“The whole starving artist thing doesn’t exist” - Savon Bartley
I met Savon Bartley in 2014 at the National Poetry Slam in Oakland, CA. That was my first year competing in any type of national competition, representing Philly of course, while he had competed as a youth poet for Brave New Voices and was now repping New Jersey at NPS. We became pretty good friends after that and, as I’ve gotten to know him more over the years, I’ve become a fan not only of his work but of his work ethic as well. I want to interview Savon for this series because seeing someone my own age who has excelled the way he has is inspiring to me and I wanted to learn more about some amazing projects he’s worked on. From touring the UK to performing regularly for the United Nations to doing commissioned work for ballet companies, I wanted to know more about how he got into everything he was doing.
What I mainly took away from my conversation with Savon on how he makes a living, was the importance of self-education and the integral role social media plays for our generation of artists. We talked a little bit about education, since we both recently graduated from college, as I asked him what effect his formal education has had on his professional life. “The institution isn’t concerned about my well being after I leave college,” he said, “and that’s why it didn’t prepare me for anything after college.” I wasn’t surprised to hear that his views on higher education were similar to my disillusionments, after graduating and realizing that studying English hadn’t taught me how to make my writing into a profession.
“I went to college and I worked 3 jobs and they taught me a lot of stuff about nothing. I think that all the life skills I learned, I learned from my mother. I think, if anything, my school taught me how to be self-disciplined; turning work in on time, balancing stress, how to work with others, but, in the end, I’m not using my political science degree right now. I’m not really utilizing the things that I learned in the classroom. And I don’t think if I went for English or Creative Writing, it still wouldn’t have helped me in what I do now. Because even the poetry classes that were provided...it isn’t the type of poetry that exists currently.”
While Savon isn’t a champion for college as an institution, he is a champion for education itself. In fact, the bulk of his income comes from working as a Teaching Artist, an artist who is contracted to teach classes, workshops, or lead assemblies within their discipline for schools and other programs. Savon is currently a teaching artist on the roster of several nonprofit organizations, including Urban Words NYC which he is an alumni of. Most of the poets I know are also teaching artists and I’ve always been curious as to how that whole process works. With Savon, it’s an example of utilizing your network, staying in contact, and maintaining strong professional relationships so that not only do you have a place to seek opportunities when you need them, but also your name comes to mind when someone within that network has an opportunity that they need someone for. This was how Savon became a mentor in residence at Urban Word.
Since college did not give Savon the technical skills to do the work that he does, I asked him where that knowledge came from. He simply responded, Google. “The way we learn is different now. I think as millennials it’s important that we don’t stray away from what we were born into.” From how to make a press kit to how to self publish, anything you want to know can be found with a little bit of research and tailoring the information you find to what you’re trying to do. It sounds like a no-brainer, but I think sometimes we forget just how accessible information is to us; we forget that the internet allows us to have more control over the way we educate ourselves (well...at least I do). Savon recently did a poetry tour in the Uk which he figured out how to plan after reading an article he found online.
“If you google it, it’s a guy who has an article about this indie band that he had and he was like ‘I booked my tour 5 months out and I had a press kit and I had video, I had samples and I looked at venues, I mapped out how to get somewhere with a car and I just looked at all the venues that were in that route and reached out to those people [...] I literally did the same thing dude in the article did! I mapped it out, 5 months. Cool. Where am I routing? London. What happens in London? That place, that place, and that place. And I emailed that place, that place, and that place. I made a press kit, cause that’s what the guy did in the article. I had video and I had a website, cause that’s what the guy had in the article.
Another tool Savon uses to make himself more accessible to different opportunities is social media. “What I wanted to do was make myself available to things that I didn’t know were out there. I put a website up, then I rebranded all my social media, and I just made everything really linear.” By using social media as a marketing tool, it is easy for different organizations to find Savon and samples of his work while the clean, linear aesthetic of his different accounts add an extra note of professionalism. One example of an opportunity he received through social media was commissioning a poem for The Black Iris Project, a ballet company. By making himself and his work more easily accessible online, Savon was able to write a poem for the trailer for an upcoming production about Nelson Mandela AND get paid. Now, doing commissions has become a regular part of his income.
While college might not have taught me how to make a living as a writer, I’m lucky enough to live in the age of technology where I can pretty much figure out how to do it myself. I’m also lucky to have a community of writers that I can talk to and learn from.