How These ‘Teacher Rockstars’ Make $70,000 a Year Writing Poetry
“The most I’ve ever been paid was in 2013 by the University of Central Florida and Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont. Both venues paid $1,500 for about two hours of work (…) When I arrived, UCF had 100 coffee mugs with my name on them. So being a spoken word artist is kind of a cross between a teacher and a rockstar.”
-David A. Romero
Opening for Latin Grammy winners Ozomatli certainly makes David A. Romero, 30, more of a rockstar than he likes to admit.
While the stark contrast of his glaring mohawk and fine pressed suit doesn’t help him look any less the part, the widely acclaimed Latino “lover” vehemently self-identifies as a poet.
Jet-lagged and squinting from the soft sunshine outside, Romero reaches for his iced coffee and laughs when I ask him about his relationships, managing to still clutch his chessboard in the opposite arm, as if it was his Bible or newborn kid.
“There are many lovely women I encounter on my travels. Very studious. They are activists. They know what they want and are passionate […] That’s all I am going to say about that.”
David leans back and shrugs. Mingling with starstruck fans won’t help him get anywhere. Having been the second spoken word performer featured on All Def Digital, rubbing shoulders with media giants like Russell Simmons and calling up legendary author Luis Rodriguez, he feels, are the necessary types of steps to advancing his career.
Nodding approvingly to my left is Matt Sedillo, 33, also a nationally recognized artist. Romero and Sedillo have been a team for nearly a decade, touring the country as spoken word artists and teachers of poetry. But really, they’re just talented troublemakers flying around on colleges’ and universities’ dime, rattling up peaceful campuses and venues across the U.S. They’re radicals without a 9-5 and no desire to get one, because as the rising stars of today’s “slam poetry” scene, why would they? They rake in a sweet $70,000 together a year blurring the lines between Shakespeare and Tupac, Cesar Chavez and Karl Marx.
Recently, we had the opportunity to sit down with David and Matt to discuss their backstories, their approaches to business, and most importantly, what their lives as modern day traveling poets are really like.
(This interview has been edited and condensed)
Tell me what you guys do exactly. A lot of people have misconceptions about writers and poets — especially that they’re lazy or just dreamers. I’ve seen your performances online, so I know there’s more to it. What do you call yourselves?
DAVID: I tell people, “I’m a professional spoken word artist.” They say, “What’s that?” I say, “That’s a poet.” They say, “You get money doing that?” I say, “Yeah!”
It’s definitely “edutainment.” We are getting on stage and addressing social issues that need to be addressed. We have different styles, of course. I guess my work can be described as cultural warfare.
How do you get paid as a “spoken word artist?” Is there a typical job?
MATT: Well, that really depends, but we usually earn anywhere from $500 to $2,500 a show. That averages roughly to about $70K per year between the two of us, but every year our figures have increased.
What’s the most you’ve ever been paid for a gig?
DAVID: Matt wins here. He once got paid $3,000 for one show. The most I’ve ever been paid was in 2013 by the University of Central Florida and Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont. Both venues paid $1,500 for about two hours of work. It was really neat — UCF flew me out for an event called Java Jives and sent up an interview with a student TV network. When I arrived, UCF had 100 coffee mugs with my name on them. So being a spoken word artist is kind of cross between a teacher and a rockstar.
So, the bulk of checks arrives from performances?
DAVID: No, the main bulk is actually from hosting workshops — I present poetry and teach different methods. As I said, it’s like a combination between rockstar and teacher. You have to know your audience and how to market yourself. One club might want lessons on poetic structure, the other’s looking for some good “edutainment.” But, workshops tend to pay a bit better.
I imagine this must include a lot of self-marketing; whom do you usually target?
DAVID: I went through a phase when I was reaching out to a lot of talent agencies. I had to think hard how to brand, cold call and get gigs through marketing. I’d have to ask myself, “How am I getting press? Documents? Fans? Repeat business?” I have to think as a publicist. I have been pretty good about turning my audience into fans, though.
However, I’ve learned that Hispanic Heritage Month can do wonders for me. Most often Latino and Black Student Associations will pay top dollar to get somebody like Matt or myself to present at their functions. The Hispanic Heritage Month is something I’m very passionate about, so it’s neat that I can make money celebrating it.
Now I have a press kit, price sheet and database of student clubs. I’m at the point now where a lot of clubs and colleges contact me for events, so it’s crucial that I have a press kit on my website. I still search throughout club databases and cold call. Anything cultural or English-related or writing-related often will pay.
Do you consider yourselves businessmen, then? It sounds like penning sweet lyrics isn’t enough to make it as a poet?
DAVID: Yes, definitely. My brother is an entrepreneur. I used to work for him part-time until I committed 100 percent to poetry. He’s the one who taught me how to constantly seek out new clients and to keep a positive attitude through the whole process. I contact my brother for the upscale products. He’s a founding partner and sales consultant with Outsider’s Creative; they develop wearable “fanwear,” so that’s perfect for me. So yeah, it requires a lot of savvy to stay successful.
Matt is different. He’s more organic in his approach and sometimes that works for him, but he’s better at mingling and meeting people that way. The problem with Matt’s approach is that your contacts can dry up, just like that, if you’re only making organic type of connections.
As in more traditional business, it’s PATIENCE. Contacting people is huge. And even in poetry there’s product development — my stickers, T-shirts, “I HEART Cheese Enchiladas” posters and pins. It’s a constant and consistent branding.
Please, tell me about this “Cheese Enchiladas.” It’s all over your website. Is this a poem of yours?
DAVID: My most successful poem by far is “Cheese Enchiladas.” It’s become a classic by now. I get all different kinds of bizarre reactions to this piece — people say they feel hungry, some get turned on — a lot request that I cook for them.
What’s your defining work, Matt?
MATT: “El Sereno.” It’s a poem about growing up and feeling socially distant from the rest of the world because of where you live. El Sereno is where I grew up, near Cal State Los Angeles and my poem talks about how it felt leaving that community. The idea came to me, well, what happened was — I got a DUI. I was homeless, had just lost my girl, and was in Dallas. It was really hot. I stayed in the library for air conditioning.
People had always told me I was smart. I’m thinking, “OK, but I’m homeless. How did that happen?” So, I started writing seriously, about El Sereno, where I grew up, everything. I thought to myself, or the world, “You may not like me, but you will respect me.”
Writing is one thing, making it your career is another. What inspired you to follow this “On the Road”-type life?
MATT: “One Hundred Years of Solitude.” It was 2000, and I had picked up a copy at the Ontario Library. As I read it, I began thinking, “This is amazing; this is the best thing I’ve ever read.” The writer, Gabriel Garcia Marquez — just his name encouraged me — he looked like my uncle, and he had written what I felt was the most compelling thing to date. I was able to identify with a hero for once. It absolutely changed me, inspiring.
He ended being a huge influence in life, naturally: his writings, his philosophies, even his person. That he was real was enough. It’s funny — I started writing because he inspired me. Then I started my work. The day he died, I was leading my first workshop.
There must have been a lot of ups and downs in this business. What was it like getting started?
DAVID: Once I reached out to the former poet laureate of San Francisco, Jack Hirschman. I reached out for a blurb for my back cover of a book about my political work. At first he said, “Yeah!” So, I sent him this manuscript. Then he told me that he was upset. He said I was trying to name grab him and that “a lot of the poems were amateurish and lacked subtlety.” It hurt, but it’s a good thing I learned those important lessons early. He was right in some ways. Build connections before reaching out. From Hirschman’s comments, I learned about format. I lacked polish, lacked technique. You have put to care into the structure.
David posing with Jiro Yamaguchi (left) and Ulises Bella (right) of Latin Grammy winners Ozomatli
What’s the end goal? Do you plan on living abroad forever, engaging audiences? What about family, retirement?
DAVID: The goal here is to gracefully transition into the academic setting. It’s rare, but some writers receive honorary titles and different residencies based sheerly on their merit of work. Sure, I could return to school, but poets like Ginsberg or Louis J. Rodriguez, who wrote “Always Running,” have been awarded these type of honors without extensive schooling. Now Rodriguez is poet laureate of Los Angeles.
If a younger poet were to approach you and ask for advice, what would you say?
DAVID: I’d say, “No, don’t do it.”
DAVID: [Laughing] A lot of truth is in the image of the broken poet, being destitute, a starving artist. It’s not a myth. But if they were sure to want this, I’d tell them to save up. Be prepared for doors slammed in the face. Most of all, have a body of work ready to perform. Get ready for many, many indignities. A lot of poets aren’t ready for the business of it either. It isn’t arrogance. We all get more out of an event if it is well organized. It behooves poets to make sure there’s proper press coverage. You can’t be timid. I once met a poet who was paid $6,000 for one gig, but he performed in a game room, with no audience. Do you have your press kit ready to go? How about a bio? You’re going to need Youtube links, interviews, flyers, price sheets, sample contracts. How about a website? You got to name that sh*t. Our success came because we treated it as a business.
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