DAVID GREENE, host:
In New York this weekend, the world's publishers are getting together for an annual book expo. The organizers say this year is about quality not quantity. Large publishing houses will have one booth instead of three. Book sales are down. Publishers overall have been hit hard by the recession. But as NPR's Planet Money team discovered, there's a corner of the publishing world that has its own strange economy: poetry. Chana Joffe-Walt explains.
CHANA JOFFE-WALT: If you're a poet, you send your work to hundreds of magazines, you get rejected, you send more, rejected, and repeat. Eventually, hopefully, you get some stuff published. Sometimes you can get a grant, not usually. You teach, you wait tables, whatever. Basically no one is likely to pay you to write your poems. That's the poetry business, the pobiz.
Professor KEITH TAYLOR (University of Michigan): The pobiz, yeah.
JOFFE-WALT: This is Keith Taylor. He teachers at the University of Michigan and he is a poet, although he didn't make up that word. He's got a new book. Real bad time to have a new book out, right? Book sales are way down.
Mr. TAYLOR: But, I don't know. I just gave a reading last week, and you know, much to my surprise, I sold like, you know, 15 copies, so that was a wonderfully pleasant surprise. I thought I might sell two.
JOFFE-WALT: Poets and their publishers, they've got their own economy going on, and it has very little to do with the one the rest of us live in. Poets work and they don't expect to make money. The people who publish their books, small poetry presses, they don't either. People like Bob Hershon with Hanging Loose Press in New York City, he says his friends in the commercial publishing industry, they're losing their jobs.
Mr. BOB HERSHON (Hanging Loose Press): Well, we can't be out of work because we don't take any salaries.
JOFFE-WALT: You don't take any salaries?
Mr. HERSHON: No. Yeah, I don't know, we're nuts, but my co-editors and I just sort of work out of hip pockets.
JOFFE-WALT: Small press editors like Bob Hershon, he wants to get poems to the public. Poets like Keith Taylor, they want to get their poems to the public. So the press will front the money to print and bind the book, and then the poet hopefully recoups those costs by going out and doing readings and hitting up their friends to buy the book - every friend they've ever had, friends who, despite a recession, will probably still buy that book you wrote, that you didn't get paid to write, and that the press didn't get paid to print. Here's Keith Taylor again.
Mr. TAYLOR: It keeps the presence of poetry sort of moved from the hurly-burly of economic life, which some people find effete and elitist. Some of the rest of us find it reassuring and a positive sign.
JOFFE-WALT: We thought we'd give you a chance to be an elitist poet, or a reassured one - take your pick. And we posted this call on our Planet Money blog, npr.org/moneyforyou, to write your recession haikus. You remember haikus - 17 syllables, five, seven, five. And man, did you respond. So we're going to go out on those right now. I'm Chana Jaffe-Walt, and here are your recession haikus read by friendly NPR people.
Unidentified Man #1: Collateralized debt, oh how I'm obligated, what tranche shall I be?
Unidentified Man #2: Thirty winters gone, mills still empty by the shore, some things won't return.
Unidentified Woman: Put off surgery, it's not that noticeable, if you wear a hat.
Unidentified Man #3: Girl, you are so fine, I made you dinner myself. Mmm, Ramen noodles.
Unidentified Man #4: I'm down to my last 17 syllables, there, recession haiku.
(Soundbite of music)
GREENE: And you can see a gallery of our favorite recession haiku on the Planet Money blog. Just check out npr.org.