Poetry salary slam

February 9, 2011

What looked like a literary prank - a cardboard cutout of Langston Hughes snatched from Busboys & Poets last week - has turned into full-blown debate about the D.C. poetry scene.

"I took it," Thomas Sayers Ellis told us Tuesday. The Washington native, poet and assistant professor of creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College said he grabbed the life-size cutout of Hughes as a protest - because he doesn't think that the restaurant/performance space pays poets fairly for their public readings.

"You would think that an establishment that makes as much money as Busboys would have set in place a reading series with a respectful pay scale for writers," Ellis said. The restaurant gives poets a venue, but it also profits from their talent. The literary community, he said, doesn't know if Busboys is the "good guys or the bad guys."

Could be that the restaurant is a victim of its own success: It's a commercial enterprise and a hangout for writers. The rookies are happy to appear at all, while some of the bigger names (who command large appearance fees from libraries and universities) believe they should share in the wealth.

Owner Andy Shallal told us he pays a monthly salary for three poets-in-residence (one at each of the restaurant's locations) as well as $50 each to a host and featured poet at three weekly readings. "We have regular gathering with poets and writers to discuss how we can become more supportive of their craft," he said. "I think we've done a lot to enhance the poetry community in this city."

"I have no issue with Andy making money," said poet Kyle Dargan, an assistant professor of literature at American University. There's been "some grumbling" among D.C. poets about the $50 payments: "Peanuts," he said, compared to Shallal's revenue from the weekly readings. While he doesn't condone the theft of Flat Langston, Dargan said it sparked "the conversation that so many people wanted for so long."

As for the cutout? Ellis told us he knows its whereabouts - but he isn't telling. Some critics (including Ellis) weren't happy about the image of Hughes as busboy and thought Shallal should have picked a more distinguished photo.

Shallal disagreed: "We have exposed Langston's poetry to thousands of people - his birthday is celebrated with the greatest of honor and fanfare." He said Ellis has never approached him with any complaints, and, in any event, it's a poor excuse to steal the cutout.

And yes - if it doesn't find its way back home, Shallal said he'll replace it.

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