Should poets be concerned if poetry is considered a “specialized interest”? Do they need to worry about whether their poems warrant “consumption”? Does poetry deliberately resist its own marketability, and the idea of culture as commodity?

I’d been musing over the ramifications of the following exchange:
P: So tell me about this book you wrote?
Me: Well, it’s a book of poetry…
P: Poetry? Is there a market for that?

Then this throwaway-line from a Globe and Mail article on the film industry grabbed my attention: “This past year made it clear that what used to be called “cinema” … is either an anachronism or a specialized interest along the lines of poetry readings or philately.” (Emphasis mine).

I’m trying to consider public perceptions of poetry, and the idea of poetry as a specialized interest, against the backdrop of drastic cuts to arts funding in my adopted province of British Columbia, where we are facing a whopping 92% cut to funding by 2011.

Amidst ‘consumers’ of culture, like my friend P. above, knowledge of the esoteric art of poetry, and the work that poetry does, ranks terribly low, which shouldn’t be news to poets, and which may reflect a wider mainstream disengagement with art. As Arts Advocacy BC mentions on their website, “We are told that the arts do not even appear on surveys of public interest.”

In economic terms, as this Georgia Straight article reveals, British Columbia not only has the largest percentage of working artists of any other province in Canada, but their average yearly wages were $21,069 (2006), which is “significantly lower than the average income of $36,000 for the entire labour force.”

Even prior to these cuts, the BC arts and culture sector received almost the least arts funding of any Canadian province, a miniscule 1/20 of 1% of the provincial budget … No other province has cut arts funding during this recession. Many provinces have actually increased funding … we cannot afford not to stimulate culture.

The effect that cuts to arts funding tends to have is not that people stop making art, or writing poems. Rather, access to art is reduced for all people, including artists, many of whom are among the working poor to begin with. The cost of books adds up.

But what do we mean when we talk about “support” for the arts? Are we referring simply to financial support from our government(s), or are we talking about visibility to “mainstream” society? Does poetry want to be thought of as something other than a “specialized interest” long the fusty lines of stamp collecting? Does poetry need stimulation?

Nikki Reimer blogs and plans arts events in Vancouver, where she is a member of the Kootenay School of Writing and a board member at W2 Community Media Arts. Her poetry has been published in such magazines as Matrix, Front, Prism, BafterC and filling Station. A chapbook, fist things first, was recently published by Wrinkle Press and a book, [sic], is forthcoming from Frontenac House. She has never been to grad school.