Commission a poem online?
April 28, 2010 4:21 PM   Subscribe

Is there anywhere online where I can commission a poem? I’d like to set a price, pick a topic, pick a format, and get a poem in return. Sort of a work-for-hire thing where I own the product. (If I ever did anything with it, I’d always give full credit to the author, but having to deal with royalties sort of defeats the point of commissioning the work.) I know there are places to do this with code (rentacoder) or products (ponoko) or even design and music (crowdspring and musikpitch*), but is there anything analogous for writers?

* The spec-work aspects of crowdspring and Musikpitch make me very uneasy. I don’t want multiple writers writing stuff on spec for me to pick from. I want to post an rfp, have writers bid the work, read past clips, and then choose one writer to write the poem.
posted by ericc to Writing & Language (26 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
 
Perhaps you can find a poet at Textbroker ?
posted by anadem at 4:26 PM on April 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


I wonder if there's a way to make this a contest. Winner gets a cash prize. If you can find a poetry class...
posted by neuron at 4:46 PM on April 28, 2010


As a long-time amateur poet, I confess to being quite interested in the prospect, actually.

Would you be interested in letting me give it a try on spec? If the final product doesn't work for you, then no obligation at all. MeMail me if you're at all interested.
posted by darkstar at 4:50 PM on April 28, 2010


I'm a recent graduate of an MFA program in poetry, and if you're willing to pay a reasonable wage, I'd be glad to send a work posting to current students and alumni via our listserv.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 4:50 PM on April 28, 2010


Also, yes, I, too, could conceivably offer my services to you. But as a poet, I have to say that you'll probably want to make clear any stylistic preferences you have, and see a few samples of work before you hire anyone.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 4:52 PM on April 28, 2010


Why don't you try posting this to jobs?
posted by Nothing... and like it at 4:53 PM on April 28, 2010


Ah, just re-read your follow-up note RE spec offers. My bad.

Still interested, of course, but understand if you're looking for a different approach.
posted by darkstar at 4:54 PM on April 28, 2010


I've seen this advertised in phone books in India and a quick google search on "india poem writers" (no quotes) brings up a bunch of rent a coder style brokers.
posted by bottlebrushtree at 4:59 PM on April 28, 2010


As an aside, to what extent do you need to "own the product"? Occasionally, when I've sold my poems to companies or online journals, I've been asked to agree to a brief contract granting them a licence to use the work in perpetuity, on multiple platforms. This doesn't affect my rights as author and copyright holder (i.e. they have to credit me, and they can't alter the work) but the purchaser can use the poem forever.
posted by hot soup girl at 5:02 PM on April 28, 2010


"I wonder if there's a way to make this a contest."

That's spec work. It's a little different with writing, as the poem isn't useless outside the context of the assignment, as is usually the case with spec work, but it's close enough to make me avoid that approach.

"I'd be glad to send a work posting to current students and alumni via our listserv"

I really am more interested in a bidding/hiring process, ideally online, than just finding a poet. I truly appreciate the offers, but there's a different dynamic when you hire someone and can direct the work a little more closely.

"Why don't you try posting this to jobs?"

There are a ton of places one could conceivably post a request, but that's just as true for programmers, yet rentacoder exists, and makes the process much easier. That's what I'm looking for.

"As an aside, to what extent do you need to "own the product"? Occasionally, when I've sold my poems to companies or online journals, I've been asked to agree to a brief contract granting them a licence to use the work in perpetuity, on multiple platforms. This doesn't affect my rights as author and copyright holder (i.e. they have to credit me, and they can't alter the work) but the purchaser can use the poem forever."

Great question. Does the contract you sign allow the journal to alter the poem? Edit it? Change lines? Cannibalize for their purposes? Would you still want your name associated with it should they dramatically alter it? I'm guessing the answer is no to most of those. Yet if I purchase the complete rights to poem, I'd be able to do that.

I don't know what I'd do with the poem, but I'd rather not go into it already largely constrained.

This should also make it clearer why the idea of finding a random poet, or sending out a request to a list of poets, is probably not a good idea. I want to hire a writer for my creative purposes, not collaborate with a writer for mutual creative purposes. A work-for-hire establishes that relationship right away.
posted by ericc at 5:28 PM on April 28, 2010


This should also make it clearer why the idea of finding a random poet, or sending out a request to a list of poets, is probably not a good idea. I want to hire a writer for my creative purposes, not collaborate with a writer for mutual creative purposes. A work-for-hire establishes that relationship right away.

Just a note that the kind of thing I'm suggesting--sending out your request to a graduate e-mail listserv--is work-for-hire. There's no reason why you can't request work samples of anyone who contacts you. We get freelance writing offers--more often for memoir writing than poetry or fiction--like this all the time on our listserv.

There are few poets actually interested in this kind of work, for a multitude of reasons--primarily, I'd wager, because poets just can't practically make a living from poetry in our society, and so they teach or have desk jobs and just write whatever they want, most of the time. The nature of career literary writing, and poetry in particular, means that you'll have to let interested writers find you, not the other way around.

(In other words, poetry isn't programming.)

Great question. Does the contract you sign allow the journal to alter the poem? Edit it? Change lines? Cannibalize for their purposes? Would you still want your name associated with it should they dramatically alter it? I'm guessing the answer is no to most of those. Yet if I purchase the complete rights to poem, I'd be able to do that.

It depends on the magazine and the contract. Some magazines want editing rights, although usually the edits they'll suggest are fairly limited in scope. Your language here--"cannibalizing the poem for your purpose"--sounds like a fairly cruddy deal for the writer, in which case I'd suggest two things: that you not emphasize giving the writer credit (in such a situation, I wouldn't want my professional name associated with something I have no control over), and that you plan to pay fairly well.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 5:43 PM on April 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


"There are few poets actually interested in this kind of work"

That's good to know. I genuinely didn't know if this was frowned upon, or sought out.

"poetry isn't programming"

Aren't they both about playing with language to communicate ideas in novel ways? They're certainly different, but not as dissimilar as we might assume, no? (Not to hijack my own thread.)

"'cannibalizing the poem for your purpose'--sounds like a fairly cruddy deal for the writer"

So help me figure this one out. There is a way poets play with language, see meanings that we miss, make connections, that I don't have, but sometimes find need for. If I have a topic or event or thought that I want explored by a master of language, with the intent of using that verbal insight as I later communicate about that topic or event or thought, how do I do that?

I have no need or intention to pass that insight off as my own. I want to give credit to the person who dreamed it up. But the way I'll use it is unlikely to be in the form of a poem. For instance, what if I write an article that uses a turn of phrase, or a comparison, or framing of a topic that came from the poem, but without ever excerpting the source poem?

Presumably I could quote and attribute the poem, but what if I really need to just rewrite it to keep the insight but change the tone? I can't quote the poem, and it's weird to attribute the rewritten work. And what if it's not an article. What if it's a book. Would I pay royalties on a rewriting of a poem that I commissioned?

See how weird this gets? That's ultimately why the idea of just hiring a poet to write something I own makes sense to me. But maybe there are other ways of doing that.

"I'd suggest two things: that you not emphasize giving the writer credit"

It would be totally up to the writer.

"and that you plan to pay fairly well."

That's the plan.
posted by ericc at 6:28 PM on April 28, 2010


One option that occurs to me is to post at the Speakeasy blog at Poets & Writers (registration required). Probably the more specific you make the guidelines, the better: poetry communities are good breeding grounds for scams, and you'll want to seem sincere but amateur about the whole thing. Their contest lists/advertisements would definitely be overkill -- paint this as a fun project. Try to use your post to turn off the attitude that 'every word I write is a possible masterwork which will rocket me to fame' and on the attitude that poets write poems all the time, and most of them never see the light of day.

While PhoB is right that most poets don't do anything art-related for money, the community in general (I think) also has a huge thirst for novelty. Also, as someone who is willing to pay for poetry, you are in a very small and much-loved group of people, so I'm sure you'll get responses to any posting (looks like you have one in the thread, already).

If you want to look at someone who's tried something like this, look at The Poetry Store, which is a one-poet show (and is, typically, the poet selling to anyone who's buying, rather than a buyer like you).
posted by Valet at 7:00 PM on April 28, 2010


litwit.ca does custom limericks, and they say they'll do other rhyme schemes too, but it sounds like you're looking for something more profound.
posted by cider at 7:02 PM on April 28, 2010


Aren't they both about playing with language to communicate ideas in novel ways? They're certainly different, but not as dissimilar as we might assume, no? (Not to hijack my own thread.)

I wasn't saying there aren't similarities between poetry and programming; I meant that, in regards to professional attitudes, they're a world apart. The nature of poetry as an art today is such that there's almost no practical way to make a living as a working poet. As an undergraduate in college, I was lucky enough to work with a very successful one--and he once revealed that he received only $5,000 for his latest book, his seventh. The funny thing is, you'll find that most poets seem to prefer things that way. Unlike writers in other societies or historically, the content of their poems isn't determined by the whims of their patrons or, perhaps, the government. They have creative control, even if it's not lucrative.

(I'm not saying that I necessarily completely agree with these sentiments or think them best for poets or for poetry--but they're there, and, in light of what you're proposing, I think you should be aware of them.)

So help me figure this one out. There is a way poets play with language, see meanings that we miss, make connections, that I don't have, but sometimes find need for. If I have a topic or event or thought that I want explored by a master of language, with the intent of using that verbal insight as I later communicate about that topic or event or thought, how do I do that?

Honestly? The best way would be to work on your own writing skills and achieve that mastery yourself. Most poets I've encountered place high importance on the content on their poems, not just the wordplay or form. What you're suggesting is somewhat akin to the people at parties who say to successful novelists, "Hey! I have a great idea for a book! Would you be interested in writing it for me?" It misses the mark of what's actually both important and difficult about writing.

I have no need or intention to pass that insight off as my own. I want to give credit to the person who dreamed it up. But the way I'll use it is unlikely to be in the form of a poem. For instance, what if I write an article that uses a turn of phrase, or a comparison, or framing of a topic that came from the poem, but without ever excerpting the source poem?

This confuses me. You want to pay someone to write a poem for you, and then just lift a turn of phrase out of it for something else? If you have a contract that explicitly allows you to do that, then legally, you'll be fine. However, I think you'll be hard-pressed to find a writer who's comfortable totally relinquishing all ownership, and willing to sign a contract that states you can excerpt the poem without credit in the work in which you're using it (which is what I think you're saying, though I'm not sure).

But really, it sounds like what you truly want is some sort of freelance writing assistant or editor (who might also write poetry, thereby demonstrating their ability to create the kind of writing you want) who can help you turn your writing into some sort of more artful prose. I'm not sure why you'd want or need someone to write a poem for that.

Presumably I could quote and attribute the poem, but what if I really need to just rewrite it to keep the insight but change the tone? I can't quote the poem, and it's weird to attribute the rewritten work. And what if it's not an article. What if it's a book. Would I pay royalties on a rewriting of a poem that I commissioned?

This is . . . weird. Like I said, I'd be really uncomfortable having my name attached to something that someone wanted to rewrite extensively without my agreement or control. I don't know the legal details of a work you've purchased--and here's to hoping someone with more knowledge of copyright law can chime in here--but I'm skeptical that there would be many poets who can write something of a certain quality who would be comfortable with this in the first place. I guess what I'm saying is that it's weirder to commission a poem, pay the person for it, rewrite it yourself, then not attribute them. Why not just work with someone until you've created a version of the poem that you're happy with, then attribute them for the work they've done?

See how weird this gets? That's ultimately why the idea of just hiring a poet to write something I own makes sense to me. But maybe there are other ways of doing that.

Like I said, poets who do this kind of work do exist, and you're likely to find them if you advertise for them. But they're rare; I've only ever met one who created poems-for-hire, and they were occasional poems for wedding gifts and things like that, without any of the control/rewriting issues you're talking about here.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:28 PM on April 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


Thanks PBWK. You’ve answered both the question I was asking, and the question I should have been asking. It looks like this may not be the way to scratch this itch.

There are other areas of society where the mix of art and commerce, while not free of conflict, is a little more sorted out. Musicians write and sell songs all the time (in directly-commercial ways like jingles, or through more “artistic” ways like Nashville/Brill Building songwriting systems). The subsequent owner of the song can (and usually does) rewrite substantial parts of the song, or can even cannibalize multiple songs into a single song. Or a hook could be excerpted and looped. Maybe the songwriter gets a credit, or maybe not. Illustrators sell illustrations. Photographers sell photographs. And similarly, the owner can do whatever he or she wishes, if it’s an outright purchase.

I get that illustration might be a commercial sibling to “real” visual art distinct from the attachment to “real” visual art, and likewise, jingle writing might only be a sibling to “real” songwriting. I’m not sure I buy that distinction, but I get that others see a distinction. I guess I was looking for a commercial sibling to poetry. There may be none.

I will say that that surprises me. Poetry is a renewable resource. I totally get things like thepoetrystore.net. (Thanks Valet. I just ordered a poem. Not for the purpose of this post. I don’t think I own the poem that I receive. I just think it’s great, and want to support it.) If a person will pay you to write a poem, and upon completion of the poem, pay you again for another poem, why wouldn’t the two of you keep writing and paying? And if the owner wants to alter the poems, with credit at the discretion of the author, how is the author out anything? I would have no interest in precluding the poet from keeping and using the original poems. So the poet just got paid for writing poetry.

But challenging that attitude is far beyond the scope of the problem I was trying to solve. What I am looking for might be more akin to speechwriting. Or just straight-up work-for-hire prose writing. But I don’t think those options are viable for my interests.

"The best way would be to work on your own writing skills and achieve that mastery yourself."

It’s about priorities and specialization. I’d rather hire someone who’s great at it, who loves doing it, who wants to be supported in the pursuit of something they love, than invest what would likely be a tremendous amount of time and energy developing a skill that would never bring me the same kind of joy. There are other things that bring me joy, and if I can outsource things that I’m not good at, I’ll have more time for those things that I do love.

Thanks again.
posted by ericc at 8:56 PM on April 28, 2010


Illustrators sell illustrations. Photographers sell photographs. And similarly, the owner can do whatever he or she wishes, if it’s an outright purchase.

Speaking as a professional image-maker, even this example is quite rare. Illustrators almost never sell all rights to an image so you can do whatever you want with it. Illustrators sell rights to reproduce the image as is, and usually only once. The only field of illustration in which one often sells all rights is in advertising, but even then the expectation is not that the client will change or edit the image at will, only that they will use it a billion times in all kinds of contexts. Not many illustrators or photographers would want to work with a client with the sort of plans you are outlining. A reason for this is that illustrators and photographers, like poets, are artists who take pride in what they produce, and they would not want someone else to come in and alter their work in ways that could change the meaning or mood or whatever else. I concede that your music example is right on. Maybe it's because music is more tied to the idea of jamming and playing together, while visual art and poetry is generally more of a lonesome pursuit?

This is not meant as criticism -- in fact, I find your ruminations interesting -- but rather as a way to say that the model you were expecting to exist for poetry is not quite as commonly found elsewhere as maybe you imagine.
posted by edlundart at 10:17 PM on April 28, 2010


Fiverr has quite a lot of "will write you a poem for $5" folks. Including m'self as it happens. (I haven't gotten any business yet though.)
posted by The otter lady at 7:34 AM on April 29, 2010


As you are refining your thinking on this process, it seems like there might be other ways to scratch your itch.

I've often thought one of the best uses of this new, connected world we live in would be to find "intellectual teammates." Or an intellectual, personal Board of Directors, if you will.

A group of diverse thinkers (a poet, an economist, a painter, a comic, a statistician, etc.) that you could bring real-life questions/issues to for varying viewpoints. A short, emergent correspondence would follow, with one viewpoint building or riffing on the previous. You end up with a broad base for your own thinking, and quite possibly some immediately valuable insight offered up by others.

You could pay your personal Think Tank Board for their real-life, intellectual time spent in your service. As this site proves, some very bright folks are willing to spend significant time forming and communicating very thoughtful ideas on a wide range of subjects at a moment's notice. For free. Paying some small amount (if that proved to be necessary) would ensure that they offer insight to your particular issue in a timely manner, within the bounds of the framework you establish at the beginning.

Just a thought. And one that I am personally pursuing.
posted by nickjadlowe at 9:01 AM on April 29, 2010 [2 favorites]


If you want to do something along the lines that nickjadlowe suggests, start a blog. Post some rough versions of your ideas and explicitly ask if people have things to add (you could even admit you're not sure if you're putting certain points in the best way, which could be a hint to commenters). You might get some good commenters who riff on your ideas in ways that are more poetic than you could have come up with. If one commenter in particular stands out as being really great at this, you could contact the person off-blog and see if they'd be interested in working for you.
posted by Jaltcoh at 7:34 AM on April 30, 2010


Um, ericc, if you made an imaginary list of the people i graduated from grad school with who have degrees in poetry, and looked at their current actual jobs, 99% of them would be doing things where their bosses have come to similar conclusions as you did. People hire poets all the time to work for them because of our felicities with wurdz, just not as poets. They're called publicists, marketers, advertisers, communications directors, speechwriters and so on.

Thing is, as a 'professional' poet, i.e. a adjunct professor of English, all we have is our reputation and our pride. If we wanted to work for someone who'd edit the hell out of our ideas for his own ends we'd be magazine writers. You'd have to pay obscenely well to adapt something that I wrote for your own ends. Unless you hire me full time and call what I do something else, in which case you can have it. My soul is worth = 1 Health Insurance.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 9:26 AM on April 30, 2010 [2 favorites]


(I thought this was all getting derailed, and humiliatingly actually flagged one of the comments, but that was all a mistake, because this is more interesting than even the original question, which was interesting, and plus ericc seems satisfied by the whole deal).

Potomac: the thing that makes me disagree with your analysis (and I think maybe PhoB too) is that you assume that ericc wants a 'professional' poet -- an MFA graduate, an adjunct, a person who's got books out. But with the glut in that market you're only dealing with a small minority -- and not necessarily a more talented minority, considering that the MFA structure and academic work really only suit a subset of people who like poetry -- of the people who write poems.

Put another way, 80% of my talented undergraduate poetry students went on to do something entirely different; 20% of my MFA classmates are store managers, math teachers, or something else that doesn't really have to do with wurdz or weyrds. If you include the people who like poetry but never ended up in that track in the first place, that's a lot of people out there who want to write, want people to read what they write, and that's it. They might not care if you put their name on a thing or not. They might not care if you change it. You may be under the impression that all these people are bad poets, but I'm not convinced (especially considering that we don't know ericc's tastes: maybe he likes narrative poems, or slam poems, neither of which really get much face time in the academy).

I really wanted to link to an article I read once about a high school creative writing teacher who took his kids out to a street corner and had them sell (give away?) poems. Nobody was worried about rights or names or editing or 'will you pretend this is yours later'. Write me a love poem to someone named Jean -- and twenty minutes later, it's done. There are other possible economies for poetry! It's flexible enough for that.
posted by Valet at 9:41 AM on April 30, 2010


Valet, I don't think all poets outside the academy are bad poets, by any means. It's mostly ericc's language which suggested to me that he wants a certain and type of writing.

But I do think that if someone said to your students, or those high school kids, that their poems were going to be rewritten without attribution, you'd be surprised by how passionately opposed they'd be to the practice. I had a workshop student (undergrad) once lift a line from another student's poem, and the kids in my workshop pretty much tried to eviscerate him for "stealing"--I had to talk them down and discuss fair use with them.

Also, ericc seems fairly concerned with the legal particularities here. Even if a poet isn't aware of the peculiarities of the legal and copyright situation here, what ericc is suggests is a dicey proposition in terms of copyright law.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:52 AM on April 30, 2010


I am with you about copyright law, which I don't understand and which seems to always end with pistols at dawn.

But I have definitely done the writing exercise where individual lines are passed around the room, and each poet goes home and edits a unique set of other peoples' lines into "their" poem for the workshop next week. Conceptual rules about what we own and what we don't can change. They do change (I'd guess that you eventually got across to your class that it is, actually, okay to use and alter another poet's language with attribution). For every student that gets angry about "stealing", there's one that wants to put Jamiroquai lyrics in their poem.

I'm just pretty sure that if ericc found the right place and way to say "I want to pay $100 to buy the rights to remix your poem," some people (and I'll admit that these might not in many cases be the 'certain kind' you're talking about) would jump at it, even if it did mean their names didn't appear on the iterated product. I mean, poets are experimenters -- Lyn Hejinian writes down things she remembers from the radio, then shakes them up in a sack, for goodness' sake. Now that we have found poetry and machine poetry and such, is authorial ownership still the only road to take?

I agree that the majority will react in the way that you describe, but it can't be possible that the thousands of English-language poets will all react to this concept with unanimity.
posted by Valet at 10:56 AM on April 30, 2010


Valet, I think you’re describing, at least conceptually, exactly what I’m looking for. Let’s say that I were a writer, but I had learned that I was only pleased with my work that took inspiration from other work. You and PBWK are right. Legally, it’s dicey. Socially, even more so. So what if I commissioned work that I could use as inspiration. If I had a legal right to draw inspiration from other work, and was socially transparent about it, that should work, right? So how do you commission that work from which to derive inspiration?

“Hey poet, I’d like to hire you to write a poem. Here’s the thing: I might write new work of my own that responds or relates to your work. Yes, it might be a word or turn of phrase, or it might be a novel idea, or take on a topic. If you’d like, I’d be happy to say my poem was inspired by your poem, or a response to your poem, or however you want me to describe the relationship. But I want to, and am willing to pay for, the right, legally and socially, to produce work inspired by your work.”

(Of course, I don’t want to write poems of my own. That’s not the purpose behind my request. I just want to have a source of external perspective that I get most often from poetry, and the ability to do something with the effect that perspective has on me. It’s a little more complicated than that, which is why I’m focusing on the concept of what I’m looking for, not the specifics.)

But you can see (I hope) why I communicated the initial request as I did.
posted by ericc at 11:56 PM on May 1, 2010


There are dudes who sit on the streets of San Francisco with typewriters doing poems for hire-- sort of like people who draw caricatures for tourists, but more high-brow. Seriously. There's usually one on Haight near Ashbury, you'll see them around other places, too. Just get yourself to San Francisco (the most made-up city in the world, home of poets-for-hire, a flock of wild parrots, and a trampoline park housed in an old army base), and this issue solves itself.
posted by neitheror at 10:44 PM on May 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


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