Giving it away for free.

Joni Mitchell sings:

“Now me I play for fortune
And those velvet curtain calls
I’ve got a black limousine
And two gentlemen
Escorting me to the halls
And I play if you have the money
Or if you’re a friend to me
But the one man band
By the quick lunch stand
He was playing real good, for free

Not many poets get black limousines. You might get moth-eaten remnants of a velvet curtain on the wobbly stage in the corner of a pub. What we often get is the expectation that we’ll perform our original work for free.

Why is that? And why do almost all of us feel guilty about asking if there’s any kind of recompense for performing at a pub, club, poetry group, cafe or festival?

I think a lot of it comes down to a lack of confidence in our work. We know we’ve put hours and days into finishing a poem. We know that some people at least will get great pleasure from reading it, or hearing it performed. We know that we have an above average ability with words. We know that when we perform we often bring a few friends and fellow poets along, who will spend money on drinks or food which the venue would not otherwise get.

And whilst many organisers do their best to make sure that the guest poet gets at least a few free drinks, or a free meal, or a book voucher, or even cash, there are still plenty that don’t even consider the idea of paying a poet to read at their venue or event.

In some cases, it’s worthwhile to perform for free. At a writers’ festival, where there will be a large crowd, publishers and media present, you would jump at the opportunity for exposure.

In some cases, you’re happy to do it, because it’s for a friend starting out a venture, or it’s a school or it’s for a good cause, or it’s a group of other poets who all want to hear each others’ work, or it’s just a fun gig that you do because you have a great time doing it.

When you’re starting out, and nobody knows your work, you snap up every chance to strut your stuff to people who’ve never heard of your name. But at what point do you say “hang on, I’ve been doing this for nothing for long enough. At least give me some indication, some token of appreciation , to show that you acknowledge my time, my effort and my art.”

I’ve just had an experience where I was invited to be guest poet at a cafe in the Adelaide area.  It’s not a McDonalds and its not silver service. It’s the sort of place where, in an evening, you’d easily spend $30-40 per head on food and wine. I was there last month to hear a guest poet read, and got up in their open mic session to read a couple of my poems. The organiser liked what he heard, and asked me to be guest poet at the next meeting. I later emailed him to enquire as to whether there was anything like a couple of free drinks, or a plate of dips or a bottle of wine, for the guest poet. This was the first time I’ve ever raised this question. I’ve always done what most of us do, which is to go along, read my stuff , be grateful if the organiser has taken the bother to arrange something for the guest poet, or gone away muttering under my breath if nothing was given.  The response from the organisers was basically that I should be honoured to be invited to be guest poet, and no token of appreciation would be given, not even a complimentary cup of coffee or glass of wine.  Now I could have gone along, sat with a glass of water all night, read and gone home, but that would have been petty and vindictive (which I can be if I want). Or I could have gone along with several friends, and between us spent $150-$200 at the cafe, and tried to enjoy the night. But I know I would have felt resentful at what I regarded as their lack of appreciation. So I pulled out. I told them “Sorry, if that’s your attitude, I’m not going to appear”.

Getting back to Joni. You can be sure of one thing: that “one man band by the quick lunch stand” would have had a hat at his feet for people to drop money into. Maybe that’s the answer – pass the hat around for donations. Or hang a sign around your neck “Poet with wife and six children to feed. Please help”

So what do you think? Should we give it away for free, and be grateful for the odd scrap thrown in our direction?

Or should we try to change this attitude that you pay musicians, you pay bands, you pay singers, you pay waitresses and chefs, but the poet who entertains your clientele, well she/he is just a poet, and you can get them for free.