Saturday, May 26, 2018

“Pay-to-Play” Now on the Increase in the Arts

The marketing world has long been familiar with the “pay-to-play” style of doing business. There are many websites and publications where articles are published or institutions are listed in rankings only when money changes hands. For instance, many magazines that cover issues of interest to lawyers charge contributors hundreds of dollars to publish an article, since authors displaying their expertise is a form of advertising their services to potential clients.

In the art world, people don’t like to talk about the growth of “pay-to-play.” Spending money to have your work reach the public smacks of self-promotion and vanity. But increasingly, and quietly, arts organizations are charging artists to present their work. Many literary publishers are asking writers to buy a certain number of books in order to cover their costs; more and more literary magazines, presses, and contests are charging ever-larger fees for submissions; many theaters are requiring playwrights and performers to pay for expenses such as space rental, tech services, and marketing; and some galleries are charging artists to show their work.

I don’t blame arts organizations for passing some costs along to artists. It’s not as if nonprofit theaters, publishers, and galleries are raking in big bucks that they’re hiding from artists. The arts organizations are under enormous financial pressures that have forced them to adopt the “pay-to-play” model, often against their own inclinations. I do think it’s worth discussing the “pay-to-play” phenomenon in the arts, though, because it has implications for whose work is presented, and how and when artists attempt to reach the public.

There was a time in the not-so-distant past when the arts were often supported by wealthy patrons. I recently visited the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, for example, and was reminded that Peggy Guggenheim supported a number of artists and writers in the mid-twentieth century, including the painter Jackson Pollock and the writer Djuna Barnes

Peggy Guggenheim
If you read the letters of the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, you can see that he diligently corresponded with his numerous patrons, updating them on his artistic progress and requesting funds or places to work.

One cause of the current “pay-to-play” situation may be the increasing number of artists competing for funds and a public. For example, the annual conference of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs in North America began in 1972 with a couple of hundred attendees. The most recent conferences have all averaged well above 10,000 attendees. With so many artists vying for attention and venues to present their work, arts organizations have also proliferated. The funding sources for these organizations have not kept pace, and government support for the arts in the United States, for one, has declined or remained mostly flat for many years.

Another reason that arts organizations are asking artists for support is that the wealthiest philanthropists currently are finding other outlets for their gifts. In the San Francisco Bay Area, where I live, for instance, we have recently seen a wave of hospital construction and rebuilding, including the stunning Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital in Palo Alto; and UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital and the Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital renovation, both in San Francisco. Those are wonderful additions to our communities, and my own family has benefited from the fantastic care at one of these institutions. But where is the tech philanthropist who is going to support independent theaters or literary publishing? You don’t have to be in the arts to fund the arts. The Guggenheims didn’t make their fortune as surrealist painters, but Peggy Guggenheim helped surrealist painters by buying their work.

The downside of the current regimen in the arts is that many artists can’t afford to “pay-to-play.” Their work is at risk of being lost in today's art economy. Even those who can occasionally afford to fund-raise and use personal resources to launch a project in the arts may find that their ability to generate funds through crowdsourcing campaigns is not as great as their creative output, forcing them to limit the number and ambition of their projects.

I would like to see more discussion of “pay-to-play” in the arts, not to point fingers at nonprofit arts organizations, but to explore the implications of this phenomenon and to try to brainstorm alternatives.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 

How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe TankaThe Villanelle
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration
Types of Closure in Poetry

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Types of Closure, Part 4: The “Killer” Ending

One of the most dramatic methods of creating closure in a poem is to include a last line that is a dramatic revelation, a surprising or even shocking disclosure or insight that switches the entire mood of the poem. Poets often refer to this type of closure as a “killer ending.” This is the type of writing Emily Dickinson was describing in her famous letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson: “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.”

The killer ending takes the top of your head off because it says something so deep and so true in an artful way. The poet I think of first in the context of the killer ending is Sharon Olds, who has succeeded so many times in writing poems that end with deep revelations, often incredibly honest and personal.

Sharon Olds
In Sharon Olds’s “I Go Back to May 1937,” the speaker of the poem imagines traveling back in time to the period when her parents met and became a couple. Instead of being a happy and nostalgic moment, though, it is almost unbearably painful for the speaker:

I want to go up to them and say Stop,   
don’t do it—she’s the wrong woman,  
he’s the wrong man…
you are going to do bad things to children,
you are going to suffer in ways you have not heard of,
you are going to want to die.

That is one of the darkest moments I can imagine. But the poem doesn’t end there. The speaker instead opts not to tell her parents what will happen, she even pushes her mother and father to conceive her, like a child playing with paper dolls. Olds finishes with this stunning line:

Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it.

When I first typed that line, I accidentally typed it as, “and I will write about it.” But no, that’s not the verb in the poem. The speaker is going to tell the story, like a parent speaking to a child. Telling is a more direct form of communication than writing.

That action of the speaker seems to redeem all the pain of her parents’ lives and of her own life. And all of that happens in the last line. Of course, Sharon Olds is an incredibly skillful poet, and she has been preparing us for this redemptive ending even before the poem’s first line. The poem’s title situates us in the month of May, in the renewing season of springtime. In the very first line of the poem, the speaker positions the parents, “standing at the formal gates of their colleges.” By placing the parents at gates, Olds both evokes the myth of Adam and Eve being expelled from Paradise for their sins, and creates a sense of something beginning, an entrance as well as an exit/exile. She is so brilliant!

In other words, the killer last line may seem totally unexpected the first time we hear it, but a good poet will subliminally create the possibility of that revelation from the very start of the poem. Otherwise a disclosure unrelated to the rest of the poem can seem as if it doesn’t belong. The perfect killer ending is one that the reader could never guess, which seems to come out of nowhere. And yet the killer ending feels moving, authentic, and connected to the rest of the poem in a way that is anything but obvious.


Types of Closure in Poetry, Part 1Part 2, Part 3

Other recent posts about writing topics: 

How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe TankaThe Villanelle
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Types of Closure, Part 3: Using Repetition to End a Poem

One tried and true way to create closure in a poem is to use repetition. Repeating a phrase, line, or series of lines establishes that the poem has come full circle and is now ending. Ironically, the fact that some words in the poem are the same indicates to the reader that these words are different from any others, since they announce the ending.

There are different ways that poets use repetition to create closure. One way is to use the rhythms and cadences of the repeated lines as a sort of chorus, the way a song often ends with a repeated refrain. The master of this sort of repetition is the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca

Federico García Lorca
In his classic “Sleepwalking Ballad” [“Romance sonambulo”], Lorca opens with these unforgettable lines:

Verde que te quiero verde.
Verde viento. Verdes ramas.
El barco sobre la mar
y el caballo en la montaña.

Green how I want you green.
Green wind. Green branches.
The ship out on the sea,
and the horse on the mountain.

(translation by William Bryant Logan)

The poem depicts a surrealistic world where strange and mysterious events take place, such as a young gypsy woman with green hair being suspended over water by an “icicle of the moon.” But in some ways, this poem is much like a traditional ballad. Lorca repeats the opening lines in various permutations in the poem, sometimes just duplicating the opening line, sometimes the first two lines. But at the end of the poem, he repeats all four of the opening lines, as if we are hearing the refrain of a ballad, and it’s clear that the repetition signals the end of the poem. By extension, that repetition indicates the fate of the gypsy bandit who is bleeding and pursued, and his doomed lover.

A different way of using repetition is to repeat a phrase at the end in a very different context and with a different emphasis. This sort of repetition establishes closure by contrast—we hear or read the same words as we did earlier in the poem, but now we understand their deeper meaning. It’s the sharper insight that makes for closure in the poem.

Lorca uses repetition in this way in his poem “Your Childhood in Menton.” Here he describes a lover who cannot answer the call of his passion because of social conventions. The poem begins and ends with the same line:

 Sí, tu niñez ya fábula de fuentes.

Yes, your childhood now a fable of fountains.

In the epigraph, Lorca attributes the line to a poem by Jorge Guillén. The first time we hear these words, they sound innocent: they refer to youth and fables and running water. By the end of the poem, the line resonates very differently, since we know that the person addressed in this poem has betrayed his own impulses in favor of norms he absorbed in childhood.

Another example of using repetition in a different context at the end is “Each Bird Walking,” by Tess Gallagher one of my favorite poems. 

Tess Gallagher

Gallagher uses a fascinating series of flashbacks, quickly going backwards and forwards through different layers of time to tell a complex and moving story that the reader has to construct, like a detective solving a mystery.
The poem is about the end of an affair, an affair between the speaker and her lover, who is in a long-term relationship. To end the romance without bitterness, the speaker elicits from her lover the gift of an unforgettable memory. He chooses to tell her how he bathed his own mother by hand at the end of her life, as if he had been her mother instead of her son. Describing this incredibly intimate moment of cleansing, the lover quotes his mother as saying, “That’s good, that’s enough,” when the washing of her body is complete.

That's a banal enough phrase. But it becomes extremely powerful when it’s repeated only 10 lines later. Now the speaker is the one saying the phrase, since she is satisfied that her lover has given her access to a part of his soul that no one else has shared. The second time the poet quotes, “That’s good, that’s enough,” the phrase has a deep resonance, since we know it means not only that the speaker and her lover have exchanged an imprinted moment of intimacy, but that their relationship is now done.

Types of Closure in Poetry, Part 1, Part 2, Part 4

Other recent posts about writing topics: 

How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe TankaThe Villanelle
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration