Delighted & Humbled: The Poet as Entrepreneur

 

There is something that fuels every entrepreneur or artist, a compelling desire to create, whether it’s a song, a poem, a device or a solution, it’s is a driving force and I think we all want that moment when what we imagine is realized. To touch a portion of humanity in some way is, I imagine, intoxicating and goes beyond monetary success or public accolades.

Michelle Chaffee, “Prince; The Consummate Entrepreneur” (LinkedIn, April 22, 2016)

The article “Prince; The Consummate Entrepreneur,” posted by Michelle Chaffee (founder & CEO of the homewares brand Älska) to her LinkedIn page on the April 22 this year, following the singer’s death the day before, has had more than 128,000 views, but was hardly unique in its sentiments or promptness. Entrepreneur magazine published three online features the same day, and at least four on the artist since, including: “Remembering Prince: What the Purple One Can Teach You About Creativity,” “Prince’s Unique Brand of Trustworthy Leadership,” and “Model Yourself After Prince for the Best in Business and Life”. However ambivalent we might feel about the appropriation of a beloved artist – whose “passion for producing what he believed in and pushing boundaries rivals that of Steve Jobs or Bill Gates,” according to Chaffee – the celebration of “creative entrepreneurship” is now a dominant trope of mainstream economic discourse and policy. In the UK, the arts agenda set out by New Labour, from 1997, has been essential to developments reinforced by the party’s “Creative Britain” manifesto in 2010. Historian Robert Hewison explains the logic behind the British government’s great cultural intervention:

Creative Britain needed a creative economy in order to ensure the continuous innovation on which growth depended. This would be served by a “creative class” whose occupation was the production of signs and symbols that could be consumed in commodified form. Creative Britain would be populated by young and eager people, who, in spite of their techno-savvy, clung to the romantic image of the struggling artist, whose individualism would make the breakthrough that justified their insecurities and self-exploration.

Despite funding cuts by succeeding coalition and conservative governments, the legacy of Creative Britain persists in celebrations of culture linked to the 2012 London Olympics or the British Council’s “Creativity is Great” campaign, launched in 2014. Earlier this year, the Department for Culture, Media & Sport valued Britain’s so-called “creative industries” at almost £10 million ($14m) an hour, or more than £84 billion ($120b) per year. Amid such quantifiable success, Hewison’s searing critique in Cultural Capital: The Rise and Fall of Creative Britain is one of several beginning to ask more difficult questions about the legacy of what former Prime Minister Tony Blair sold as “a golden age for the arts”.

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The more the language of creative industry seems to surround us, the harder it is to avoid wondering what implications this might have for the poetry industry in particular. In this, we might feel provoked by a kneejerk cringe at a phrase like “poetry industry,” or a more general urge to claim or reclaim a space for poetry outside such economic complicities, with the strangely reassuring mantra of there being “no money in it”. On the other hand, we might also be piqued by the possibility that poets could very well be ideal members of the “creative class,” described by Hewison as clinging “to the romantic image of the struggling artist,” working towards individual breakthroughs, finally justifying the “insecurities and self-exploration” with which poets often identify.

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Returning to the initial provocation around entrepreneurship, our first question might whether lowly, struggling poets are in any real danger of being mistaken for models of business acumen, or to the same extent as an artist with Prince’s commercial power. “Can Artists Be Entrepreneurs?” a headline in Forbes magazine asked last year and confidently answered, “Absolutely”:

Contrary to the stereotype of “starving artists” who’ve given up hope of life’s comforts, a burgeoning category of creative entrepreneurs are building wealth, creating jobs and becoming a major force in national and global economies.

For poets or readers of poetry, one response might be that wealth-building, sustainable job-creation, and the idea of “major forces” in the global economy sounds far more applicable to the digital media, music, and film industries celebrated in the government’s £10 million-an-hour press release. Helpfully, just last month, Forbes published another article on “The Millennial Entrepreneur Capturing the Spirit of Her Generation With Poetry”. 26-year-old Samantha Jayne, we’re told, posts poems and illustrations inspired by “things that people can relate to” on her Instagram and Tumblr accounts – which had over 100k followers even before the Forbes feature. She also recently published a debut collection, entitled, Quarter Life Poetry: Poems for the Young, Broke and Hangry. So, there are certain poets, at least, who, like Samantha Jayne, “see making money as a way to make what I really want.”

 

In this regard, we shouldn’t be surprised to find other business thinkers applying the Prince treatment to poets more generally. In an essay on “The Poetry of Business” for The Startup Garden, Tom Ehrenfield makes direct comparisons:

Essentially, entrepreneurs are people who are creating value by inventing or discovering new ways to connect people, ideas and organizations to one another – in much the same way that poets surprise and inspire us with their ability to make the world new through language. […] The art of trusting the intuitive leap and of creating meaning in a place were it didn’t exist before – and then communicating that to an audience – are fundamental to both.

Ehrenfield offers the example of Rimbaud, who “interestingly […] dropped poetry to become an entrepreneur, dealing guns in North Africa.” This makes sense, he says, citing tech exec David Levine, since “there is a violence in [Rimbaud’s] poetry, as there is a violence inherent in entrepreneurialism.” Robert Smith, of the Aberdeen Business School, makes a similar case in an article on “Entrepreneurship and Poetry,” published last year in the Journal of Small Business and Enterprise Development, suggesting:

Entrepreneurship with all its eulogizing and hero worship should be the perfect subject matter for the poet because poetry is ultimately about articulating power and passion in a memorable way.

The example of Rimbaud raises a question of historical specificity, perhaps. The modern use of “entrepreneur” – in reference to “One who undertakes an enterprise; one who owns and manages a business; a person who takes the risk of profit or loss” (OED) – only enters English from French in the very late nineteenth-century – which is to say, after Rimbaud himself had given up poetry for other ventures. But if that century still seems, more broadly, to have given rise to modern figures of the self-made poet and self-made businessperson – historically intermingled between the rise of the publishing industry and industrial capitalism – we might consider other candidates for the role of archetypical poet-entrepreneur.

A 2014 article for Techcrunch advises start-up founders to “channel your inner Walt Whitman”; and Whitman becomes a recurring prop in such contexts, especially in American business journals. In March this year, even before the headline re-discovery of Whitman’s guide to “Manly Health,” the Investor’s Business Daily published a lengthy feature on the poet’s life and work, the most striking aspect of which is how little effort the author feels required to make to link Whitman’s breaking of rules and dismissal of criticism more directly with business principles. At this point, like the comparison between Prince and Steve Jobs, such analogies are apparently self-evident. The trickier question might be to what extent Whitman’s celebration of non-conformity (or Emersonian self-reliance, or Wordsworthian egoism) forms part of our shared inheritance. In other words, to what extent can we plausibly deny that the ideals of contemporary poetic practice are bound up in those admired by contemporary business practice? Or should we deny it at all? What is to be lost in letting any remaining stigma of the “careerist,” brazenly entrepreneurial poet fall away, and admitting our debt to savvy writers like Whitman, who self-published and self-promoted expanding editions of Leaves of Grass, flogging it door to door, even writing pseudonymous reviews of it himself? If nothing else, it would certainly be on-message with Creative Britain.
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The bigger question is one of poetry’s economic autonomy – or the extent to which producers of poetry identify their labour with the wider production and circulation of goods and capital. In an article from The Atlantic early last year, William Deresiewicz makes a broad, historical case for “the death of the artist and the birth of the creative entrepreneur”. The rise of modern capitalism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, he argues, effected a shift from “craft” to “art” – or from artisan to solitary genius (à la Wordsworth or Whitman) – followed by the professionalisation of creative practice in the twentieth century, and finally the rise of creative entrepreneurship in the twenty-first. After recounting this history matter-of-factly, Deresiewicz offers a sobering punch line:

When works of art become commodities and nothing else, when every endeavor becomes “creative” and everybody “a creative,” then art sinks back to craft and artists back to artisans—a word that, in its adjectival form, at least, is newly popular again. Artisanal pickles, artisanal poems: what’s the difference, after all? So “art” itself may disappear: art as Art, that old high thing. Which—unless, like me, you think we need a vessel for our inner life—is nothing much to mourn.

Many cultural theorists agree that this is precisely our situation, rendering the question of whether we “identify” our poetic production with the production of pickles or any other commercial goods either moot or a matter of self-delusion. Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s classic conception of the “culture industry” defined mass cultural products by their relationship to mass consumption. Leaving aside the question of whether poetry sales or readership have ever qualified as “mass”, Adorno’s distinction between a “mainstream” culture industry and what might be thought of as a more “authentic” avant-garde is less a matter of commercial value, than it corresponds to a distinction between art-commodities that serve primarily to reassure consumers in illusions of their own autonomy and, on the other hand, art which challenges such positions. In the 70 years since, the process of commodification has been reassessed as having advanced to the point at which, in Frederic Jameson’s words, “aesthetic production […] has become integrated into commodity production generally”. Or, as Nicholas Brown has argued, “What differentiates Adorno’s culture industry from the self-representation of our contemporary moment is that the art-commodity now has no other.” As Deresiewicz fears, the possibility of un-commodified “art as Art” is gone.

Introducing first-year undergraduates to Adorno, maybe ten years ago, I remember a particular student’s vocal resistance to what others in the room also saw as a kind of snobbery in Adorno’s critique. At one point, this student began quoting Radiohead lyrics to us – from “My Iron Lung,” I believe – as proof of the band’s self-awareness of their market complicity. As with Prince, the frequent discussions of economics and creative autonomy around a band like Radiohead offer a handy case study for considering poetry’s market relations. The emphasis on Iron Lung’s irony or Radiohead’s general meta-knowingness is a common theme, as seen again in the hype around their recent album. A Guardian survey of the band’s “unconventional” approach to releases, points predictably to Kid A, from 2000, as the first of their albums to be “made in reaction to the music industry rather than in conjunction with it.” Another bit of recent Guardian clickbait, on “Radiohead’s corporate empire,” points out the playful names of the band’s registered businesses, including Random Rubbish LTD, Unreliable LTD, and even LLLP LLP. Again, such wry knowingness seems to allow for claims to artistic integrity. Although Radiohead has “the sort of financial structure you would expect to be more associated with Silicon Valley entrepreneurs,” Ian Mack, a music business tutor at the British and Irish Modern Music Institute weighs in:

I look at their business structure and it doesn’t make me say, “Oh my gosh” […] Does it remove the romance from their music? I don’t think financial structures come into any musician’s head when they sit down at a piano, let’s put it that way. They can split the business side from the creative side.

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Thinking through these examples from other creative industries, I realise I’m skirting around what we might call a small identity crisis more specific to contemporary poetry. As a gesture towards a bigger, perhaps more uncomfortable conversation, we can at least begin picking at some of the knots into which we tie ourselves (or very well contradict ourselves) – and consider poetry’s susceptibility to entrepreneurial logic, even when we resist its uncomfortable language. The identity crisis I’m thinking of is related to the claim made on Radiohead’s behalf – that we’re somehow able to split the business from the art. Even when rejecting such a split on moral grounds, the Adornian binary remains tempting. To either side, the only apparent options are either to accept the marketisation of poetry, reconciling ourselves to a pragmatic (if not explicitly “entrepreneurial”) approach to its business, or else persist in claiming a space for poetry outside such machinations, as a true and mostly moneyless art. Or else, by a “third way,” we embrace the doublethink required to separate artistic labour from the dirty work.

Most poets will already have their own examples, but one obvious manifestation of this split-logic is in discussions around self-promotion, and especially the “rules” of online self-promotion, whether framed in terms of etiquette or effectiveness. Last April, the American science-fiction novelist Delilah Dawson published a widely-shared blog post, entitled: “Please shut up: Why self-promotion as an author doesn’t work.” The very next day, responding to a flurry of comments and debates on social media, Dawson published “Wait, Keep Talking: Author Self-Promo That Actually Works”. A few days later, the British poet and editor Josephine Corcoran followed with “Poetry and Self-Promotion” on her own blog, writing: “I agree that there is something extremely distasteful about the idea of self-promotion.” Nevertheless, Corcoran continues: “Of course, there is a difference between blatant self-promotion and establishing an online presence.” Without wading into these complex debates, we can see the impulse behind the fine distinctions between what “works” and what is “distasteful” almost every time the topic arises, or where many feel compelled to announce, frame, or apologise for “shameless” self-promotion.

Another instance relates to pay. Again, without entering the debate around festival or workshop or publication fees, we can see arguments adopting both the logic and language of marketised labour in order to make their case. Timothy Yu concluded a recent (and apparently well paid for) piece on for the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blog with the idealistic suggestion that we should be working towards an economy in which poetry’s “social good” is its own reward:

The demand that artists should be paid directly for individual works is an acknowledgement that in a market economy, the purchase of a work of art as a commodity is the best (perhaps only) way to mark art’s social value.  But if poetry is no longer part of such an economy (and hasn’t been for a long time), then maybe we can stop thinking about poems as a commodity (and an unprofitable one at that) and start thinking about poetry as a social good, and poets themselves as worthy of social investment.

Yu’s vision sits in stark contrast with that of British poet and comedian Kate Fox, who wrote on her blog last year:

Professional poet is a job like any other and when our employment rights (such as they are) are trampled on then acceptance of it has a negative knock-on effect on the whole ecology of freelance creatives and potential future creatives in all fields who also have to fight these battles again and again.

From yet another side, against those who resist such language (or the use of “creative” as a noun, especially), we have articles like this from the Guardian, last July, offering a guide to “Creative wealth: how artists can become inventive entrepreneurs”. Here, the starving artist myth is put down to

… a lingering snobbery associated with the idea of commercialising art, possibly because some of the most revered artists were only discovered after they had died. It may simply be that these hungry geniuses were not all that great at marketing.

And yet, as Hewison argues, Creative Britain’s creative economy depends in part on “young and eager people” and not least poor poets clinging to “the romantic image of the starving artist,” who “are persuaded that they are free because of the transformative nature of their work [which] appears to give them personal autonomy”. It’s telling that Karl Marx himself, in a draft chapter for Capital, wasn’t immune to the myth:

Milton … was an unproductive worker. In contrast to this, the writer who delivers hackwork for his publisher is a productive worker. Milton produced Paradise Lost in the way that a silkworm produces silk, as the expression of his own nature. Later on he sold the product for £5 and to that extent became a dealer in a commodity.

Again, it’s the (pre-radio) Radiohead argument: the happy split between the business and creative labour, ignoring the fact that it’s never so simple in thinking, language, or practice. Other critics have begun making similar arguments. In her bracing study of Literature and the Creative Economy, Sarah Brouillette rightly suggests:

We need to challenge the model of the [author as] asocial or antisocial flexible individualist by stressing that, though it is disseminated as a natural given, it is in fact historically produced, highly contested, and contingent.

Dave Beech, likewise, in his recent book on Art and Value, even when claiming art as an “exceptional” category of labour, is still adamant that “It would be a mistake to think that writing is a type of productive activity that is exempt from the capitalist mode of production.”

It doesn’t necessarily follow that we throw our hands up in surrender to the market, but nor are we redeemed by presumptions of autonomy. Not only is there money in poetry after all, but the poetry industry circulates a great deal of cultural capital in other forms as well – in the complex value of publications, prizes, contacts, scholarships, jobs, of course, but also and especially in the practical, but very selectively shared opportunities related to the making of poems, with which any sense of autonomy and the freedom “to make what I really want” is purchased. It’s almost too obvious to repeat that, in the longer term, there remain difficult conversations to be had within “professional poetry.” These go beyond the split-logic hedging of bets regarding the extent to which the means of writing and reading poems overlap with the neoliberal market’s demands for a deeply personal stake in production and consumption. As a start, it might be good to be more uncomfortable.

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