I’ve been thinking of the volunteer lately, and I think they are, in a way, one of the most powerful groups in the writing world, and possibly society itself. And often, the most powerless in both.
An huge investment, of time, money, head-space and physical effort, comes from people willing to put their hands up and get it done. Rather than complain about a gap, a lack or a shortfall, a volunteer steps up and fills the void. If you don’t think there is enough opportunities for bi-lingual writers in Australia, then do something. Start a publication that caters to that, to whatever you think is missing – check out the amazing Red Leaves and Kirk Marshall, or the tireless work of Graham Nunn. That’s how most journals and publications start, it doesn’t come from funding bodies, those boards don’t get together and go, ok, let’s start a poetry mag. No, they reward people and groups who put their hands up and say, I want to start a poetry mag.
There’s some great discussion over at the Overland blog on this, and I can’t find the post. (It’s very annoying – if anyone has a link, please let me know. UPDATE – here it is, from Maxine) It was around the time Overland decided to stop publishing poetry on the blog (due to resources) and there’s an earlier post on volunteers and unpaid blogging there too. And great discussions all over the net I bet.
But basically, my rant was something to the same effect as the words above. It’s like the super-villain’s catch-phrase – if you want something done right, do it yourself. Now I wouldn’t go that far, because I love help, I love collaborating. But there is a lot to be said for taking action. Perhaps a better analogy would be the principle of direct-democracy.
Volunteers grease the poetry and literature machine, they are at times, hidden supporters of magazines, zines, journals, anthologies and websites. They post, they read, they sort, they gather, they spend, they count, they write, they edit, they draw, they paint, they press, they copy, they talk…the list could easily go on. And I use the word ‘machine’ on purpose. The writing world can grind you to dust with those giant cogs. One of the hardest things about being a volunteer is getting the balance. Trying not to take on too much and asking for help, because while you’re working to make things happen, you’re probably working to pay the bills too.
I’m not trying to give paid editors and publishers a hard time, because they burn out too, they are just as overworked. What is little different, is that volunteers are always starting from the shadows, and that’s where some of their powerlessness lies. A paid, recognised literary professional, when they move from project to project, they bring the muscle of having held a paid and recognised position with them. A volunteer takes the experience but not the recognition. Now, again, I don’t think this is the fault of paid literary professionals – I think that’s simply the way a capitalist democracy values certain individuals. The notion of paid work has a privileged place in society.
And it’s also not my intent to suggest that volunteers all want to move out of the shadows, not at all, it can be a great place back there. You can get stuff done! I love the work I do in the literary world. The work that isn’t paid – it’s too much fun not to. And the work that is paid or remunerated in some way, that’s fantastic too. Just being involved is enough, for me, anyway.
So thanks to those of you who jump up and get it done – I’ve relied on you just as often as I’ve been one of you.