Letter To A Poet

Dear Poet,
I pray that this finds you in good health. I am doing fine, thankful to the Lord for bringing rain. It has been overwhelmingly hot lately. So much has been happening on the poetry scene and I thought it would be wise if we had a little tête-à-tête regarding the same.
You and I love this art with all our hearts. It could in fact be all we both have. Many people want(ed) us to be something else but we chose to be poets, so we could live our lives to the fullest while doing what we love most. We both want to prosper since we spend so much time perfecting our poetry. However, lately things have started taking an interesting twist. I understand it could be out of the frustrations we beget in this industry; that we do not get monetarily appreciated for our work, or at least a majority of us. Of course every artiste needs to be compensated for the efforts they put into their artistry. There are no two ways about that.
But there are a few realities and logistics that we have to look into before coming out to demand for pay as poets. First of all, we need to stop comparing the Kenyan music industry with its poetry counterpart. Certainly, the height, age, weight and maturity of a 50 year old adult is far much different from that of a 10 year old child. The latter is barely through with basic education and is yet to find his identity. Music is a genre of art and poetry is different from it even though they are not far from each other, but the manner in which they are both showcased is evidently divergent. So we can’t start saying that we ought to be paid like musicians do because we are not competing on the same platform. Furthermore, music has been here for the longest time. Its market players have laid down organized systems that enable the art to pay well. Us poets, on the contrary, are still in our baby steps.
The idea of getting paid for our poetry is fantastic. All of us want to earn a living out of what we are doing. But before we get there, there are certain things we greatly need to consider;
How much are you worth as a poet?
It is easy to bash out at event organizers for charging entrance fee yet they do not at least issue you with fare but it is very hard to know how much you are worth. Of course, poets are expensive. Our work should be engraved in every Kenyan household. But who are you as a poet? Have you found an identity? Have you marked your target audience? Can they pay you? Have you mastered your art? How much would you want to get paid for a performance on average? Does your work have a long shelf life that people could always refer to it after ages? You measure your worth by the quality of your work. That should always be the first thing you ought to look at as an artiste. The last thing you should do is to compare yourself with the big names in the industry. They have their story. You have yours. They can be your mentors but they can never define your poetry. Always ask yourself, why did you begin writing and/or performing poetry? What did you want to achieve? Where are you now and where do you want to go with it?
The importance of networking
The best way to thrive in this industry is to know people. How do you do that? Attend events. Talk to everyone you can. This is part of investing in the art. Let people know you exist. Join poetry and art groups, all that you can. Participate in them. Be active on social media; facebook, twitter, blogs, etc. Have a website if possible. You must be accessible. You and your work. Your presence counts for many things. Do not be shy to ask for help whenever you need some in terms of bettering your work. It won’t kill your ego, just boosts your confidence. Ask for contacts, performance slots and information regarding future events. Initiate conversations with events organizers to learn what it takes to put up a poetry event. Share your work with friends and/or family. Be out there. Do not be afraid to learn. It’s the only way you can grow. Attend poetry workshops and submit your work for critiquing. Do not be flattered by fairy tale comments and applause. Let them never get into your head. It does not matter who has seen your work or where you have performed before even if it was for the president.
Learn the business of the art
If for example you want to venture into poetry seriously as to earn a living from it, you have to equip yourself with the fundamentals of business. After you have acquired an identity, still, money should be the last thing in your mind when you are beginning. In business, when you are just starting out, it takes a lot of time to gain ground. You have to incur losses in your accounts and take lots of risks. You must be a thinker, a brilliant one at that. Stop thinking that you can prosper only from performing in open mic events. That’s an unfortunate illusion. They may or may not afford to pay your fare. Do not bank on them. Approach corporates who may need your services and sell yourself well. Think of other ways you could use your poetry to earn money. It had better be good, friend. It had better be good.
Ask for advice from other business people who might not really be in the arts industry. Know what happens and how things are done when packaging an idea. You will never make it if you think you can do well with poetry events only. From my evaluation of them, that won’t happen in Kenya as at now. Poetry events are run by strict budgets. While you work hard to come up with good pieces, events organizers also spend sleepless nights to pitch up a venue and a stage that you will stand on.
Regardless, I agree that events that charge entry should also work hard to at least appreciate the poets by giving them fare. The tricky part with that is most events bring in less money than the organizers put in to pitch them up, so they end up with losses. That’s why it has been hard to appreciate poets in these events. It is not something I knew while I was still just a performing poet, but now that I am an organizer, I understand. In my position, this is the best advice I could give you who wants to earn from your poetry – think big. We have so many avenues and opportunities out here. It only depends on how high you stick your head, how smart you are willing to be and how much you are willing to sweat.
If it is a matter of dealing with contracts – if you have reached that stage, understand what it entails to sign one, the legalities behind working with such and the purpose for it. Never do things just for the sake. You won’t like where you will end.
Be knowledgeable and practise
You cannot afford to be ignorant. To help you form strong diction and imagery for your work, you MUST read others. Know what it takes to be a good writer or performer. Understand the world, its systems, and your surrounding. Know what’s happening; current affairs. Read all you can, and not poems only. Search for wisdom in all places. Most of us think that our talent is magical, that we will always produce the best work almost at will without nurturing our minds. Even the best footballers cannot play well if they do not put their bodies to task on a regular basis. Art is like a sport; the more you do it, the more you learn it, the wiser you become at it. Ignorance is very expensive. If as a poet you are expected to educate through your work and personality, then you must be educated first. And I didn’t say you acquire a Masters Degree in Literature. I don’t have one myself. Just have discipline.
Character sells you
Your attitude towards people really determines who will be willing to work with you. You might not agree with everyone all the time, but respect is paramount. Respect yourself and others will respect you. Who you are is what will come out when everything does not go according to plan. You must be very patient. That is a basic need for an artiste. Some people will take you for granted. Others will dupe you at the last moment. How compact you remain, not to break from such kind of frustrations, will help you a great deal at the present and in future. How importantly you take your art is how importantly people will take you. Be consistent. People should see your growth and you should feel it too. Take each step at a time. Goodness never rushes to go anywhere because it will always get to its destination. But most of all, be humble. You might be the best poet there is, but if you lack humility, you will only go as far as performing for yourself on the mirror. And do not confuse pride with aggressiveness.
We are all in one fight, the same army. The best way to win it is by coming together to bond and understanding one another. When we keep throwing stones at each other, the art suffers, we suffer more. No team has ever made it divided.
                                                                                                                                     With Lots Of Love,

Post Author: Eric Onyango Otieno

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