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Poet-Hustlers Grasp Value of a Dollar

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Robert P. Arthur knows that being a poet is as much about scratching out a living as it is about scratching down memorable moments.

Arthur makes most of his living from poetry -- books he has written plus a poetry magazine, a small poetry press, poetry performances and plays he writes for theater groups. He has become known for creating poetry music shows or poetry plays that have appeared in dozens of theaters.

Yet when he started performance poetry in the early 1990s, "people wrote me long pious letters saying that I was prostituting my art by mixing it up," he recalled. The shows were popular -- and they helped him sell a lot of his books, including "Hymns to the Chesapeake" and "Crazy Horse's Woman."

Many of his works are drawn from the Chesapeake Bay region, where he grew up.

For years, he supported himself teaching creative writing at colleges. These days, a spine disease and neuropathy have slowed him a bit, but he remains committed to performance and writing. "I haven't won the Pulitzer -- yet," he said.

"Whenever I wake up, I just start writing," he said, using a wireless keyboard from bed. He lives on the Eastern Shore of Maryland in a cottage, a better abode than the school bus that was home while he got his MFA from the University of Arkansas.

His San Francisco Bay Press produces poetry books that sell an average of 300 to 500 copies; he and his daughter get $3 for every copy sold. "It's small money but steady," he said. "I give the author 40 percent -- it's unheard of in the business."

He well knows that most poets either have another full-time occupation or teach English or literature. "A pure poet is a mythical character," he said. "They are all hustlers."

-- Vickie Elmer

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