The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.
Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made
is star-stuff too?
– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –
dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.
Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.
Thursday, 8 December 2011
a rant on being unemployable
My accountant rings. 'I have a word for you,' he says, in his Welsh accent. My immediate reaction is delight – sometimes friends and I do this for each other, to take our poetry off in a new way. 'Prevarication,' he offers.
Gob not connected to brain here. Naivety wins out over cynicism, as usual, too (plus in my defence I am immersed in something creative). I have already started to say 'Oh I'll see what I can do with a poem about that –' when the penny drops.
'Can I leave you with that then? And by the way when are you going to come to that rugby match?'
'When you come to a poetry reading, Steve.'
Yes, my accounts are well overdue. He's good, Steve, and we know each other well.
During my longish time living alone with my young daughter, two men became very significant in our fiscally-impoverished (but very rich in terms of lifestyle, interest and soulfood) lives in a rented wooden thatched house up a boulder-edged, beautiful and remote lane facing Dartmoor, quite a long way from a town, and a few miles from the nearest village: the mobile mechanic, Mike, who sorted out for very small sums my succession of interesting and impractical old Citroens, 2CVs and vans; and my accountant, without whom I wouldn't have been able to get by – in those days there was a Welfare State, and my lone-parenthood plus very low income from handmaking garments and footwear and no other kind of financial support qualified me for Family Credit help to feed and clothe E, and help towards the rent; but only on presentation of self-employed accounts from a bona fide accountant. The help much more than paid his bills.
In those days I had to drag in from the adjoining woodland and saw up my own logs before there was any heat in the house; and as I was working all the hours that my daughter was either at school or in bed that meant that it was an endless chore, and, this being Devon, the wood was usually damp. (However the beautiful thing about a Rayburn is that we did all our cooking on it, it heated the water, dried the clothes and the wet logs, allowed the dough to rise and warmed E's bedroom above it.)
Later, when I moved into part of the old farmhouse on the Buckland Abbey estate (long story), I added to the list of Essential People (obviously topped by friends and family) the local couple who logged and brought us wood, also cheaply; and the farrier: we'd acquired a small pony for E, and my friend Ian swapped hoofcare for human footwear, as I was then making my living through shoemaking.
Even my accountant swapped figures for boots, as did the friends who made my furniture, crockery and some of my clothes. (My doctor bought my shoes, too.)
I love the barter economy. It's not the same with poetry (although my vet did recently swap a treatment – she's also an acupuncturist – for the two new books).
A lot of my work behind the scenes is unpaid – promotion, admin, enquiries, chasing work, booking, planning, advertising and preparing courses and paying non-refundable deposits on venues never being sure that the course will fill enough as to be viable, submitting poems, essays and manuscripts, and giving feedback to/doing favours for other newer writers.
People tend to think, too, that if you're lucky enough as to be able to do something you love doing, full time, and it's something that doesn't have any obvious commercial value, that should be its own reward; so I am asked a lot, as no doubt many other professional poets and writers are, if I could 'just' look at this manuscript, these poems, give this reading; with no expectation of a fee.
So if I sound grouchy it's because I have finally overcome the prevarication and done my accounts. Depressing. Steve has been telling me for years that I'd be better off on benefits; and, more, that I'm going to be a very poor old lady. (Of course I have no pension, insurance, security, ability – should I wish to have one – to raise a mortgage in my own name; plus anyway my native Westcountry has mostly been sold to people with London incomes.)
I guess it's not surprising in a recession that my earnings are down for the third year running, though I am working as hard as I ever have – often 6 days a week, certainly. Sadly, the expenses, legitimate business expenses, are not down. In fact the two sets of figures are almost identical. The Man looks at the two columns in utter disbelief. 'How on earth did we manage to eat this last year?' (The deal is he pays most of the utilities bills in the house – I do my garden studio bills – and I buy the food.) The answer is entirely courtesy of a very good friend; she who has sponsored this blog this year. Thank God for friends.
Despite media attention on 'success stories' like J K Rowling, and prize money such as that of the Man Booker, a Society of Authors survey showed that almost all professional authors, in the UK anyway, earn less than £20K per annum; and somewhere between 75% and 90% of those less than £10K. I'm one of the latter. Royalties on my several books that are in print, coupled with those books of my own that I sell at eg workshops, bring in a total that usually doesn't quite make four figures.
The rest is courses and mentoring, an occasional (paid!) poetry reading.
Thing is, I don't really value money, so don't pay it the dues it might need to grow. What I value is living somewhere that inspires me, and living simply with as little impact as possible (which is just as well), doing something I was born to do; something I really love, that feels authentic and true to my vision and values; whose worth isn't measured against dosh in the bank – wrong 'language'. What's more, feedback seems to suggest that this work, in its small way, is valuable; and it also doesn't add to the sum of harm on the planet. But this is not part of the capitalist ethos.
Each year I come to this same place: how is this sustainable? Will I still be giving workshop in my 60s, my 70s? Will anyone come? Will schools want an elderly woman giving supposedly-inspiring workshops on poetry and the environment? Can I continue to get by on so little?
And then is the thought: what anyway is the alternative (short of writing the bestseller – but my interests are too non-mainstream, and I also know I'm not a top-flight author)? I have few marketable skills, and am, after all unemployable after 30 years of this!
So here's to the strange kind of freedom of the self-employed. My English A level teacher once yelled at the group of 17-year-old boys messing around at the back of the class: 'What you don't realise is that when you leave here you'll be finding, one way or another, that life will imprison you. What I have is the thankless task of at least trying to give you the means to choose your own prison!'
Mine's pretty good, thank you Mrs W. There are fields and birds and trees through the window; and if I choose to get up now and take the dog out into the wet gale and enjoy it, and make up for it later, there's no one standing over me and watching the clock. And – you know – I think I might just, pressure of work, grief over my recent bereavement and lack of money notwithstanding, take this afternoon off to go and see 'Wuthering Heights' before the arts centre cinema stops showing it. I could do with a treat; and right now its dark moodiness will do me fine.
A plea: support an author, or poet, this week – not necessarily me – and buy a book! And if you do want to buy a book from me (Christmas coming up and all that) I have a special deal at the moment – see back to the Fire in the Head programme post a few days ago. And then there are those courses – buy a loved one a bit of a course? :-)
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