The Poet as Peddler

I’ve never considered myself much of a salesman. As a kid, I sold a few candy bars and other fundraisers for school, but other than that, I’ve never had much of a knack for getting people to part with their money. Truthfully, it feels kind of dirty. Even when I’m selling a product that I firmly believe in (like my own writing), I find it difficult to persuade others to buy.

This past weekend, I had the benefit of participating in the Polk Authors and Illustrators Festival, a downtown marketplace-style gathering of writers and artists in Lakeland. There I was, hawking my wares to Joe Public, having the grandest of conversations about poetry, Florida, and a thousand other topics. I fell into sort of a groove at one point where people were buying books left and right, not because I was pushing my product on them, but because I engaged their natural desire to talk about themselves.

As they spilled their guts about their childhood or their daughter-in-law, I found some kind of remotely related tie-in to my work. I opened the book up, showed them a verse or two that had to do with our conversation, and by George, they bought the book. I’m sure that those of you in sales have a name for this kind of approach, but far be it from me to know such things — I remain a poet and schoolteacher at heart.

The lesson, I guess, was just this: If you show up to a place all worried about how many books you’re going to sell (or not), then you reap the results of your anxiety. If you just take it easy, talk to the people like a normal human being, and do your best to be a good listener, the sales take care of themselves. Events like the Authors and Illustrators Festival help me to remember my place in this world; I’m not a pitch-man or a carpetbagger, thank goodness. I do, however, know good-sounding words when I come across them, and I’m a pretty fair peddler of free knowledge. I might do the festival again next year, but for tonight, there’s writing to be done. Time to close up shop.

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