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Feeding the Soul

July 11, 1993|Joan Campbell

It is a fine California evening in March when friends have invited me for dinner and some quiet conversation. I have just flown in from six weeks at a writers' colony in Upstate New York, and am haunted by that stark and quiet landscape. The all-night light of a full moon on snow, cross-country skis in fresh-fallen powder, the soft, silent shapes of deer deep in the blue woods. I am beginning to wonder if I shall ever really return from all that solitude, I have heard somewhere that people should not travel in planes, the idea being that they move too fast and always leave a part of the soul behind. Sometimes, I have heard, it takes weeks or months for the soul to catch up. Some say it never really does.

Soul: It is a word I don't hear much anymore.

We have finished our dinner and moved to the living room for coffee. There are four of us: my host, who works for IBM; his wife, an intensive care nurse; and her brother, also a nurse, whom I have met only briefly once before. They are open, searching people, for the most part, lively and fairly well-educated, with money enough for a horse, two new cars and someone to clean the house once a week. Topics of conversation this night have ranged from AIDS and aging parents to Salman Rushdie and Saul Bellow's latest novel. Inevitably, the fact that I am a writer--specifically, a poet--comes up, and I find myself fielding the usual questions. Have I published? What kinds of poems do I write? Can a person actually earn a living as a poet? I have answered these questions so many times, I don't really have to think about them. I explain that for income, poets usually depend on outside jobs such as teaching, a supportive patron or partner, inherited wealth, or some charitable, rich uncle. Poets with good track records, of course, can also earn money doing readings or workshops. And then there are the cash awards that contests offer, along with grants: the NEA, the Fulbright or the MacArthur Fellowship awarding up to $375,000.

My friends are suddenly all ears. My hosts' brother leans forward, returning his cup to the table, and asks, "But why would anyone want to give a grant to a poet?"

Hearing this question is a little like surfacing from a deep sea dive too quickly. Because of the seclusion of most writers' colonies, the uninterrupted time they offer to focus exclusively on one's work, and the close proximity of other equally committed creative artists, it is easy to forget that most of the world "out there" has very little use for arts and letters. After a session has finished, colonists tend to write soft notes to each other, letters of support and encouragement that usually mention something about the pain or shock of "re-entry."

I am not quite sure how I respond to this question: Why would anyone want to give a grant to a poet? I think I murmur words having to do with patronage or supporting the arts, but I know what I would like to say, and would say should the question arise again. I would say without any hesitation, "Because poets deserve to be paid as much as anyone deserves to be paid; because making poems is hard work, and because it feeds the soul."

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