Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Working Lives of Poets: An All-Call for Your Stories!

The Working Lives of Poets: An All-Call for Your Stories!

A year or so ago, I went to an open mic poetry reading. The host, when introducing one of the readers, said, “She’s probably the only poet here with a real job.” I found myself bristling slightly at this comment. “I have a real job!” I wanted to protest. At the same time, I felt a simultaneous guilty need to explain myself: I’m in my early 40’s, I’ve had a very meandering career path, and, well, damnit, I’m just at a point where I need things, like a dental plan and a little bit of savings in case I actually make it to old age. To me, this (I am sure well-meant) comment seemed to imply that as a poet, I should be perfectly content to make espresso or waitress the rest of my life in order to dedicate myself more fully to my art; that having a “real job” somehow made me less of artist. Then I got equally huffy thinking that perhaps the assumption was actually that poets were too flaky to hold down “real jobs”. So much projection, so little time! Still, that little moment has always stuck with me, and I find myself thinking about it again this morning as I get ready for my usual Saturday writing session.

This is an all-call to poets, writers, and artists out there. I would love to hear from you on some or all of the following inquiries:

• How does your working life add to or take away from your artistic life and work?
• What is your attitude towards your job?
• Do you enjoy what you do to earn a paycheck?
• If you could quit and dedicate yourself full time to your artistic life, would you? Do you think this would increase your artistic productivity, or damage it?
• Is your working life and your artistic life entwined? In what way? (ie, teaching or making a living from your art).

And anything else you’d like add about how your work life and your artistic life bump up against each other.

I'm super-excited to hear from you all!

--Kristen McHenry


Anonymous said...

This is a comment that I was e-mailed by David Horowitz of Rose Alley Press (one of my favorite Seattle poets!)--Kristen

I am a conference room attendant at a big downtown Seattle law firm. I clean and stock many of the firm's kitchens and conference rooms, and I cater breakfasts and luncheons in various conference rooms. I also make lots of coffee and occasionally cheer up a stressed or weary co-worker. I have held this job for ten and one-half years, and I passionately love it! I am on my feet most of the day, often engage in brief but enjoyable conversations with other employees, and call upon much versatility of physical skill and social grace. The firm knows about and shows great support for my literary endeavors, and my working conditions, wage, benefits, and office space are quite generous. I feel like the happiest, luckiest person on the planet. I have a wonderful job, yet I maintain the time and energy to devote to writing and publishing. Glory be!

I've nicknamed my job "fundraising," because it helps pay for my activities outside of the law firm--particularly those supporting my publishing company, Rose Alley Press. To me, the greatest life skill is crafting a meaningful balance, not simply "succeeding," as in making lots of money and attaining prestige. My conference room attendant and publishing responsibilities often entail sixty to seventy hours of work per week, but I gladly accept hard work, as long as it is not mindlessly repetitive. I also do not bring my job home. A conference room attendant has a high degree of autonomy, few power struggles and petty squabbles, and no stacks of papers to grade or documents to study.

I note a few caveats. First, I commit myself to staying in peak condition. I am fifty-five years old, and to run around the law firm the way I do can be very taxing. I do not smoke, drink coffee or soda, or eat many sweets. I only occasionally drink a glass of beer or wine. I often do calisthenics and yoga. I primarily eat fresh fruits and vegetables, salads, fresh whole grain bread and pasta, and the healthiest soups and casseroles. I almost exclusively drink filtered water, fruit and vegetable juices, and herbal teas. The law firm's cafeteria is excellent and helps me stay on the health-commitment beam.

Second, I rarely write about any particular event or incident at the law firm. The law business requires much discretion and confidentiality, and violations of this are radically discouraged.

Third, I respect my company's policies regarding non-job-related activities. When I deliver a Rose Alley Press book to a workplace customer or send a message to workplace friends about a Rose Alley Press reading, I almost always do so before work, after work, or during lunch or coffee break. Occasionally I take a minute or two from work time to do this, but normally I strictly adhere to company policies and indulge my literary activities at what are deemed acceptable times. Policy violations are strongly discouraged.

I am not alone at my law firm, by the way. Our company's staff features professional-level painters, quilters, sculptors, rock guitarists, classical violinists, and stage actors. We're generally a happy bunch. Not every artist needs, wants, or should have an academic job. I remain grateful for my years as a college English instructor--but I do not miss the calling, and I am equally grateful for my years as a library book shelver, cafe dishwasher, and data entry office temp. Each non-academic job taught me about workers' pride and hardships, aspirations and frustrations, American ambition and compassion--and, corny as it sounds, life. Poetry "about language" or what it's like to teach English is of limited interest to me. Thank you, work world.

David D. Horowitz

Jo-Ann said...

You know what I love most about Dave Horowitz' story? I love that he is seen by his day job as one who has value. Not because he is a publisher/writer but because of who he is. When we see each other, really see who we are, life becomes more than work, it becomes one creative expression where all fits, all matters, all is art. Beautiful Dave.