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Belief in the Arts, or, Why a Poem in Relief is Worth a Dollar of Your Time

Brad Fruhauff

Brad Fruhauff thinks about the big questions of what Relief is and what that has to do with you.

Every six months or so we on the editorial staff of Relief have to think about that unpleasant subject of money. Relief is an amazing journal in part because it accomplishes nearly everything with the time and energy - and, often, money - of volunteer editors, bloggers, designers, photographers, lawyers, accountants, and no doubt more I'm not thinking of, but even after all the free labor, it simply costs money to print and ship these sharp, lovely books.

As publishers of Christian literature, none of us at Relief want to think our job is about the money - there's something impure about connecting art and the dollar, right? Well, we like to think so, though the two have never been that far apart historically. It is simply a reality in the publishing industry - I can't tell you how many panels I sat through last year at AWP that ended with questions about selling more subscriptions.

Maybe it's the new year, or maybe it's my perpetual self-reflection, but I've been thinking about why we're doing this thing, after all. It's not for the money; it never was. It's to create a unique venue for like-minded Christian writers and readers, that is, writers and readers who wanted something more than either the Christian or mainstream markets could give them.

Entering now our fourth year, I think we've often achieved our goal, and sometimes had to make hard choices between aesthetic quality and "edgy" content. We've made a lot of friends along the way, discovered some new names, and received some national recognition for some of our authors. We're pretty proud of how far we've come, all things considered.

One thing we did from an early stage was create things like the blog and the Relief Writers' Network, online spaces where the Relief community could have not just more access to Relief-y content but also to one another, to forming writing groups and connecting people to one another.

I was thinking about this social-networky side of Relief as I was watching a video of former NEA Chairman Dana Gioia speak about the importance of poetry and the arts (see below). Gioia speaks of how poetry arises from communities and in its spirit runs counter to the exigencies of business, the bureaucracies of government, or the pandering of politics. In aesthetic theory we sometimes talk about art existing for its own sake, in a game space where we can freely and safely give ourselves over to an experience. Art doesn't have an agenda, isn't trying to get us to do anything but to be present to an encounter or, perhaps, to become a certain kind of responsive person. The arts, Gioia insists, "awaken us to the full potential of our humanity."

I find Gioia a compelling and articulate booster for poetry and the arts. He does not necessarily come to his subject with new ideas, but he does speak with confidence and faith in it - he's a man that believes in poetry and its powers.

At Relief, we believe in the power of the word, too; as Christians, we are a community defined both by a book and by the one called the Word. It's because we believe in our humble capacity to craft words for the sake of awakening the full humanity of each other, as opposed to any fame our words may bring us, that we do what we do.

An important part of that humanity has always been the community in which these words circulate - meaning you, dear readers. One of the best parts of this job is sitting at our booth during Calvin's Festival or the AWP conference and just meeting all the people who have read our little books and been nourished by them or are excited to learn that such a journal exists.

But if we're talking about a community in the same breath as a literary journal, then we have to consider the relationship between a community and a market. A market, it seems, waits passively for a product to come along to fulfill a need or to arouse and fulfill a desire. That's fine when you're talking about Swiffers or Snuggies, but we've already decided it feels funny for art. A community, on the other hand, is in principle more active in creating the kinds of products it wants to live on - like churches or theaters or parks. Or literary journals.

If you're getting uncomfortable about now, it means you're reading me carefully. I'm about to sound like a pastor making an altar call. Because if a community is active, then it begs the question of what you, dear readers, are doing as part of our community here at Relief. We have dozens and scores and hundreds of people involved in our little organization, either doing some form of work or writing or investing their financial resources in us. And what about you?

We don't want to sell subscriptions just to have nice numbers to look at. We want to sell books people want to read and that inspire them to write their own poems and stories or just go out and love more of the world because of the little beauty they found here. If you believe in this vision, then we want to hear from you, we want to invite you to be a part of it - and yes that means sending money, but it also means communicating with us, marketing for us, writing for us, fitting yourself into the picture somewhere.

So this is me standing in the middle of the street, asking, "Do you believe in us?" and, "What are you going to do about it?"

Dana Gioia - Why Support the Arts? from Community Foundation Sonoma on Vimeo.