How much would you pay for a poem?


by Paul, 7/7/08 • It is so good to be in Lima! We arrived Saturday night and it’s been a wonderful whirlwind ever since. This afternoon we head off to Villa El Salvador to visit friends, my godchildren, and begin checking in and working on some of our long-term social justice projects in Lomo de Corvina. Natalia Espejo will join us this afternoon and David Hong arrives in Lima tonight. Best of all, only seven days until I’m reunited with Andrea and Araminta!

This blog is written as its authors work on a new research project titled “Women on the Frontlines: Resource Battles, Popular Movements, and Gender Dynamics in Bolivia and Ecuador.” An Associated Colleges of the Midwest (ACM) grant for innovative faculty-student collaboration supports Paul Dosh and Nicole Kligerman in an effort to craft a new model of faculty-student “complementary collaboration.” One way that they share their efforts is through a blog titled “Equal Footing: Collaboration at 13,000 Feet” ( This post is taken from their Equal Footing blog.

Below is some Spoken Word I wrote at the end of our time in Bolivia. Best if read aloud. It’s a draft, so criticism and feedback are most welcome.

UPDATE (7/9/08): Thanks to those who sent feedback. Those who speak some Spanish, know a bit about Latin America, and have been following our blog seem to have very positive reactions, while readers who don’t fit that description tend to not understand parts of it, even if the overall message of the poem is pretty clear. So if you’re reading this for the first time, you may want to bear that in mind.

by Pablo Dosh

how much would you pay / for a poem?

amid the dirty lurch
of paceño commuters
a mountain river of 15-passenger combis
jostle for my bus fare
like rusted abuelos playing contact fùtbol
“un boliviano, un boliviano! la Ceja, la Ceja!”

I swing aboard
and a dirty moneda / passes between hands
one soft and white / the piel of wealth
the other hand like burnt corduroy
dirt and wrinkles seared in
by a childhood / of forced labor
grubby digits calculate / a lack of change
pupils / that have never seen a classroom
bead downward / like a colt in blinders
unaware of deviations from this dead-end autopista

at the end of the line
how much should you pay / for such a poem?
what price for stories of lynchings and near-misses
for testimony of housewives turned bombsmiths
and maimed limbs / rigid in defiance
what cost to publish portraits
to elevate these heroines from obscurity

how much will you pay / for this poem?
will you pay sleep? food? heat?
each night awake buys a metaphor
each meal skipped scores a simile
sunlight shrinks / the tax of rhythm
mercury sinks / the tariff of rhyme

will you pay strain? will you pay stress?
a thousand vertical feet / tap out the meter
will you pay pain? will you pay flesh?
the glazed gaze of grateful gawkers / glad it’s not them
shaking on the stretcher
wearing shower cap and alpaca shroud

how much will you stretch / limits already reached
corporal credit / maxed and breached
arteries sliced wide / peridural and scalpel
no insurance / no blanket
no water / just you
a pharmacy of empty shelves
and a half-surgeon / half-coyote
scavenging coins with a syringe

how much have you paid / for this poem?
how much will you listen / to your wounds
pleading for balance
even muted to an anesthetized mumble
your flesh permits no mistranslation:
“slow down
you need me
you can try to ignore me
but I will be heard”

how much would you take back?
how many will you take with you?
how many will lift you up?
how many will watch you fade?

how much did you pay / for a poem?
for 21 years I’ve been shopping the Americas
searching bargain bins for lines to this poem
my ode began in Sandinista Nicaragua
where my voice cracked
outbid by the boom of Reagan’s guns
at the auction of empire versus the threat
of a good example

in college / in Costa Rica
I watched a bloody brawl
and tore home sick
to vomit verses on the cheap
huddled in my penumbral room
just outside the light

retreat to safety: a smart move to make
but it didn’t take / and when the next bloodbath
crossed my path / my friends recoiled
while I / leaned / in
not sure why
but ready to act

how much could I pay / for a poem?
in Peru I paid cash
for the title, purpose, and infrastructure
of my poem
and the more I bought / the more I paid
like some altruistic hyperinflation
where the cost of a good deed
just keeps going up
and the addict keeps the fixes flowing

first we fixed some frowns
renting clowns and boiling chocolate
to return the warmth of Christmas
to the chill desert of Villa El Salvador

then we fixed some feet
families of ten
with only one pair of shoes

a few greenbacks and several callbacks
moved a mule / from his cell
back toward his stubborn wife / and yearning kids

and with a grassroots record deal
four peruanos walked into a studio hungry
and danced out as the band Pachacamac
off to tour the Southern Cone

each stanza tax brackets more than the last
but I can’t wait to pay / for this poem

will you pay REM?
an alarm set early / to bullrush the dawn
a taper burned low / to ignite the night
I / will / pay

will you pay calories?
a lunch cast aside / too focused to chew
a beggar wolfs down my platter / while I digest her grin
I / will / pay

will you pay tendons?
wrists bled dry by devotion
kneecap atrophied by denial
I / have / paid

will you pay friendship?
one eroded by neglect / values diverge
one snapped by judgment / amistad’s dirge
I / have / paid

and if I can’t afford it
if my frame buckles under this charge
then I say / I need a stronger body
build of real food and fitness

if my horario frays and fractures
then I say / I need discipline / not play

if my budget balloons and busts
then I say / I have lost my way
and I need the wisdom of younger activists
to correct my straying consumption

how much do I pay / for this poem?

overcharge me
rob me until I can see
take me for more than I’m worth
I pay in full
I pay in flesh
and then
I lean forward
and I leave
a tip