Last year I had the chance to do some most delicious work: make a selection of one hundred vital, glowing poems that resulted in Fire in the Soul, the anthology we co-published with Amnesty International.
Appropriate punishment for having a bit too much fun in the process came in the shape of tracking down the numerous permissions (ask anyone who’s ever embarked on a similar enterprise and you’re sure to elicit, at the very least, a strangled groan).
Almost every publisher has a different form to fill and process to follow, agents can be glacially slow to act on the behalf of poets they claim to represent. Some trails leading to the actual person holding rights require advanced tracking skills, to say nothing of the torrent of email that is inevitably generated. But I enjoyed the conversations with poets and translators that followed and basked in their generosity of spirit.
However, among the ‘ones that got away’ was a poem by Bertolt Brecht entitled ‘Questions from a Worker Who Reads’, a reflective and wholly wonderful Socratic monologue that puts history’s greats in the context of Everyperson’s unsung achievements. I dearly wished to include it.
The publisher’s rights department was prompt to reply. How about we cough up a fat standard fee followed by $50 per line? And that was only for the European market; if the book went on sale in the US further fees would apply. I replied pointing out our modest print run and grand ambition.
Unfortunately the latter had no bearing on the former and there was no way of paying such a fee and making the figures work on our subsidy-less project. No dice. I had an email back saying Brecht was an ‘important property’ for the publisher and so these were the cheapest reproduction fees on offer.
Well, the man, who was a lifelong Marxist, might possibly be a trifle piqued at being viewed as property. But he was dead, as was his son, as also was the translator of the poem. The only people who stood to gain were likely the publishers who must have gobbled up the rights. And there was no way past their ringfence without first suffering a nosebleed.
It was a similar story for a poem by the radical lesbian poet Audre Lorde. And as for Sharon Olds’ achingly corporeal vision of a Russian girl from the famine of 1921 (‘Photograph of the Girl’), the fee demanded was so high that I didn’t even have the heart to reply until I received a chivvying reminder to pay up. Olds is a living American treasure, a rare poet who has people queuing round the block when she reads. But is she best served by her work being placed beyond the reach of most anthologies, which would never have the budgets to pay the kinds of fees her publishers demand?
I’m ambivalent at best about people who put literary work that is not of their creation onto the internet. But faced with such grasping, I feel pleased that the Brecht poem is available many times over through this medium. Just key the title into your search engine.