Dollars and Cents

Carol Connolly, St. Paul poet laureate

Money is the color of mold.

Use it for a poultice

And it will infect your wound.

And you, you are

Bad if you have it,

Bad if you don't,

Bad if you try to get it,

Bad if you refuse it,

Bad if you lend it,

Bad if you borrow it,

Bad if you win it,

Bad if you lose it,

Foolish if you inherit it,

Suspect if you ignore it.

Its fungus creeps

into the corners of marriages,

suffocates sons and daughters.

If you marry for money,

you will earn it.


Factory workers, middle managers and stockbrokers who have been laid off during the recession could learn a thing or two from poets.

That's right. You think you have it bad; try being someone whose gift and lifelong passion is often dismissed as effete or superfluous by those with "real" jobs and only gets ridiculed more as times get tougher.

"Poets aren't recession-proof," said Tom Cassidy, who supports his "poetry addiction" with a full-time job. "We're just more resilient than most, able to leap tall challenges in a single stanza."

But Twin Cities poets aren't having a pity party. If anyone knows how to survive when the going gets lean, it's them.

"Artists in general are somewhat better equipped to live in a cashless economy, because we've already spent our adult lives not earning much money," said Naomi Cohn, who supports herself as a fundraiser for nonprofit organizations. "At the post office, I talked to some grandfather who worked his behind off for 40 years and now his 401(k) is tanked. I was running around being a bad girl, and now we're in the same place."

Poet/spoken-word artist eg bailey is well aware that the general public might not think that he and others like him make or deserve much money.

"Part of the job of being an artist is working with what you have to create what you can," he said.

"Out of lack, ingenuity flourishes," bailey said. "If it means getting only $25 for a show, or sometimes doing it for free, you do it. If it means performing in a bar, hell, even the street corner, you do it. If it means teaching at a school or after-school program, on top of doing your work as an artist, you do it. And you scrape together whatever means you have, economic or otherwise, to eat, sleep and live to another day. I know a good number of poets and spoken-word artists doing pretty good for themselves. Sometimes they know how to better ride these waves when they come along."

While our poets aren't sulking in a corner, waiting for the grant money they're less likely to see than a unicorn, they would like to point out -- articulately and genteelly -- that, in fact, they are not only necessary in a bad economy, but more so.

"'Neither a borrower nor a lender be' could be the best financial advice of the early 21st century," wrote poet Todd Boss, whose work has appeared in the New Yorker, in his online journal FLURRY. "The fact that it was written by a poet and not an economist shouldn't surprise you. Because poets have little to gain in this world, they have little to sell -- so they can be trusted, trusted to tell you the unvarnished truth about the world we live in, what it's worth, and how you ought to invest in it."

At this year's Minnesota Book Awards ceremony, poetry finalists Boss, Heid Erdrich, Tim Nolan and Margaret Hasse composed a manifesto. It read, in part:

"In these financially perilous times, poetry becomes an index of life's real riches. Poetry's intangible topics -- surprise, joy, memory, laughter, loss, love, beauty, and wonder -- can return us to a more honest living. A poem is an economical experience that deepens the value of being alive. A poem can be read in minutes, but sustain for years -- an energy reserve that is cheap, totally renewable, eco-friendly, and immensely rewarding."

To any young dreamer who aspires to become a poet, but is waffling due to the uncertain economy, no less a success than John Patrick Shanley has some advice. The Pulitzer and Oscar-winning playwright/ screenwriter ("Doubt," "Moonstruck") recently delivered a college commencement address that included this recommendation: "... not to bring up something upsetting, but when you leave here today, you may go through a period of unemployment. My suggestion is this: Enjoy the unemployment. Have a second cup of coffee. Go to the park. Read Walt Whitman. Walt Whitman loved being unemployed. I don't believe he ever did a day's work in his life. As you may know, he was a poet. If a lot of time goes by and you continue to be unemployed, you may want to consider announcing to all appropriate parties that you have become a poet."

Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046



Here are some poems related to money woes, beginning with a soon-to-be-published new one by the late, beloved Bill Holm.


Spiritual Economy

Bill Holm, from "The Chain Letter of the Soul" (due in October from Milkweed Editions)

Like Christians, Jews, and Muslims,

I believe in one true God who is

my father, Big Bill, me his only son,

and all the ghost tribes you can imagine,

some holy, mostly otherwise.

What's my proof? There: that stone,

the loaf of bread, the crow's feathers,

that road splotch of mashed raccoon,

you, should you happen to appear.

I hear God's voice in the "Pastoral Sonata,"

sounding the low D thump that starts it,

in the crow's cackle, the soft snoring in my head,

the old lady's hummed Alzheimer's tune.

Doesn't everyone believe all of this?

Why should I differ from my fellow humans?

I don't put on the dog, or claim a revelation.

But I do not believe in the economy

even though it claims to have collapsed.

To collapse is to have once existed,

but I've never heard sufficient proof of that.

To participate in IS you must once have BEEN.

No one denies stone, crow, bread,

or fails to hear the D, the cackles, snoring, tune.

But put a trillion on your kitchen table:

piles of millions, certificates of billions,

bundles of derivative credit default swaps.

Still got room for a coffee cup or two?

Light it with a match, watch it disappear.

Whose name was written on it? Mine? Yours?

We need to know to notify the next of kin.

Thus did worldly goods pass back and forth,

from hand to hand. They will go on passing:

the daily procession of the body parts to God.


This Is an Attempt to Collect a Debt

Sun Yung Shin

-- escape: $19.50 for two tickets, silver

clouds bound across a silver screen --

the apocalypse has come and gone

on film -- sweet peaches pour from a can

and "this is your final notice" --

men blink blind, dust and grit, hover

over the next hill -- a ghost,

white robes & a golden apparatus down

in the gray valley, omens of ever-water

and this, your final notice

blackened forest, green carpet cracks the concrete;

out of the grass -- what slithers?

roll credits on our old regime --

amber oil burned in the engine (father,

your GM pension, O dying father)

and this, your notice, is final --



Dobby Gibson,from "Skirmish " (Graywolf Press)

The shopping mall's surface lot spreads out its all-u-can-eat buffet of convenient parking.

No nation's children will inherit more asphalt.

Mattresses sleep in their discount warehouses.

Executives can't,

worrying they're running out of places

to underpay people to serve overpriced coffee.

The neighbors are eavesdropping,

if only on the faint hiss of your shower.

A man unwraps his morning paper

and hopes for the best.

Truly desperate acts are rarely witnessed,

except by truly desperate men.


The Ants' Wisdom on Financial Markets

Naomi Cohn

For us, bear market

is a hairy smell with vast claws


tearing into a rotten log,

exposing a store of honey.


Long thick lines

of my sisters roil over duff


to carry bees' stolen assets

back to our nest.


For us, credit is the food

we give any ant


that smells like our sister.

We feed her, even if


she comes to the nest

with nothing.


Cars, banks, credit default

swaps, balloon payments --


These have no smell,

they do not feed us.


Above us your homes go empty,

cupboard doors flapping.


We stream into halls,

over counters. No one stops us.


They didn't walk away;

they piled in a car


with a dog and their young.

We could smell


its dung-filled diaper.

They left so much for us;

we carry it all away.


the house

John Medeiros

the brown man in green buys the house

on the hill at thirty cents on the dollar.

and he strokes himself as if he were his own child.

I've achieved the dream, he sighs

when no one is listening.

in the next room the radio speaks of a younger day

when neighbors bought houses from banks

for one dollar apiece

and sold them back to the owners

for the exact same price.

this is how neighbors stayed together,

the radio says.

but what happens now,

when all the neighbors have been eaten

alive in a world where dog eats dog?

where is the refugee whose sidewalk

I shoveled for the past two years, who watched me

from behind her hijab with curious eyes

because there is no snow in Somalia?

still, the house looks good on the hill.

and shouldn't it?

shouldn't he deserve this birthday-gifted moment,

having worked himself into debt,

his savings continuing to fall with leaf-like silence?


I can't complain (excerpt)

Tom Cassidy

... I owe every living person 20 bucks

when I go to the complaint department

a clerk asks how are you doing today sir?

I answer automatically well you know

I can't complain

("If the economy keeps going this way," Cassidy said, "I'm gonna have to change that line to 50 bucks.")