How I Hope To Turn Poetry into An Income Stream in my Creative Business
Howard Lovy, Managing Editor at The Alliance of Independent Authors, did a Q&A with me recently about my latest experiment: poetry on Patreon.
Though it was poetry that first got me into self-publishing, I realized recently I had all sorts of assumptions that were coming between me and my poetry publishing.
I was making a special case for poetry in my head. I hadn’t set up my books to attract followers to an email list. I hadn’t invested any time or money in them, beyond writing and producing them.
It wasn’t that I thought they were going to sell themselves so much as allowing an underlying concept (c in the many abcdeFgs that can block us) poetry publication as seriously as my fiction or nonfiction until recently.
One of the things I’ve realized recently, for those of us who write cross-genre, is that you have to treat each genre very differently, finding the unique sweet-spot where how you handle your micro-niche intersects with your readers.
In doing this for poetry, it feels to me like Patreon offers the best potential for aspiring poets who might hope to make a living from their work.
So I’m reformatting all my poetry books and putting the same kind of marketing muscle behind them as I do my other books.
Poetry on Patreon: Why?
Howard: Let’s talk first about why you launched this Patreon page and how you view poetry as being enmeshed in new ways for writers to make a living. Why not just write a poetry book?
ORNA: Actually, I do write and publish poetry books but to think of the book as the only format for transmitting text is to miss out on the revolutionary potential of digital publishing.
The book has become what the book is because it used to be the only “technology” we had to take in-depth writing from author to reader. There wasn’t any other option. But now we have so many different options, so many potential formats.
I think it’s taking us a little while to catch up with all the opportunities and options that we do have, across text, audio and video—and where these intersect. I’m very interested in the intersection of video and poetry, for example (see Film Poem and Moving Poems) and of course, there’s something quite different about hearing a poet read or perform their words compared to reading it in your own mind.
My Patreon page is a way for me to gather in close those who follow me for my poetry over and above the other things I do, the nonfiction and fiction, the creative facilitation, the self-publishing work for ALLi. There I will provide poetry bonuses, as well poem exclusively for patrons, in both text and audio forms. And I hope in time to also do a film poem or two. It will be an exclusive slot, for poetry fans only.
Howard: Your first poem for your patrons on Patreon, “Ann’s Tree,” sounded very personal and specific. Do you want to talk about how and why you wrote it?
ORNA: Yes, it’s a personal poem in the sense that it is about my dear sister-in-law who died from MND (motor neuron disease), a slow death which took her from us, bit by bit, over years. While it is about Anne and how she died, it’s also about some things that grew out of being touched by her life—the poem itself, a poem that my son, her nephew, read when my daughter arranged the planting of a tree to commemorate her, that planting and the ceremony around it.
It all help me see Anne far more clearly but also to see how it is our life’s efforts, how we meet life in the good times and the hard, that define us.
The details of the poem are very personal, yes—I wanted to give that to my patrons with my first offering—but in the final stanza that personal experience is absorbed into something more universal, I hope. That’s always my intention in writing poetry.
Poetry on Patreon: Who?
Howard: Are poetry readers online? It seems to me like a poem is something you take with you and read under a tree over and over again rather than sitting in front of a computer. But, there’s the rise of Instagram poetry, so maybe millennials are used to reading poetry online now?
ORNA: There’s absolutely no doubt about it, online poetry is big and getting bigger, and it’s not just millennials. Far more people read poetry now than ten years ago and digital poetry is very much part of that, as well as spoken word, performance poetry, open mics, slams…
Digital takes poetry off the printed page, and though of course there is still a place for that, I see this development as a liberation. Setting poetry free to connect in all kinds of way.
People can have poetry on their phone in their pocket and, like you say, read it over and over again—maybe under a tree, but also maybe on their commute to work. It’s the words that count, not the device or the format we use to receive them. And bringing poetry into everyday life, out of the rarified atmosphere that built up around it in the 20th century, seems like a very good thing to me.
I would argue we need poetry more than ever in societies where traditional spirituality has been found wanting, and religious institutions are crumbling–as they should, because spirituality cannot be institutionalized any more than creativity. I agree with WB Yeats: “What the great poets affirm in their finest moments is the nearest we can come to an authoritative religion.”
We can see clearly that special bond people have with the poetic word is very much alive today. We have a very public poetic discourse now around politics that you didn’t have twenty years ago and love poetry has the same sort of intense followers as romantic fiction. It’s marvelous to witness new life being breathed into this oldest, deepest form of words by modern technology.
Howard: Is it a chore to try to come up with rewards for patrons who support your poetry on Patreon?
ORNA: Not at all, because I’m just sharing what I want to create. One of the things I like about Patreon is the emphasis they put on your value as a creator.
Patreon very much encourages us to present the work and offer awards that are easy to deliver, that don’t take us away from our core creative activity. Often creators on Patreon start throwing in all sorts of things, as if they feel like the work itself is not enough.
What we do is enough for those patrons who like us, who are our fans and followers. And extra bonuses and rewards won’t attract those who don’t get what we do. Or make up for us offering work that is not attractive.
So I offered my rewards with that in mind: free ebooks, signed print books and postcards and a few specials. And something that you suggested, Howard.
Howard: You’ve mentioned that poetry involves a lot of work from the reader.
ORNA: I’m not sure if “work” is the right word, attention is what I mean. I always say it takes a great reader to make a great book, a great poem. You can’t have a poem that works without a reader who gets it.
A reader can interpret a poem quite differently from the original intentions of the poet, but there has to be that moment of insight, of clarity, of experiencing the world at a different level to the ordinary, the everyday, the mundane, for poetry to happen.
The two must come together. That moment of connection, of two imaginations meeting: that’s poetry.
In order for that to happen, attention has to be paid to the words, yes, and also to the spaces between the words. A good reader is aware that a good poem is always more than the sum of its words, and is attentive to those openings.
Howard: People like being entertained on their devices in a passive way. Is it harder to find people with the attention span for poetry in these times?
ORNA: I’d put it the other way around. Poetry can hold our attention at a deeper level than surface distractions and so is infinitely more rewarding than mindless surfing, or the manufactured infotainment of the “news” channels, which feel more and more like gossip columns these days.
A poem, for the most part, is a short form text that asks for less time commitment than almost any other form of reading. So it’s not about attention span, or time, it’s about a quality of attention.
Those of us who read poetry make time for poetry because it’s important to us. Part of its reward is that we’re less likely to be pulled about by the junk distractions that are so prevalent in modern life, that, like junk food, leave us with a horrible mental aftertaste if we overdo them.
Of course there are times when we want a fast and forgettable hit of celebrity gossip but equally, there are times when only poetry will do.
Howard: You’re Irish, and there is a long tradition of Irish poetry. Do you feel an ancestral calling?
ORNA: Yes I think I do. I grew up in a tiny village in rural Ireland where daily life hadn’t changed much for many centuries and storytelling, poetry, and song were part of everyday life. At a get-together, house party or in the pub, you’d be called on for a party piece and if you couldn’t sing, then you’d have to have a story or what they called a recitation.
There were remnants still of a bardic culture, where being a poet was a job. Poets were paid essentially to big-up a local clan leader, and big-up his ancestors, so you got long poems about his good looks and how many cows he had, and how much land he had, and how much people loved him, and how many of his enemies he had slain.
Antiquarians translated these ancient poems from the Irish language in the 18th and 19th centuries, so when (most of) Ireland became an independent country in 1920, there was this understanding that the poet was central to society. We were taught to honor the old Irish ways in school, so I feel very linked to all of that and, of course, I love the Irish poets who are producing stunning work today. Writing, and all the language arts, are very much part of the Irish identity. You can’t shut us up.
The other tradition I belong to is the feminist tradition, that of woman speaking up for herself, breaking silences, telling her own story, and finding her place.
Finding a place in a tradition that was dominated by “Great Irish Writers”, all dead, white, males, many of them Nobel prizewinners who turn up everywhere in Ireland, from the national library to T-towels in the kitchen.
For my generation, the word “woman” and the word “poet” were almost magnetically opposed and so for us, just giving ourselves permission to write as poets at all was significant. Self-publishing faces the same challenge, that of having to choose yourself, even though there are no shortage of people who’d have you feel you shouldn’t.
Poetry On Patreon: Goals
Howard: What are your goals for this poetry on Patreon page?
ORNA: I’m not sure whether this is possible, but my goal is to earn four figures a month from poetry. Not a life-changing amount of money, certainly, not enough to feed a family or put a roof over your head, certainly not in London (laughs!), but more than most poets expect to make from their work. My lowest reward is $2 so I would need 500 people who wanted to receive a poem a month from me in order to make that possible.
It’s not going to happen overnight. I see it as something that’s going to build over time. The thing about my poetry is, it’s been very private but I’ve been working on going public with it now for a while. I have been doing haiku and other poems on Instagram, with a haiku or other poem accompanying a photograph of some image that induced a moment of creative presence for me that day.
I like to capture the image in words as well as picture. It brings the scene alive for me at another level, adds dimension to the photograph. And now Patreon.
Howard: A year from now, what do you hope to have accomplished for yourself and also for the larger poetry community by putting your poetry on patreon?
I’d love to have hit the financial goal by then. I have the goal but I don’t have real control over when (whether?) it will be hit. It may seem strange to yoke poetry and finance together in this way but in our society, money is how we express value. It’s all very well to have Instagram likes and Twitter followers and all of that, but money tells a truer story.
If I reach the goal, I’ll publish a guidebook around what I’ve learned about how to build a readership as a poet in this way.
It was actually poetry that got me started me as a digital self-publisher. When I first heard about self-publishing, I thought, well, I’ll give it a go with poetry because not very many people read poetry, and those who do tend to be forgiving, so if I make a mess of this, they’ll be tolerant. I put a pamphlet of ten poems up on Amazon and, lo and behold, people started to buy it. I was stunned. Before that, I had to force-feed my poems to people! (laughs)
That really started the whole thing for me. I went on to publish fiction and then non-fiction, and to found ALLi (the Alliance of Independent Authors). It all came out of that experience of people actually paying to read my poetry. It was revolutionary for me.
Poetry is undoubtedly on the rise and people power is rocking the genre, taking it off the rarefied pages of subscription magazines and review pages into the streets, and pubs, and festivals, and social media.
And now we have this new kind of patronage. No more having to praise the cows or bloodthirsty of the local leader! Do people care enough about poetry to pay for it in this way? We’ll see.
For as little as $2 a month, you can become a poetry patron and receive books and other bonuses and exclusive poetry written just for you.