Back in April, when I spent a week in Grand Forks, North Dakota, as a poet, I announced my goal to touch 1% of the city's total population, or 500 people, with my work during my time there.
I proceeded to spend my time around performing at Conduit Theatre's Word Parlor and ArtSee just writing for folks at a coffee shop, talking to local artists in galleries, and singing Karaoke until 4am with local actors. It felt great. It felt like community.
It also felt like about 100 poems, total, which is still averaging an impressive 20 a day but not near the 500 goal.
But I am sneaky.
The artist I ditched a lot of my poetry writing duties to hang with was Adam Kemp, Grand Fork's resident ornery Brit, a counter-culture community artist whose parting gift to me was a street sign he'd vandalized/improved, which now hangs in my room. And Adam, as it happened, has been working on an interactive exhibition space at Third Street Gallery, where he pinned two of my poems to a huge artwork designed to be co-created with the city (or 'defaced', to use his terminology).
Normally, each poem I write is seen by more than just the person I write for. About half of the poems I write are explicitly for and about other people, and lots of folks stop and don't get a poem but read what I've written for others. But, while it's hard to quantify how many people will see poems framed in houses or posted on fridges, on June 4th Adam's gallery boasted its 500th participant working on the collaborative mural.
And that's how, by making friends and drinking coffee and just art-ing in good company in a new city, I snuck my poetry into the lives of over 1% of the population of Grand Forks, North Dakota.
Special thanks to Jared Fladeland and Conduit Theatre for bringing me out, and I look forward to coming back!
Up in the Frozen North to headline my friend Jared's Word Parlor, a spoken word night, I decided to do a little demographic research. Turns out Grand Forks, North Dakota's third largest city, has a population just over 50,000. And that got me thinking...
1% of that is just 500. I'm here for 5 days. If I can write and perform for 100 people a day, I can make poetry for 1% of an entire city.
Why? We often talk about the reach and impact of art in communities. About who has access to it and who it is *for*. Part of my joy with RENT Poet is the unconventional people I write for on the street and the satisfaction of getting to know them and validate them through collaborating on art in that moment. The grassroots nature of the practice lets me be a mirror, a toolbox, in any given community. I have talked about the work as analogous to a fortune teller or shaman - a guide that just helps people see what they already know. That, itself, is a healing art.
My friend Jared talks about four crucial elements in art-making: effort, risk, momentum, joy. This is a way to maximize all four - to 'game-ify' my time here with a challenge, to myself and to the community, and to try to build momentum for my stay. By attempting to make connections, and the resulting poems, with even 1% of the city's population in one week, I hope to break through the glass box of the art and literary world and make really populist, red blooded poetry that touches the lives of a significant number of residents of freaking Grand Forks, North Dakota.
Here's the plan of attack:
1. Tonight I have a booth at ArtSee, a big art festival that attracts about 300 people. I will be writing there and have cards for commissions I can write later and mail folks at home. The way this works, I will count couples and groups as multiple people if they jointly commission a piece or commission it for each other, but I have to write or perform for each person I can count.
2. I have a residency at Urban Stampede coffee shop through the week and will be writing for folks the whole time there.
3. On Sunday, I'm going invite people to turn up to the coffee shop for covert gift making and giving of the literary variety. It's my happening/immersive theatre-oriented way of teaching a class. I want to explore bringing strangers together to write not only with but *for* one another.
4. The main event! On Monday I'm going to work to pack out The Word Parlor close to its 100 person capacity! I have a 20 minute set and close out the night, and I'll be writing before and after.
Photocredit Alex Wiske
It's almost the end of January 2015 and we've just had the State of the Union address. Time for the State of the Poet.
The New Year has kicked off with lots of excitement. First, I signed a contract with Dollar Shave Club to write weekly Pop Culture Haikus that, holy smokes, will provide a regular rent-paying source of income from poetry! And what was the secret to getting 'signed'? Just sitting out on the street on a Friday night, writing poems for passersby, having conversations, giving hugs, telling stories, being part of the night. These weekly haikus will cover new releases in film, tv, and music, with occasional asides to do things like lampoon the Superbowl ads. 21st Century Poet, selling out hard, fast, deep. Paying rent.
Speaking of rent, the other big huge major change has been moving to a new place, which will be the headquarters for our Production (not-a-)Company, Liminal LA! It's an old craftsman right by USC, which is either 'Downtown convenient' or 'in the hood', depending on your chosen lens. It has three major perks:
More things in the works, but this is the foundation for what promises to be a highly poetic and hopefully debaucherous 2015.
I keep trying to find good ways to talk comprehensively or cohesively about the 5,000 projects I have going on at any given moment. I liked the videos I did during RENT Poet, so here's a crack at another one!
Infrequent 'I promise I won't spam you' messages about all the mad art I'm doing.
SIGN UP HERE!
Thus, dear friends, ends September, the month of RENT Poet. The final standing?
I won't know properly until I get the Patreon check, because their system won't let me see people's caps. But I would estimate that my work writing poetry earned me:
Oh man oh man o man.
I've learned a lot about what makes an event successful, how to make a rapid and successful sales pitch, how to engage in effective social media outreach and fundraising online, how to read people, and how to create instant connection and rapport. It's been a learning experience in carrying a project through from idea to successful execution.
And I keep refining. In this last weekend, I changed my sign to be shorter, more pointed, and contain an explicit statement: 'average donation $10'. This recommendation from an old friend suddenly saw me writing 2/3 the number of poems for 2-3 times what I was making before, all through the power of suggestion rather than strict pricing. I feel a little shady doing this. The average price, when you leave it up to people, seems to be about $5. But then, there are a few letter-writers and poets who explicitly write $5 poems and websites like Fiverr.com. Maybe these are swaying people to value this kind of work at $5, so my not-so-subtle manipulation of prices is perhaps not combatting a natural order but merely replacing expectations built by other institutions. And, when I say average is $10, folks don't want to be average and I wind up writing a lot of $12-$15 poems. I still feel a little guilty, but I think it's probably just a piece of properly valuing myself as an artist and proclaiming that my work has value.
There are a few plans in the work for next month - part of me wants to get the jump on Nanowrimo, National Novel Writing Month, and write a novel. For fun, of course, and the challenge, rather than profit. The idea of having a public goal that my networks hold me accountable to is incredibly effective. I also want to learn more about publishing, because it seems like a thing, and is not something I know anything about.
I've also been talking with a few friends about creating an artist's collective/live-work space that would finance itself through events. And Bike Odyssey LA has a performance on the 19th that will mark my biggest and best artistic funding, from the National Endowment for the Arts itself, through the City of Long Beach. And I DO want to take RENT Poet, which has invitations (paid and unpaid) from various folks over the next two months, and see if I can get on the right event lists to make paid appearances at weddings and bar mitzvahs. Maybe it cheapens the 'grit' of the street poetry element, but if I could regularly pay my rent through poetry...well, then, I may be a dancing monkey, but I will also be a working artist.
One thing seems certain - art begets art. I'm convinced of the value of the project by the connections, the tangential hustles, the sheer time I've had this month to create and work on monetizing that creation.
A million thanks to all of you for your support with the project, it has meant the world. Weirdly, having a bunch of Facebook likes has translated in the best way into feeling like what I am doing is being seen and appreciated. I had a friend who I hadn't talked to in 5 years reach out and say she quit her job to be a writer and part of the courage came from seeing this project. I've re-connected with many more old friends, even old flames. It's been art as connection, as a little global village. And I like this village we live in.
A few media shares:
I'm ecstatic to have this video below - the complete process, from start to finish, ordering and writing a poem, from this great tattoed and handlebar mustachioed gentleman who stopped by at WeHo Reads. He was also the one who gave me the fake mustache! He came to watch his friend, poet Nicelle Davis (who appears in the second half of the video) and wound up commissioning a poem first.
I'm also really happy to share a couple poems by Jolett Lopez, the Junior Rent Poet I met at the Frogtown Art Walk and who had her first gig on Wednesday at a community meeting. Her typewriter ran out of ink partway through, so these are hand-written, but I think the first is profound and the second is such a smart, teasing piece. She is 9 years old and her parents, as I understand it, are immigrant street vendors. So proud.