No Money In Poetry?


If I went a little quiet for a while there, forgive me.  My agent was submitting The Marlowe Papers and I didn’t feel it was anything I should be chatting about.   As you may or may not know, we emerged with a very handsome deal from Sceptre.  I’ll be in exalted company.  Sceptre publish lots of very fine writers you’ll have heard of.

The Marlowe Papers is a little different from the other novels on their list, however, because it’s a novel in verse. Not free verse either, but blank verse: 72,000 words (at the moment, anyway) of iambic pentameter i.e.

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.

As if this wasn’t crazy-fool enough (as ideas go) I was also pretending to be the acknowledged greatest writer of all time.  The idea behind The Marlowe Papers is that Christopher Marlowe didn’t die at Deptford in 1593, but rather faked his death and wrote the works of Shakespeare (yes, that old chestnut)… and that The Marlowe Papers is his verse memoir. The ultimate Marlowe fiction in prose had already been written (A Dead Man In Deptford by Anthony Burgess) so I thought I’d better take different tack.  Several times in the writing of it I wondered what on earth I was doing (and why I had committed to do such an insanely difficult thing) but the truth is, I like a challenge.

It was without doubt the toughest task I’ve ever set myself, but it seems to have paid off – and for a change (in the notoriously near-bankrupt world of poets) quite literally.   The book took four years to research and write, and the advance on royalties represents a modest (but respectable) salary for those four years.  After my agent’s percentage and VAT, only just above the lowest ten per cent of average UK earnings, but hey, this is poetry we’re talking about, and the offer for four years’ work came in a lump, so pretty darn exciting.

So that old adage that there’s no money in poetry turns out not to be true.  I love it when something we believe to be true turns out to be nonsense. Indeed, it’s surprising what ingrained beliefs one can turn inside-out if you open your mind to the possibility that you (and others that spout Received Wisdoms) might be wrong.   I used to enjoy the Robert Graves response, “There’s no money in poetry, but then there’s no poetry in money either” but it didn’t make me feel better about my penury.  We live in a culture where, like it or not, value is reflected in hard currency, and being paid properly for what you do is a great validation.  It’s also, when you work in a fringe interest like poetry, a joy and privilege.  There is nothing noble about suffering for your art, financially or otherwise.

Sceptre plans to publish The Marlowe Papers in hardback in September 2012, with the mass market paperback following in June 2013.   I realise it’s a long wait, but I hope you’ll be curious enough to buy a copy.


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