I teach English at a public high school, where I am the advisor to the writing club. For a few years, including during the summer, I have also been meeting informally every week or so with a group of the most motivated current and former club members to write for a couple of hours. I have been available to read their work, brainstorm ideas, critique, etc., all pro bono. I love their enthusiasm and imagination, and am pleased to have played a small role in their creative development. Recently, to my delight, one of my former students, who is now in college, has achieved national recognition for his poetry and has a contract with a small press.
A local library, knowing about my connection with the student, asked me to invite him to read. I included a few other talented students as well. The student requested an honorarium, and when I offered him a small sum, told me that was his rate for reading one poem.
I would of course like him to read more than one poem at the event. Would it be snarky and/or passive-aggressive of me to remind my former student of the time and attention I have given to him and his writing over several years without compensation? (Often buying him a muffin as well!) I think it’s great that, at a young age, this poet is standing up for the value of his art. At the same time, this, to me, seems like a moment for him to be generous, gracious, and—frankly—grateful, but I feel petty for having to point that out. What approach would you advise me to take?
—Stymied in Stuyvesant Town
I would explain to your student that you would like him to read several poems but cannot offer more money, and explain why. After telling him that you do think it’s great to see him valuing his art—no point in totally embarrassing the young man, I suppose—I would gently explain that this event is, in large part, a party held in his honor, and that you really hadn’t thought of it as a gig! If none of the other young readers are being paid, I would point that out, too.
How is this reading being financed, by the way? Based on my experience, I have been assuming that the library is donating the space, that there is no admission charge, and that the honorarium came out of your own pocket. Let him know these things, if true.
But even if you have secured some sort of corporate sponsorship, or will charge admission, or are otherwise likely to break even or make a little money (for some good cause, like the writing club) on this reading, your young poet still needs a lesson in how to be a mensch. I do not think it is at all snarky or passive-aggressive to remind him that you, a talented professional, have donated a great deal of your off-hours time, and sometimes actually spent money of your own, to further his career and that he, in his turn, should be willing to contribute a few extra minutes of reading, not just out of gratitude to you but also to support his co-readers and other young local writers.
I find myself wondering where, if at all, this young man can command serious money—or any money!—for reading poems. Perhaps he is a spoken-word superstar, or opens for a famous rapper. But my guess is that he has little or no experience in honoraria for readings, and was trying the idea out. In that case, you will be doing him an added service if you teach him to be a little more realistic in his demands, lest he alienate the many people who lack your level of patience and understanding.
I wish I knew whether your poet is a spoiled, entitled upper-middle-class kid with a too-healthy ego, or a scrappy kid from the streets who has no idea how poetry readings are compensated but really needs money for his family and saw a possible opportunity to get a little more. I’m not sure this should change anything, and the poor scrappy kid could also benefit from a lesson in how to behave toward one’s benefactors, but I still might try to scrounge up another few bucks for him to make the lesson go down a little more easily.
If your poet still insists on the per-poem rate, I would suggest that he choose one of his longer poems.
I am a fortyish suburban soccer mom. My husband died suddenly a little over six months ago. Between life insurance, savings, my teaching job, and trusts my husband’s parents have set up for the kids, we are financially secure. I also have plenty of friends who live nearby. My own parents live in the next town. I loved Jack very much, and I am probably still in shock, but I am doing quite well under the circumstances. Although I would certainly not rule out another serious relationship in the future, I am not especially interested in getting involved with anyone right now. I would like to have some more time to grieve and reflect and adjust. Besides, I enjoy my own company, and that of my kids and my platonic friends. And I am very busy!
I tell you all this because my husband’s best friend Lou just told me that he is in love with me and has been for years, and I wanted you to understand that I am not in any way desperate for a new romance. But the fact is that I have always liked Lou very much and maybe even had a little crush on him, maybe even thought what-if once or twice. It never occurred to me that this would ever amount to anything more than adding some spice to a totally chaste and friendly relationship, since my own marriage was rock solid. Lou is married, too, and also has kids (two teenage sons—my three children are all younger).
Jack and I always thought that Lou and Ann’s marriage was happy and secure—although, come to think of it, over the past few years the four of us pretty much stopped getting together as couples. Lou would always have some reason to come to our house on his own, and it seemed like Ann was always out on a girls’ night or at book group or visiting her family or away on business. (I have nothing against Ann, but we never really clicked as independent friends or did anything without Lou and Jack—not that that matters, I suppose.)
Anyway, Lou told me that his marriage has been an empty shell for a long time. (Until I got him to stop, he provided all sorts of evidence of this.) He asked me if he had a chance with me, and I said no. He then asked me whether he would have a chance if he wasn’t married, and I said that that wasn’t a fair or relevant question. Then—all this took about ten thousand times more words than I am putting down here, but I am sure I have the main ideas—he asked me whether he had any grounds at all to hope we could get together if he were free, and that if I said that there were he would leave Ann right away. I just sat there pretty much mute and told him to leave. He keeps calling me. What should I do? He was very convincing that there is no love left in his marriage, and I really do think we might be great together.
—Flummoxed in Flossmoor
Even if there’s no love left in Jack’s marriage, there must be something else left, since he apparently plans to stay in it unless you offer him a little encouragement. He is trying to put you in a terrible position, where you either have to lie about your feelings or become a sort of home-wrecker lite.
You have already answered all the questions he has any right to ask. Now he is trying to get you to go a step further. It sounds as if he is currently at the Just give me one word—or look me in the eye and say you can never love me, and I’ll disappear into the misty moors forever! stage. Except, of course, that you probably can’t count on him to disappear.
This is not an ultimatum he is entitled to give. So my short answer to your question is: see as little of Lou as possible and, if he presses you again, repeat that you refuse to make promises or predictions of any kind to a married man.
But what if he keeps insisting that you tell him you have no feelings for him? And what if he is manipulative enough to convince you that he will take anything but “I could never be with you!” as encouragement? If I were you, I would simply say that you aren’t going to play games with him, and that “no comment” means “no comment.” I would add that his marriage to Ann is a matter between him and Ann. And, to increase the likelihood that he will actually take you seriously, I would close by telling him that, despite any thing he may say or do, you consider yourself completely free to choose when, and with whom, to start a new relationship.
By the way, Lou may be a great fellow in other respects, but his conduct here does not dispose me to like him. He sounds fine about deceiving his wife, to say nothing of pursuing you during an extremely difficult time in your life, when you, as a friend and as his best friend’s recent widow, should have been able to rely on his help and support without all this conflict and drama. Shouldn’t he just be cleaning your gutters and talking to your kids about their dad, while maintaining a noble silence? For a year, anyway?
Reasons abound for giving Lou the gate. As an ethical matter, I am all for honoring contracts, and not interfering with other people’s. You may believe, in this instance, that Lou and Ann’s moral, if not their legal, contractual obligations have long been nullified. I would disagree; but even absent any ethical bar to interfering with their marriage, doing so may not be wise as a practical matter. He seems to be setting you up for the “I left Ann for you” guilt trip, among other things. If you say or do anything that Lou takes as encouragement and he does leave Ann, you are likely to find yourself entangled in romantic and family and stepfamily complications long before you and your kids are ready.
As you point out yourself, you need time to grieve, heal, and adjust. If you take that time, you may discover that you would just as soon live without serious, or any, relationships for the foreseeable future, even if that means missing out on any chance with Lou. Or you may find that you want to explore the great world of men who were not part of your and your husband’s social circle, and Lou may look less attractive as part of that larger world. You may—I think you will—discover that your husband’s married best friend, who has known you and your kids in a totally different capacity, and who insists on involving you in his choice to leave his wife, is not the best partner for you. If he shows up at your door in a year or two or three, unencumbered and less bent on pressuring you, and if you are still free, you can reassess the situation then.
Cleaver’s in-house advice columnist opines on matters punctuational, interpersonal, and philosophical, spinning wit and literary wisdom in response to your ethical quandaries. Write to her at [email protected]. Find more columns by June in her attic.