Selling Out in Poetry
There’s a Twitter conversation happening on the #poettues hashtag over the question of selling out when it comes to your poetry. The question that started it all was from Robert Lee Brewer: Do you alter your poetry to try for publication? My answer was that if a poem gets rejected a number of times, I’ll look at it again and consider revising it. What I didn’t mention, in part because the conversation went in another direction, is that I might just abandon the piece, or try to find another audience for it.
But the conversation went into the realm of selling out, i.e. whether one should change a poem in hopes of chasing popularity. Many of the first responses were based around the idea (an accurate one) that there’s not much money in poetry so why bother selling out? I made that argument in a conversation with Elizabeth Tallent at Stanford–that if there were a market for our work, you’d find poets lined up around the block ready to sell out. There’s nothing inherently pure about poets or poetry.
One could argue that if you’re working in academia, then there’s an impetus to publish and taking some of the edge off in order to make a poem more acceptable to a major journal would constitute selling out, and in fact, that argument has been made at length in the past (at times by safely-tenured people inside academia–take that as you will).
I have problems with the term “selling out.” I’ve heard it used most often in reference to bands or musicians, and it’s generally used by people who were fans of bands when they were obscure, when they were playing dive bars and selling home-burned CDs during the breaks. When the band gets big–because a band can’t be accused of selling out without commercial success–these early fans often accuse the band of having mellowed their sound to appeal to a larger audience. What they don’t acknowledge is the possibility that 1) perhaps this was just the way the band was evolving, or more likely, 2) the band changed the tastes of the audience and drew them in.
Another problem I have with the notion of selling out is that it assumes that anything popular can’t have artistic value, and vice-versa. I’ve known a number of music and poetry snobs who claim precisely this, and it strikes me as the worst kind of intellectual laziness, because it requires absolutely no effort. The nerdcore rapper MC Frontalot really nailed this attitude in the song “Indier Than Thou,” provided here for your enjoyment.
I don’t think many poets sell out in the way the term is generally used–I don’t think most poets, especially the more commercially successful ones (and that’s using the term loosely), are consciously looking for ways to shave off the rough edges and make their poems more palatable to an audience. I like to give poets the benefit of the doubt and assume that they’re making the best art they can, and perhaps that’s naive of me, but what it means for me is that I can’t simply dismiss their work if I don’t like it. I have to delve into it and figure out why I don’t find the work challenging. That’s a lot tougher than simply labeling someone a sell-out.