LAST NOVEMBER I published the following poem in The Sun:
If you are dissatisfied with this poem IN ANY WAY, return it to: Sparrow, P.O. Box 63, Phoenicia, NY 12464. He will mail you a refund within six to eight days. Only this poem contains this unique offer.
The following are some of the responses I received:
I am dissatisfied with this poem. Please send my refund to the address below. Since DOC [Department of Corrections] policy prohibits sending money or books, please make my refund a postcard with a picture of someplace pretty, if possible. Otherwise, thank you for giving me a chance to express my general dissatisfaction with “poetry” that doesn’t rhyme.
Does it have to be the poem, or could it be a photocopy? How much money?
I am sorry to report that this poem was not the perfect fit I expected when I purchased it. It seemed a bit narrow and not quite long enough. Perhaps it was made in China (though it seems more Japanese). I do not expect a refund or a replacement, as the wasting of stamps, time, or our nation’s forests on such folly would be absurd.
I am not satisfied with this poem. Returning for refund.
It’s a good poem. It’s just not what I was expecting.
On a postcard of the painting New York Office, by Edward Hopper:
I am writing for a poem refund. In “Money-Back Guarantee” you offer a refund to be sent within six to eight days.
On a postcard of Alfred Stieglitz’s An Icy Night:
My dissatisfaction with your money-back-guarantee poem is that I did not write it myself.
I also received three letters with no note, just an address to send money to.
AT FIRST I was shocked that people were really applying for the refund. Wasn’t it obvious the poem was a piece of abstract humor?
Perhaps it wasn’t!
Maybe I did, subconsciously, yearn for a pile of responses. (I wrote the poem in an isolated mountain village in the midst of winter.)
My next fear was that I would go bankrupt. If every Sun reader demanded his or her money back, I could forfeit my entire life’s savings. And if I didn’t pay, could they sue me? Would I spend the next three years slowly proceeding through civil court?
And how much is a fair refund for a poem? How much is a poem worth? In my life, the most I ever received for a poem was six hundred dollars, for one that I recited on the PBS special The United States of Poetry. Normally, I receive zero dollars for my poems.
Worried, I asked Angela Winter, project manager at The Sun, about how much to reimburse my dissatisfied readers.
“Just divide the cover price of The Sun by the number of pages,” she suggested.
“And my poem is only a quarter of a page!” I added, relieved.
Looking at an issue, I saw that there are forty-eight pages, and the cover price is $3.95. This equals 8.2 cents a page. My poem, being a quarter of a page in length, would be worth 2.05 cents.
About that time, however, I received two more letters which changed the entire ordeal. The first was accompanied by a dollar bill:
Seems like risky business, putting your address right in your poem. How will people react? Will you get a rash of ungrateful mail? What’s your poem worth? I thought about this and realized that I got my copy of The Sun as a free trial, so I have nothing invested in your poem. The magazine has a total distribution of around 60,000, so if everyone is as generous as I am, your poem will do pretty well.
The second envelope contained only a check (for $5.50) from a Joseph M.
I composed this form letter, to send to my correspondents:
Dear Irate Customers,
You and I, plus numerous others, are involved in a unique and remarkable group undertaking. Nothing exactly like this has ever happened before. Searching for a term for it, I have invented the expression “Social Postal Money Art.”
You clipped and sent back my poem, hoping, apparently, that I was secretly a millionaire looking for a pretext to distribute my wealth. Or perhaps you just hated my poetry.
A few of you wrote to celebrate my poetical composition, or to explicitly refuse a refund. Together, the seventeen of us — some in prison, one living in a trailer in Seattle (to judge from the enclosed photograph) — form an improvised collective, united by a poem we despise or admire (or, in my case, composed).
Meanwhile, two donors, whom I will call “Gerhard Fjorn” and “Semiott Drane” to conceal their identities, have contributed a total of $6.50 to our treasury. My role in all of this is to distribute this new wealth among you, the citizens of our small nation. Let us all thank Gerhard and Semiott for their gracious and unexpected foresight.
Yours in guarantee,
P.S. If I had seen this poem in The Sun, would I have demanded a refund? It troubles me that I will never know.
After I mailed the refunds, something unpredictable occurred — I began to receive my refunds back:
I confess that your refund fills me with remorse. I liked the poem. I just wanted to see what would happen if I took advantage of the offer. In retrospect, I feel that this was dishonest, and so I am returning the refunded dollar.
I wonder how many people returned the poem. If more than twenty, and you send one dollar to each, it could get quite expensive.
Here is the dollar back. Your effort deserves it. I loved “Money-Back Guarantee” and was not in any way dissatisfied — just curious.
I am hardly irate about your poem, although I do enjoy your prose much more. When I picked up The Sun and read your refund poem I was having the kind of day that made me want to stretch my norm, do something different, shake up the routine. Plus it sounded like fun.
Obviously my life is so mundane that the small act of requesting a poem refund excites me.
I must decline the monetary refund and ask that you allow me to add to the cause; I am enclosing one of my poems, for which I offer you a refund in advance.
Yours in Social Postal Money Art,
Keli returned my dollar bill and added another!
I love the section in Walden where Thoreau totals up his expenses for his one-room dwelling. In case you’ve forgotten, here it is:
The exact cost of my house, paying the usual price for such materials as I used, but not counting the work, all of which was done by myself, was as follows; and I give the details because very few are able to tell exactly what their houses cost, and fewer still, if any, the separate cost of the various materials which compose them:
Mostly shanty boards.
Refuse shingles for roof and sides: 4.00 Laths: 1.25 Two second-hand windows with glass: 2.43 One thousand old brick: 4.00 Two casks of lime: 2.40
That was high.
More than I needed.
Mantle-tree iron: 0.15 Nails: 3.90 Hinges and screws: 0.14 Latch: 0.10 Chalk: 0.01 Transportation: 1.40
I carried a good part on my back.
In all: $28.12½
In imitation of Thoreau, here are my income and expenses:
Donations: $6.50 Refunds: 7.00
Seven unruly readers at 1.00 each.
Returned refunds: 4.00 Surplus: $3.50
Where should I place this surplus? It seemed morally wrong to buy margarine and hot dogs with it.
One day, in the bathroom, reading my stack of old magazines, I found a copy of Nonviolent Action, the newsletter of the Nonviolent Action Community of Cascadia (riseup.net/nacc). Many years ago, I met its founder, Ed Pearson, at an antinuclear rally in Manhattan. Ed had organized an escrow account for tax resisters. Instead of paying military tax (roughly a third of the national taxes), one may send money to his organization, which uses the interest on the escrow account to fund activism throughout the U.S.
For three years, I paid no military taxes and sent my money to this group. I still have $1,276.85 in the account.
Out of the NACC newsletter fell a small envelope with the organization’s address on it. I decided to place my surplus three dollars (deducting fifty cents for all my postage) within this envelope. This seemed intuitively correct, the way the last line of a poem may resound distinctly.
I also enclosed a note:
Dear Nonviolent Action Community,
Recently I published a poem offering readers a money-back guarantee. Because of a strange quirk of fortune, I finished with an extra three dollars. I am sending this to you, to apply to the struggle against war, invasion, and empire.