Let’s start with chronology. You’re now an IT trainer at the Office of Research Protections at Penn State, and have a longer history of nonprofit administration. At what point in your career did you decide to get an MFA?
Poetry has always been a part of my life, if not my pay-the-bills career—I actually earned a small creative writing scholarship to attend college, where I majored in English and Women’s Studies. I’d been active in women’s philanthropy and nonprofit work throughout high school and college as a volunteer, intern, and eventually as a Program Officer for The Michigan Women’s Foundation, but I was always writing. The semester I worked full-time as an intern at the United Way, I also took an independent study for poetry.
By the end of college, I felt fairly certain that I would want to go to graduate school, but I also knew that I wasn’t ready to jump right in immediately after graduation. My husband is also a writer, and we decided to take turns going to graduate school. We moved to Tucson, where he earned his MFA at the University of Arizona and I managed a nonprofit artists’ cooperative.
What built up to the decision to get the degree?
There was a lot of good in my work in Tucson, but it was also fairly stressful. As my husband was wrapping up his degree, I knew that I was ready to do something different. I also felt like I was at a place where I would appreciate graduate school and its opportunities in a way that I wouldn’t have if I’d gone directly after my BA. Part of me was still thinking I might want to get an advanced degree in nonprofit administration, but I also remember thinking that I would always regret it if I didn’t get an MFA. And that eventually led me to Penn State, which at the time had a three-year MFA program.
You worked as a lecturer at Penn State for several years after getting your MFA. Were you ever (or are you now) attracted to a long-term career in teaching at the university level?
I think it’s interesting that as writers in college and grad school, the other writers you meet and look up to are associated with a school—your teachers and peers, certainly, but also most visiting writers are usually from other universities. And since the writers you know are teachers, it almost becomes a foregone conclusion that if you’re going to be a writer—or stay a writer—you need to be a teacher. Part of that paradigm for me was that I didn’t see any other examples of people becoming fulfilled as writers if they didn’t have a teaching position. People would reference William Carlos Williams or Ted Kooser as evidence that you could have a job and be a poet, but they were clearly exceptions to the rule.
An example: earlier this year I overheard a conversation in a coffee shop. An undergraduate student was asking her writing teacher (an MFA grad student) for advice: she wanted to know if she could be a doctor and a writer (Ed: looks like you can). The teacher was on his way to a PhD program for creative writing, and he told the young woman that while it was possible for writing to be “a nice hobby,” if you wanted to be a “real” writer, it needed to be what you do full-time. The teacher made a comparison to craft fairs in there somewhere, and I’ll admit that I had to bite my tongue when I heard the exchange.
But I also understand where this teacher and MFA student was coming from. In my program, I had this myopic view that writing was inextricably linked to teaching, even though I’d been writing and working prior to my MFA. And if you enjoy teaching, as I did, the teaching and writing link only becomes more confusing. So somehow this all got a bit mixed up for me. When I found out in my third year of being a full-time lecturer that I wouldn’t be able to teach at Penn State any longer (Penn State placed a three-year limit on PSU-graduate lecturers that year), I was thrown into a real crisis of identity. My husband was also lecturing at the University at the time, and we opted to stay in the area because we at least knew his job was secure. I applied for writing fellowships and such, but I also started to do some really hard thinking about what it was that made me happy. In doing my own self-examination, I finally allowed myself to see that not all the teachers I knew were happy or getting to do all the writing they wanted to either—the tenure-track job wasn’t the golden ticket to happiness.
I’m now in my fifth year of working outside of academia, and overall it’s been a very positive choice for me. I’ll admit that I miss having summers off, but otherwise I’ve found there’s actually quite a bit of freedom in writing without the “publish or perish” concern. No one cares about my CV. I have no interest in biting the hand that fed me as a grad student and then as a teacher, and I enjoyed both roles enormously, but I’m very content with pursuing my writing outside of academia.
What does your current day job consist of? Where did you acquire the background to do what you do?
For the past four years, I was the Assistant Director of a research center that focused on statistical methodologies for public health. I was in charge of managing the administration of the Center, and I helped oversee the team that made the Center run—our job was to make sure the scientists could do their science. For me this ranged from budgets to dissemination to supervising staff. A part of my position was overseeing the paperwork necessary for conducting human subjects research. Last month I took a new position as an IT Trainer with the Office of Research Protections, which is (as it sounds) all about ensuring that research involving people or animals—whether it’s a taste test or clinical trial—is conducted in a way that protects the test subjects. As you might imagine, this involves quite a bit of paperwork, all of which is online. My job now is training others on the new software program the University acquired for these applications. I also help the tech team with its communication to researchers.
In terms of my path to this position, my liberal arts degree as well as my previous administrative work have certainly helped me get here, but I’m also fortunate to have had very open-minded supervisors. That is, people who were willing to see my potential, not just my poetry degree. I also think that my experience teaching technical writing, which was part of my job as a lecturer, was very useful when it came to working in science and technology. My jobs, disparate as they sound, all have built on each other in one way or another.
Your forthcoming first book, The Reformation, won the APR/ Honickman First Book Prize this year. How much of the manuscript was written during your time in your MFA program, and how much while you were working?
I would say that maybe half of the poems from this book were written while I was in graduate school, which is getting to be quite a while ago! The real shape of the book came from the title poem, though, and that was written after grad school, so much of the book changed with “The Reformation” as the lodestone. I wrote, revised, rearranged, and sent out the book in its current iteration while working my administrative day job.
Can you characterize the differences between writing poems as an MFA student and as a working person? In particular, do you detect a difference in attention, or the effort it takes to enter the place where poetry happens?
As I think about it, the way I write poetry hasn’t actually changed that much from when I was an MFA student because it’s how I’ve always written: I have an agreement with myself that if I have an idea, an image, or a phrase—even if it’s just three words—that I will write it down. Even if I’m half-asleep and have to fumble to find my notebook in the dark. It’s mostly from these small germs of ideas that I generate my poems, often at the time when I write the original ideas down—I just keep going. I let these small poem fragments just sit in my notebook for a time. When it feels right, I’ll type a number of them up in one large batch; from that point, I go where I’m most interested or inspired. I might get a couple poems that way.
If anything, writing in grad school was a bit more difficult because of the enforced schedule. I know that the discipline of a writing program or a good writing group can be extremely beneficial to some people, but I’m okay with my process being more fluid than that. When I needed to have a poem each week for workshop, I would often need to “make” poems out of work that wasn’t strong to begin with. This can be an interesting exercise, to be sure, but at the end of a school year, I would need to discard more poems than I kept, because it’s not as though my ratio of wheat to chaff improved simply because I was typing up ideas more frequently.
Of course it can be difficult to find time to write or do the other work of being a writer (sending out submissions, etc.), but that’s been true whether I’m grading papers or running a business meeting. I was writing poems in the margins of my calculus notes in high school, and now I’m doing that between PowerPoint presentations. The poetry is always there.
You’ve spoken elsewhere about feeling that your poems are “ahead” of you — that they know what new thoughts and developments are latent in you before you know consciously. I love this idea, and think that many poets feel this way. But work — particularly work in an office, even work that allows and requires a measure of creative thought — often depends on knowing for sure right now, so that the budget can move forward or the report can be written. Is there a way that you are able to bring this “edge” in your poems to bear on your daily life at work, or does it mostly emerge in your writing?
I appreciate that my poems are “ahead” of me—I think it’s a real gift as a writer to have that feeling. Admittedly, my training curriculum has yet to be “ahead” of me, but that’s part of what I enjoy about my job: I’m working an entirely different side of my brain. I definitely still need to be creative in my job, but not in the same ways that writing poetry demands—or that I found teaching demanded. At least for me, this separation of work and writing is actually quite positive.
I’ve heard people say that you need a boring day job if you’re going to be a writer, but that hasn’t been the case for me—life overall is better when I’m engaged with both my job-job and my writing. I think part of the idea behind a “boring day job” is that you’ll be better able to leave your job at work, but for me, regardless of whether I was working at a deli or managing a research center, work has always come home with me in some way. It sounds counterintuitive, but the more engaged I am at work, the less it actually comes home with me, as is the case with my current position. I feel very grateful for that.
A search for you on Twitter brings up The Methodology Center, where you were Assistant Director, tweeting about the announcement of the APR prize and bragging that you “lead a double life” as a successful poet. To what extent do your coworkers know about and support your writing? To what extent do you want them to?
I like to say that I’m a poet with a good day job. I’ve been fortunate to have very supportive office environments when it comes to my writing. In some ways, I think having a poet on staff is a bit of a novelty for them—especially for some of the scientists when I was at The Methodology Center. I also have no interest in trying to “hide” my poetic self; it’s always on my work resume, even if it’s just a bullet point. I think it’s telling of an employer whether they’re interested in their employees having a “life”—whatever that may be—outside of work or not. I’m also asked a lot of fun grammar questions because they know I was an English teacher.
So while I’m not talking about line breaks with my coworkers at lunch, I am grateful to simply have them support my passion. When I found out about the APR prize at work, they didn’t know anything about the prize, but they knew I was excited and celebrated with me. I also got to explain to them how long a book of poems usually is, how poetry publishing works—I think it’s a privilege to introduce poetry to people how might not normally read it. Many coworkers admitted that mine will be the first book of poetry they’ll ever purchase, which is very kind of them! Admittedly, the personal nature of some of my poems makes this all feel a bit awkward to me at times, but part of my art is talking about the things we’ve been told we shouldn’t talk about, so trying to keep my poetry away from them would quite defeat the purpose.
How do you maintain contact with a community of writers while working your day job?
I’m grateful to have a small circle of colleagues and friends with whom I stay (sometimes loosely) in touch. And I have just a few close friends who are writers with whom I talk about writing and publishing. I’ve found over the years that I need just a couple close readers (thank you, L. and A.!). In this way, my community is quite small. But I’m also a reader, and so in that way my community is quite large.
Do you have any additional advice for writers working day jobs and sending around their first manuscripts?
When I was an undergrad, one of the questions I and my fellow classmates most often asked visiting writers was about their process, as if someone had the magic key for how we could and should write and submit. Some people love getting up at 4 AM to write when it’s quiet and dark out; it works for them. That sounds absolutely horrible to me; I’m a big grouch when my alarm goes off any time before 7. Some people write a certain number of words a day or for a certain amount of time. That’s not how I work best. I think it’s most important to find what works for you—not for the writer on the cover of a magazine or your cubicle mate in grad school. I also try to be gentle with myself if a writing session doesn’t go as well as I hoped or if a work week leaves me too taxed to do anything but putter in my garden. Life happens. But so does persistence. It’s clichéd but true: I sent my manuscript out over a hundred times before it was accepted. When people hear that number, they think I’m either terribly stubborn or mildly delusional (or both). But in the end, it was persistence in both revision and sending out, and it was definitely worth the wait—and the work.
Thank you Katherine and ‘MFA Day Job’ for this insightful interview and post! It’s amazing how much courage we can find in the footprints left on an unlikely path.