will?

Charles Coe is the author of the poetry collection Picnic on the Moon as well as All Sins Forgiven: Poems for My Parents.  His poetry and prose have appeared in numerous newspapers and literary reviews and magazines, and his poems have been set to music by composers Julia Carey, Beth Denisch and Robert Moran. Charles also writes feature articles, book reviews and interviews for publications such as Harvard Magazine, Northeastern University Law Review and the Boston Phoenix. In addition to his work as a writer, Charles has an extensive background as a jazz vocalist and has performed and recorded with numerous musicians in the Boston area and throughout New England.


  1. Bravo! So true. In fact, I read at one event where the intro musicians were paid and everyone EXPECTED that (there was a budget for music) but no one considered payment for the three headliner poets. Not even a fruit basket. It’s odd how this world places different monetary values on different crafts–

  2. paulrichmondhep says:

    I organize 5 word events a year in Western Ma and yes as an organizer I struggle with just getting venues to donate their spaces, with restaurants complaining that people who come to listen to poets ask for water and lemon or just buy a coffee and yes we are just trying to get them in the door so we have the event free and ask for donations but is there enough to offer the readers, not usually so then it’s grants, returning bottles, whatever in the hopes to offer something – Where is the funding? – I know where it is – in the military…

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