Zubair Ahmed, a “professional” poet (and aeronautical engineer)
Sometimes when you investigate an new career, it turns out that the profession is surprisingly lucrative. Poetry isn’t one of those cases. Professional poets, who write beautiful and rhythmic words for a living, almost always have day jobs that pay the bills. While this is true of many creative professions, even many of the “rock stars” of poetry barely scrape by on poems alone unless they win the Nobel Prize.
Pulitzer Prize winning poet and MacArthur Fellow Charles Simic expanded on the phenomenon in the New York Review of Books:
“A successful novelist can, with luck, make a bundle, as can a memoir writer (if he or she is fortunate to have had a mother who murders the author’s father in front of his or her eyes), and a third-rate painter can do quite well if a hotel chain or a bank starts fancying his seascapes and sunflowers, but few poets ever made a living from poetry.”
So, we thought we’d look at the personal finances of poets, and what we found was grim. Most poets, even the successful ones, are writing in defiance of market forces, driven by the love of their craft.
A Brief History of Poetry
The Odyssey, a very early poem
Poetry, “a form of literature that uses aesthetic and rhythmic qualities of language to evoke meanings in addition to, or in place of, the prosaic ostensible meaning,” has a long history. Some of the earliest texts we know of are poems: The Odyssey, the Vedas, the Epic of Gilgamesh. Historians think these stories started out as memorized oral performances, and the “aesthetic and rhythmic qualities of language” come in handy when memorizing words.
This also helps explain the relationship between poetry and the dramatic arts. Ancient Greek poets often loaned their talents to playwriting, and Shakespeare made his money doing the same. Whether his playwriting counted as a “second job” to his poetry is debatable.
Another economic strategy was arts patronage. In a patronage system, the wealthy and the powerful pay artists to do their thing, so long as “their thing” does not insult the wealthy and the powerful. Michael Angelo had the Medicis; Chretien de Troyes, a medieval poet, mostly worked under the patronage of Marie of France, Countess of Champagne; William Butler Yeats had Lady Gregory. Simic explains that this model hasn’t really survived into the present day:
“In past centuries, they could hope for a dinner invitation from some noblemen holed up in his castle to entertain his drunken guests, or even receive a piece of land from the king after writing a paean to his various conquests and massacres. But in modern times, except in the Soviet Union under Stalin, the possibility that poets might toady up to the high and mighty and live thereafter in clover has been foreclosed. Even Robert Frost, who was immensely popular and widely read during his lifetime, had to get a teaching job to support himself. As for the rest of our great poets, going back to Whitman and Dickinson, their combined income from poetry, if it were known, would make them even more incomprehensible in the eyes of many Americans than they already are.”
Success as a Poet
Zubair Ahmed discovered his talent for poetry in his first creative writing class at Stanford University. At age 16 he moved to the United States from Bangladesh with his family, and by age 19 he had done his parents proud by working towards a degree in mechanical engineering. His instructor was Michael McGriff, an established poet and alumnus of Stanford’s Stegner Fellowship, who saw promise in Ahmed’s work and reached-out to him as a mentor.
With McGriff’s help, and a lot of hard work, the world of poetry “discovered” Ahmed almost immediately. His publishing debut came within two years his first poetry class, and was in Tin House, a literary magazine often mentioned in the same breath as The Atlantic and The New Yorker. By the time he graduated, Ahmed had published a collection of poetry, gone on a reading tour, and acquired many fans in high places.
Of Ahmed’s book, City of Rivers, Matthew Dickman — a Portland-based poet who is big enough a name to have been profiled in the New Yorker in 2009, alongside his brother — is quoted as saying, “I would follow this poet down any hallway in the world.” Publisher’s Weekly called it an “unusually compact and consistent debut from an unusually young poet.” McSweeneys, who published the book, gave it a lavish synopsis:
“The poems in City of Rivers—the first full-length collection from 23-year-old wunderkind Zubair Ahmed—are clear and cool as a glass of water. Grounded in his childhood in Bangladesh, Ahmed’s spare, evocative poems cast a knowing eye on the wider world, telling us what its like to be displaced and replaced, relocated and dislocated. His poems are suffused with a graceful, mysterious pathos—and also with joy, humor, and longing—with the full range of human emotions.”
Also by the time he graduated, with his master’s degree in mechanical engineering, Ahmed had lined-up a full-time job with Boeing as an aeronautical engineer.
Poet Zubair Ahmed at graduation, 2013, and the cover of his first book, released in 2012
Ahmed kept pursuing his engineering career, even though he’d already achieved astronomical success in poetry. It turns out that your poetry might not “make ends meet,” even if – like Ahmed – you’re lucky enough to “make it” as a poet, even in America.
Ashulia (Zubair Ahmed)
For seven years
My father drove me to Ashulia every evening
To watch the sunset.
Back then, Ashulia was nothing,
A long stretch of dirt road
Cutting through a wide river
Which passed us on both sides
Like someone lost within us.
I remember his gray hair,
His missing teeth and spotted skin.
His laughter gave birth to the softness of my skull
And the uneven beating of my heart.
He told me to fold a muslin sari,
Throw it into the river
And watch it float away.
I asked him about God,
Under which rock he hides his mansion.
He told me he found God
On the corner of his cigarette.
Twenty years later, his body floated
Through all two-hundred-fourteen rivers of Bangladesh.
There are a couple ways a poet can make money directly off of his poetry outside the patronage system, the obvious two being readings and book sales. Ahmed has had a few lucky breaks in the reading circuit: the Salina Poetry Series in Kansas flew him out and paid him $1,200 for a single reading. “It’s unfortunate that these kinds of opportunities are rare, because my highest hourly rate has definitely been as a poet,” he joked.
As for book sales, according to New York Magazine, the three best-selling poetry books of 2011 were: Horoscopes for the Dead, by Billy Collins, Leavings, by Wendell Berry, and Come, Thief by Jane Hirshfield. Collins sold 28,406 copies of Horoscopes. If we estimate a 10% royalty rate, he made around $44,177 on it. Berry, in second place, only sold 2,928 copies of Leavings, making him about $4,377. Hirshfield did similarly, selling 2,250 copies earning $5,625.
For comparison, Tim Tebow’s autobiography, Through My Eyes, sold 282,000 copies in 7 months.
Tim Tebow outsold Billy Collins like crazy
Dig into any “professional” poet’s background and odds are good that you’ll discover his or her “actual” profession. Exceptions can made for the poets lucky enough to win a Nobel Prize in Literature – although the prize is usually awarded towards the end of a writer’s career. At that level of fame, book sales and booking readings turn a profit (plus, the prize itself is worth about $1.1M). Tomas Transtromer won the Nobel in 2011. In the decade prior, he’d only sold 12,300 copies of any of his books in the US; now they’re printed in the tens of thousands.
The first edition of Ahmed’s City of Rivers is still in it’s first 2,000-copy run. “I could be classified as a successful poet,” Ahmed told us. “But the money I’ve made off of poetry amounts to a couple of month’s rent.”
“I don’t think of myself as a successful poet,” he hedged, “but someone could see me as that and if you do it’s pretty bleak.”
Ahmed agreed that things seem to be much bleaker for poets than for other writers. There are more successful prose writers out there, who sell more books, and who can charge more for reading and speaking in public. “The difference is often an order of magnitude. Go find a poetry prize, and go find an equally prestigious prose prize,” Ahmed challenged me. “If the poetry prize pays $5,000, the prose prize will probably pay $50,000.”
The Day Jobs of Poets
A still from “It’s Halftime in America”, a Chrysler ad, with famous poet Matthew Dickman credited for copy writing. Clint Eastwood narrates, “Yeah, it’s halftime, America. And our second half is about to begin.”
Because of all this, Ahmed’s gut estimate is that “99%” of American poets have a “second” job that pays the bills – and that’s not counting teaching creative writing in an institution of higher education. “If you’re a poetry professor you’re ‘doing’ poetry all the time. You might not have as much time for your own poetry, but you’re still working in the craft.”
These faculty jobs are the closest we get to a wide-reaching patronage system in the contemporary US, and they don’t come easy. Most programs include “evidence of at least one published book” or a Master of Fine Arts degree in their list of requirements. Some programs list both. “If you meet the requirements,” Ahmed said, “it’s just like any other job. You apply, hopefully you get an interview, hopefully they like you.” What’s more, these jobs are rare and competition for them is stiff. According to New York Magazine, there were around 1,400 MFAs awarded in 2011 alone, and 750 available positions to teach MFA programs.
The Creative Writing MFA section of Academic Jobs Wiki currently lists 10 jobs with a focus on poetry. As best-selling author and editor to McSweeney’s Internet Tendency Jon Warner observed of an earlier list, “[Many of these postings] declare that secondary expertise in things like ‘screenwriting,’ ‘digital humanities,’ or ‘graphic narratives’ are desirable, as departments look for their unicorns to plug every last curricular hole.”
“With 15 years teaching experience, having published five books and even possessing one or two unicorn traits acquired over the years, were I to go on the market (which I am not), I would rate my own chances of receiving a job offer at something like 5% or less. It would not surprise me for a moment if I could not score a single on-campus interview.”
If a poet is not among the lucky few on the tenure track, he or she needs to find another way to earn a living. Zubair Ahmed engineers airplanes. Matthew Dickman, one of the hot-shots who reviewed Ahmed’s book, writes copy for advertisements. As you might guess, not everybody is so lucky as they are, either. “A lot of poets I know are job nomads. Any odd job you can imagine there’s probably a poet doing it right now,” Ahmed said. Many of these poets are biding their time waiting for a break – a successful book or acceptance to an MFA program could eventually qualify them to apply for a faculty position. But even acquiring that won’t guarantee financial stability, depending on the poet’s situation.
T.S. Eliot worked in a bank
Ahmed’s book has been hailed as successful, which means that he’d have a shot at a teaching job. He’s considered it — he guest-taught a creative writing section at Oberlin College in October of 2013. “It was really fun!” Ahmed said.
But, Ahmed currently lives with his parents and younger brother as their sole provider. While he cherishes the opportunity to “give back to the people who gave him everything”, it’s definitely a heavier financial burden than he could carry as a junior faculty member at most institutions. “I decided not to try to go into teaching because it was unlikely that any job I could get would pay the bills.”
He regrets that the poetic economy is so elitist, because it means that society looks down on a lot of his friends, colleagues and influences. “Odd jobs aren’t very respected in our society,” Ahmed observed. “If you don’t have a career, you’re a bum, and I don’t think that’s fair. I also think there should be more opportunities — there shouldn’t be a 1% of poetry.” He says that if he ever finds himself financially successful, he’ll try his hand at setting up a fellowship or artist residency of his own.
When it comes to his own career Ahmed, true to his poetic voice, is not the least bit bitter. “I never thought of myself as a superstar poet, and I’m pretty sure if I did it would ruin my writing,” he laughed. In his case it doesn’t matter whether he can make money on on his poetry, so long as he gets to write it.
“Poetry is not a profession, for me — it’s my savior. Sometimes, when I’m alone and in crisis and don’t know what to do, poetry is my light.”