Audit: The promise of professionalism by J.T. Welsch

I.

Professionalism is a dull, ugly word: but it means dull, ugly things, a perversion of the higher activities of man, of art, literature, religion and philosophy.
          – Arthur Clutton-Brock, Times Literary Supplement, 1918

In March of this year, the Jerwood Foundation hosted an event at London’s Free Word Centre, asking, “Are Poets the New Creative Entrepreneurs?” Anthony Anaxagorou, one of four poets on the panel, had tweeted: “This will be really helpful for anyone interested in making a living as a poet, or thinking about poetry in more entrepreneurial ways.” Waiting for the roundtable to start, I heard two young writers in the row behind me discussing Jack Canfield’s business handbook, The Success Principles: How to Get from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be (2004). I thought of the time my salesman father took me, aged fourteen or so, to a conference room in a hotel, where someone explained how much money we could make peddling magazine subscriptions through their foolproof system. I thought of people dismissing ‘Creative Writing’ as a pyramid scheme, predicated on endless growth to sustain book sales and teacher-poets’ salaries. I thought of Randall Jarrell, complaining to Elizabeth Bishop in 1956: “Who’d have thought the era of the poet in the gray flannel suit was coming?”

Anxieties around professionalisation are nothing new to poetry, but the Jerwood event felt different. Its title and mere existence suggested something had shifted in the way we approach the business of poetry – which is to say, simply the stuff necessary to writing that isn’t writing itself. Watching the speakers enter, posing for official photos and perching with varying degrees of discomfort while microphones were clipped to lapels (and no grey flannel in sight), it was hard to imagine the question about creative entrepreneurship being formulated in quite that way a few years ago. It’s not that everyone now agrees on the answer – another panellist, Inua Ellams, was quick to say he “resents” such labels – but it was clear that the terms of debate were changing. The eager, standing-room-only crowd for a frank discussion of something like ‘professional development’ clearly marked a growing need for practical career advice.

In that regard, it felt symptomatic of a wider shift that Alison Gerber examines in her recent book, The Work of Art: Value in Creative Careers (2017). “In recent decades,” Gerber writes, “artistic practice has undergone a sort of occupational turn, with artists today experiencing their practices as ‘serious’, ‘work,’ a ‘job,’ a ‘profession’ – this despite the minority of artists who make a living at art work.” The phrasing of this definition feels both recognisable and refreshing. It is artists’ experience of their practice that has altered, along with the language used when discussing these things. As Anaxagorou suggests, it depends as much on “thinking about poetry in more entrepreneurial ways”. Although the event’s question was about poets in general, the discussion showed that what we think of (or fear) as the professionalisation of the field will always be a matter of individual experience. Auden wasn’t wrong when he wrote in The Dyer’s Hand (1962) that “writers have no impersonal professional interests”. Our professional interests are absolutely personal.

The changing language around professionalisation is both a symptom and driver of changing realities, with real effects. The word ‘professionalisation’ (like most -isations) is still mostly invoked in a negative sense, conjuring a top-down process or policing of behaviours. In a 2016 essay from ARTnews, for instance, the critic and curator Daniel Palmer decries “the hyper-professionalization of the emerging artist”, pitting “conformity” against a notion of artistic “freedom”. Similar complaints are common in academia. Leonard Cassuto, in ‘The Problem of Professionalization’ (The Chronicle of Higher Education, 2015), argues that “professional conformity in graduate school stifles the creative soul”. In these clichés, they parrot Arthur Clutton-Brock (in the epigraph above), wringing his hands over ‘Professionalism in Art’ a century ago.

More positive views, on the other hand, foreground an image of savvy individuals – “poets who are successfully negotiating their creativity, artistry and integrity with commercial considerations”, in the language of the Jerwood event flyer. Often, the emphasis is on a more straightforward definition of the professional poet as one who earns money in connection with their writing. Debris Stevenson began her comments on the Jerwood panel by saying her aim was always to make poetry a full-time career. Kate Fox, a leading campaigner for poets’ fair pay, also reiterated sentiments that she has written about elsewhere, underlining the importance of viewing “professional poet as a job like any other”.

But as Gerber makes clear, the “occupational turn” is more experiential than financial. Those who are able to make a living from art will always be in a small minority. The difference between either resisting ‘professionalisation’ or identifying as a ‘professional’ poet in a more fluid sense seems to be whether we experience this as an active or passive shift, as something either structurally imposed or conscientiously adopted. Whether the reflex is to bristle or brighten at the evolving language of these debates, a clearer focus on its practical effects will help us understand the new situation it creates. Alongside questions of pay, we might come to view poetry’s occupational turn as less a threat to creative integrity than a reflection of the need to widen its opportunities.

II.

Professionally, the bird sings
Through fight or love, the new leaved willow
Bends, the children swing in blue
And green, and the wet clouds extend.
          – Geoffrey Grigson, ‘The Professionals’ (1941)

Jo Bell and Jane Commane’s How to Be a Poet: A Twenty-First Century Guide to Writing Well (Nine Arches, 2017) was published late last year, a few months before the Jerwood event. Again, its mere existence is another marker of a cultural and linguistic shift. Although many poetry guidebooks conclude with a few tips on publishing, How to Be a Poet is unique in the degree to which its advice extends into a range of professional concerns. As Jo Bell explains in the first chapter, the book’s title reflects its dual purpose:

This project isn’t called How to Write a Poem or How to Get Your Poetry Published, though we’ll talk at some length about both. It isn’t called Get Rich Writing Poetry because nobody knows how to do that. We called our project How to Be a Poet because it’s not just a writing manual.

The first fifteen of the book’s thirty-three chapters make up the “writing manual” part, dealing with standard craft topics, such as form and editing. With these issues out of the way, chapter sixteen – “How to Explore the World of Poetry Magazines and Journals” – embodies Gerber’s occupational turn in its first sentence: “While these powerful ideas on poetry-writing percolate, let us take a little step in another direction and start to think about the ways in which poetry starts its journey out into the world.”

Pointedly avoiding jargon that we might associate with new “creative economy”-speak, the tone throughout How to Be a Poet achieves a delicate balance between the personal and professional. “Much of this book is also about granting yourself permission”, we’re told in the opening pages, “equipping you with the ideas and knowledge that will help make your participation in poetry as an art form more fulfilling, life-enriching and creatively satisfying”. In the book’s second half, what could have been pitched as brass-tacks business advice is translated into self-help-like reassurances, regarding your work’s “journey” and “participating” in a poetry community.

To gauge this tonal shift over the past decade or so, we might compare Chris Hamilton-Emery’s 101 Ways to Make Poems Sell, published by Salt in 2006. From its title and self-description as “an insider’s guide to the poetry business”, Hamilton-Emery’s book is an anomaly among poetry guides in its unwavering attention to professional matters – adopting a tone those aspiring writers sat behind me might have recognised from Canfield’s Success Principles. “This book is about the business side of the poetry scene, about making sales and profits to fund literature in a sustainable way”, we’re told in the preface. “The only way forward is to learn some basic business and marketing skills, and to hustle for all you are worth.” The matters of craft that comprise the first half of How to Be a Poet are cordoned off in one line: “Let’s take all this as read.”

Although How to Be a Poet has similar chapters on ‘How to Build a Track Record’, and ‘On Money’, the tone is in stark contrast. “Your private success is the one that will sustain you”, Bell writes in ‘On Success’: “Sharing your work with a wider community is a further step. It gives you a chance to hear praise or useful feedback, and to contribute the same to the creative ecology of which you are a part.” Amidst these communal sentiments, ecology leaps out as a flash word of recent years, with creative work increasingly discussed in ways that attempt to reconcile art’s social and commercial preoccupations. In Kate Fox and Tamar Yoseloff’s 2015 report ‘Poetry and Spoken Word Artists Network Fees and Needs’, it comes up repeatedly, for example: “For most poets/spoken word artists, their work consists of an ecology of readings/performances and education work of some kind.” In revived debates around authors’ pay this summer, the word was pivotal in Philip Pullman’s rallying cry against publishers “acting without conscience and with no thought for the future of the ecology of the trade as a whole”.

As a euphemism for business-tainted words like ‘economy’ or ‘market’, ecology evokes a sense of social conscience, framing the arts as an organic system whose sustainability might be analogous to the natural environment’s. References to cultural or poetry ‘landscapes’ have a similar effect. It also echoes the ethically branded language of state-sponsored arts policy. In February 2011, for example, Ed Vaizey, then Conservative minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries, delivered a speech at the Royal Society entitled ‘The Creative Ecology’. “I want to take the opportunity today to make the case for the importance of the creative ecology,” he began, defining it as “an alliance between the subsidised and commercial arts; the professional and the voluntary arts; and the arts and the creative industries”. In 2015, a forty-page report on ‘The Ecology of Culture’, commissioned by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, offered another fuzzy explanation:

Culture is often discussed as an economy, but it is better to see it as an ecology, because this viewpoint offers a richer and more complete understanding of the subject. Seeing culture as an ecology is congruent with cultural value approaches that take into account a wide range of non-monetary values.

Mirroring ways in which ‘professionalisation’ is used to connote a negative view of structural changes that impinge on individual freedom, these ecological metaphors help make such matters palatable, through connotations of natural order and social responsibility. A hopeful view would be that, despite its fashionable use in policy intended to obscure economic realities, poets are better equipped than anyone to apply such rhetoric meaningfully. In a relatively short period, we have gone from Hamilton-Emery’s provocation that “the world of poetry can be a bear pit” (and Salt’s subsequent retreat from poetry hustling) to How to Be a Poet’s emphasis on “sharing your work with a wider community”. That doesn’t necessarily mean poets have become nicer or more community-spirited in that time. These buzzwords can be superficial, but we can help them be performative of changing attitudes. At the very least, they suggest ways in which professionalisation might be directed towards less individualistic ends.

III.

You that are sneering at my profession,
Haven’t you juggled a vast amount?
          – George Meredith, ‘Juggling Jerry’ (1859)

Later in The Work of Art, Alison Gerber describes the mentality behind art’s occupational turn as an “occupationally committed pose” or “the performance of occupational commitment”. Understanding professionalism as primarily an attitude or performance helps to account for the different reactions poets might have to it. It also makes it easier to link the linguistic shifts described above with changing resources around professional development, in so far as new language – as all poets know – soon effects new ways of being.

Another relevant definition of ‘professionalisation’ is that of a process by which an occupation comes to require specialist training – in other words, becoming a profession, as opposed to a trade or vocation. The rise of university creative writing programmes has occasioned plenty of debate regarding the role of formal qualifications, especially for poets. However, the focus on whether a Master’s in Creative Writing is the only route to professional status overlooks the proliferation of other training schemes over the past twenty years. Many of these programmes and mentorships place a notable emphasis on professional development.

The Complete Works project, for instance, founded by Bernardine Evaristo in 2005, promises “professional development” and “career support and advice” in its call for applications. The Jerwood Foundation’s own mentoring programme, run jointly with the Arvon Foundation since 2010, also highlights “professional development”, along with “specialist advice sessions with industry insiders”. New Writing North’s New North Poets mentorships, running since 2015, place a typical emphasis “on both the craft of writing and the professional skills necessary to a working poet”. Since 2016, Nine Arches Press has also run its mentorship scheme, Primers, with the Poetry School, for which How to Be a Poet might be read as a self-guided supplement.

The Poetry School has been the most prominent provider of poetry courses and mentorship outside higher education since 1997. However, the launch of their own MA in Writing Poetry with Newcastle University in 2015 acknowledges the growing demand for a balance of creative and professional support, in whatever form. Across commercial and funding-supported offerings, the expansion and diversification of available training must be central to any narrative of poetry’s professionalisation. Not only has it left other university writing programmes scrambling to incorporate better professional development, but collectively, these new schemes are reconfiguring our sense of the skills involved in poetry-making – and showing why access to them is so important.

IV.

I wrote my first poem, my first published poem, when I was eight and a half years old. […] from then on, I suppose, I’ve been a bit of a professional.
          – Sylvia Plath, BBC interview (1962)

The question of whether professionalisation has, on the whole, been good or bad for poetry might ultimately hinge less on our instinctive reactions to words like ‘entrepreneurship’ or ‘professionalisation’ than on the real opportunities such new language gives rise to. In the chapter ‘On Money’ from How to Be a Poet, Jo Bell takes an optimistic view, spelling out ways in which being professional (in the paid sense) might translate into a more inclusive poetry culture. “Ignore those who sniff at the jobbing poet”, she writes

If we subscribe to the idea that poets should be ‘above’ taking money for their art, then we perpetuate the idea that good writing should never be paid for. […] This is a bigger issue than your pay packet or mine. Poets of all classes and backgrounds need to be represented in our schools, our institutions and our publications.

Gerber makes a similar point in The Work of Art, linking diversity and professionalism in the visual arts, while highlighting an important paradox. “The requirement of the occupationally committed pose”, she argues, means “a low bar for entry”. In turn, “the ‘working artist’ identity is available to a broader and more diverse group than ever before”. We might think of Virginia Woolf’s suggestion (in ‘Professions for Women’) that “The cheapness of writing paper is, of course, the reason why women have succeeded as writers before they have succeeded in other professions” – and extend it to other social inequalities.

Engaging with (and re-shaping) the language of professionalisation – through the events or schemes above or books like How to Be a Poet – can help combat poetry’s historical biases by improving access to industry knowledge and skills. The Complete Works project makes this connection explicit, in its commitment to creative and professional development for black and Asian poets. The Jerwood’s Compton fellowships “are looking to identify and encourage those who may not normally consider applying for development opportunities, awards or prizes”. Nine Arches’ new Dynamo scheme, co-run with Writing West Midlands, is also “targeted at communities who are currently under-represented in poetry publishing and in contemporary poetry in general”. It’s worth noting that all of the programmes mentioned above are founded and/or run by women.

In this light, any attempt to separate supposedly crass professionalisation from supposedly serious political or poetical concerns should seem increasingly dubious. Access to skills is a social issue, and we should welcome a further blurring of lines between ‘professional’ acumen and ‘writing well’. Teaching people to write a cover letter, book proposal, or event budget, for instance, needn’t be entirely disconnected from writing poems. A retreat to aestheticism or other notions of poetry’s social autonomy has always been a mark of privilege. As Mark Banks argues in Creative Justice: Cultural Industries, Work and Inequality (2017), it’s too easy to fall back on false claims to meritocracy:

Perhaps now the best guarantee of success in creative arts education (and in the creative economy beyond) is not the possession of a ‘raw’ talent, but the ownership of an inherited ease and the capacity to expend a dispositional currency available only to a privileged few.

But new language and opportunities are helping to change the disposition of poetry more generally. More diverse support is already leading to more diverse writing. In turn, the variety of routes by which underprivileged writers might acquire a “dispositional currency” in the form of practical skills offers hope that the behaviours and markers of professionalism might be diversified. Rather than being opposed to political, ethical, or even aesthetic commitments, the widening of support for new poets is essentially progressive, even radical in its potential to challenge gendered, racialised, ageist, ableist, and other assumptions about which poses and performances are legitimised as ‘professional’. Though the experience is individual, poets collectively will determine the character of their profession. If new language is needed to move beyond either ‘entrepreneurship’ or the “bear pit”, we can make it. The more we’re able to acknowledge and discuss this shifting landscape, the better chance we’ll all have in sustaining it.

The Poetry Review 1083 with shadowJ.T. Welsch is a lecturer at the University of York, author of six chapbooks, and co-editor of Wretched Strangers (Boiler House, 2018). This essay was first published in The Poetry Review, 108:3, Autumn 2018. © The Poetry Review and the author.