'Money is a kind of poetry,' but poetry is not a kind of money

A counter-economy of publishing in the era of budget-cuts

Art by Lian Lederman

A few years ago I was teaching a class on poetry and politics when my students got angry with me.  I had just laughed at their stated ambition to make money writing poetry.  My laughter, they informed me — in no uncertain terms — meant that I did not take them or their work seriously.  That day’s lesson plan fell aside as I told them about the (im)balance sheet of Tinfish Press, about doing one’s life’s work while losing buckets of money at it.  And, hardest of all to fathom, why such a thing might be worthwhile.

One summer I talked my way onto a panel at the Hawai`i Book and Music Festival in Honolulu.  I was under a tent, up on stage with some other publishers, one of whom began talking about how he’d done a print run of 60,000 books.  I heard myself responding that at Tinfish we do print runs of 100 to 300 chapbooks and consider that what we’re doing is pretty important. 

The new president of the University of Missouri, Timothy Wolfe, is a businessman by trade (though his parents were college professors, which surely qualifies him for something).  Recently, he made one of his first decisions.  He is closing the University of Missouri Press.  On firing ten employees, who had heard nothing of it beforehand, President Wolfe was quoted as saying that administrators “take seriously our role to be good stewards of public funds, to use those funds to achieve our strategic priorities and re-evaluate those activities that are not central to our core mission.”

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