‘Brother, can you spare a rhyme?’

22 June 2009 at 4:59 am (Press, Spoken Word) (, , , , , , )

Brother, can you spare a rhyme?
If anyone knows how to survive a recession, it’s a poet.
By Kristin Tillotson, Star Tribune

Dollars and Cents
Carol Connolly, St. Paul poet laureate

Money is the color of mold.
Use it for a poultice
And it will infect your wound.
And you, you are
Bad if you have it,
Bad if you don’t,
Bad if you try to get it,
Bad if you refuse it,
Bad if you lend it,
Bad if you borrow it,
Bad if you win it,
Bad if you lose it,
Foolish if you inherit it,
Suspect if you ignore it.
Its fungus creeps
into the corners of marriages,
suffocates sons and daughters.
If you marry for money,
you will earn it.

Factory workers, middle managers and stockbrokers who have been laid off during the recession could learn a thing or two from poets.

That’s right. You think you have it bad; try being someone whose gift and lifelong passion is often dismissed as effete or superfluous by those with “real” jobs and only gets ridiculed more as times get tougher.

“Poets aren’t recession-proof,” said Tom Cassidy, who supports his “poetry addiction” with a full-time job. “We’re just more resilient than most, able to leap tall challenges in a single stanza.”

But Twin Cities poets aren’t having a pity party. If anyone knows how to survive when the going gets lean, it’s them.

“Artists in general are somewhat better equipped to live in a cashless economy, because we’ve already spent our adult lives not earning much money,” said Naomi Cohn, who supports herself as a fundraiser for nonprofit organizations. “At the post office, I talked to some grandfather who worked his behind off for 40 years and now his 401(k) is tanked. I was running around being a bad girl, and now we’re in the same place.”

Poet/spoken-word artist e.g. bailey is well aware that the general public might not think that he and others like him make or deserve much money.

“Part of the job of being an artist is working with what you have to create what you can,” he said.

“Out of lack, ingenuity flourishes,” bailey said. “If it means getting only $25 for a show, or sometimes doing it for free, you do it. If it means performing in a bar, hell, even the street corner, you do it. If it means teaching at a school or after-school program, on top of doing your work as an artist, you do it. And you scrape together whatever means you have, economic or otherwise, to eat, sleep and live to another day. I know a good number of poets and spoken-word artists doing pretty good for themselves. Sometimes they know how to better ride these waves when they come along.”

While our poets aren’t sulking in a corner, waiting for the grant money they’re less likely to see than a unicorn, they would like to point out — articulately and genteelly — that, in fact, they are not only necessary in a bad economy, but more so.

“‘Neither a borrower nor a lender be’ could be the best financial advice of the early 21st century,” wrote poet Todd Boss, whose work has appeared in the New Yorker, in his online journal FLURRY. “The fact that it was written by a poet and not an economist shouldn’t surprise you. Because poets have little to gain in this world, they have little to sell — so they can be trusted, trusted to tell you the unvarnished truth about the world we live in, what it’s worth, and how you ought to invest in it.”

At this year’s Minnesota Book Awards ceremony, poetry finalists Boss, Heid Erdrich, Tim Nolan and Margaret Hasse composed a manifesto. It read, in part:

“In these financially perilous times, poetry becomes an index of life’s real riches. Poetry’s intangible topics — surprise, joy, memory, laughter, loss, love, beauty, and wonder — can return us to a more honest living. A poem is an economical experience that deepens the value of being alive. A poem can be read in minutes, but sustain for years — an energy reserve that is cheap, totally renewable, eco-friendly, and immensely rewarding.”

To any young dreamer who aspires to become a poet, but is waffling due to the uncertain economy, no less a success than John Patrick Shanley has some advice. The Pulitzer and Oscar-winning playwright/ screenwriter (“Doubt,” “Moonstruck”) recently delivered a college commencement address that included this recommendation: “… not to bring up something upsetting, but when you leave here today, you may go through a period of unemployment. My suggestion is this: Enjoy the unemployment. Have a second cup of coffee. Go to the park. Read Walt Whitman. Walt Whitman loved being unemployed. I don’t believe he ever did a day’s work in his life. As you may know, he was a poet. If a lot of time goes by and you continue to be unemployed, you may want to consider announcing to all appropriate parties that you have become a poet.”


Here are some poems related to money woes, beginning with a soon-to-be-published new one by the late, beloved Bill Holm.

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