Make Money Writing

Opportunity Extra:
Perform Your Poetry
by Joy Jones

Poetry has long been the poor relation of literature, promising prestige in place of reward.  However, I've found a way to generate income from my poetry.

      My success hasn't come through literary avenues. My poems that have earned their keep have done so through The Spoken Word.

      The Spoken Word is a group of writers organized by Darrell Stover. His idea was to develop performance poets as the modern practitioners of the ancient African oral tradition. Our poems are for the ear. We write about the black experience and are called on to recite at celebrations (such as fashion shows or fund-raising parties), holiday events (such as programs observing the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr.) and concerts. We're even called on to teach our craft--leading poetry workshops for students from first grade through high school.

      Although we're writers and not actors, we do bring dramatic techniques into each presentation. We've moved from just reading our work to reciting it from memory. Sometimes we augment a poem with simple percussion instruments, or invite a musician to embellish a piece. We use choral arrangements, dividing a poem into segments for each member, or sometimes recite key lines together in one voice.

      Because The Spoken Word's focus is on the African-American experience, our busiest month is February, Black History Month, when we perform anywhere and everywhere--schools, churches, theaters, nursing homes, museums. But I'm convinced that any poet or group of poets could develop a theme.

      You probably won't be able to pay your rent being a performance poet, but it will generate an occasional check for poems that would otherwise live in the bottom of your drawer. We started doing readings for fun. Our first paid engagements came when people liked what they heard and spread the word. I've cultivated paying engagments for myself and for the group by contacting community organizations, special interest groups and student organizations at local colleges. Today, three years after our first reading, we give more paying performances than freebies. Most of our engagements bring in $25 to $75 a poet. Soon, we'll generate more revenue through our self-published Bad Beats, Sacred Rhythms, a collection of our "greatest hits"--those poems that have been consistent crowd pleasers.

      Working as a performance poet has enhanced my writing skills, too. Standing in front of an audience lets you know in no uncertain terms whether what you wrote is on the mark. At our practice sessions, and even at performances, there are often discussions--no, debates--about the viewpoints and concepts expressed in the poems. Since writing is so often a solitary act, this interaction has been one of the group's greatest benefits. This healthy debate has inspired me to write not just poems, but stories, articles and essays--genres that pay without performance.

      Not a bad dividend for a little creative attention given to literature's poor relative.

Originally published by Writer's Digest, Fall 1997, Vol. 22.


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