Pediatrics and Poetry Arrive from the Same Impulse: An Interview with Irène Mathieu

You’re a pediatrician and a poet. Did one of those interests arrive first, or do you think of poetry and medicine as different aspects of the same interest?

Pediatrics and poetry arise from the same impulse for me – the desire to connect with other humans in a healing way. I have always been interested in stories, especially those that don’t make it into dominant narratives, and the therapeutic potential of listening to and telling these stories. Practically, as a pediatrician, this means focusing my efforts on helping the kids with the most acute struggles – socially, economically, etc. – not only as their physician but also as a researcher and advocate for systemic change. As a poet, this means writing my truth and hoping that it’s helpful for others, or at the very least that it complicates our national mythological ideas about what it means to be a woman of color.

How did you know you wanted to pursue medicine? What about poetry?

I’ve always known that I would be a writer. Before I could physically write I would dictate things to my mother, and she would write them down in a little black and white Composition notebook for me. I would narrate my parents’ actions aloud and tell myself stories as I fell asleep at night. It was quite annoying. I journaled on a daily basis through most of my childhood and twenties. As I got older poetry seemed to be a more natural way of expressing myself than prose. I also found it easier to jot down a poem in the quiet moments during my hectic medical training than to commit to longer prose projects.

As for medicine, I majored in International Relations in college and got very interested in global public health and in the structural socio-politico-economic causes of health disparities. Although my parents and many of my family members are also physicians, it wasn’t until the end of college that I realized I wanted to be a doctor. I knew that personal relationships with patients and their families would be as important to me as working on public health research or policy, so I decided to go to medical school.

 You’ve written elsewhere about how you see the potential overlaps between poetry and medicine, but briefly: how would you convince a skeptic that they are complementary?

I’ll borrow a bit from a blog entry I wrote about this. As a poet, I bend words in odd ways that unearth meanings unsayable in prose. I experiment with phraseologies and diction and the mass and texture and taste of words in juxtaposition with one another. What cannot be communicated through conventional means must be communicated poetically. To identify the voltae around which the moments in our lives turn, and then convert them into something that can be written down is a practice in both observation and translation.

Medicine calls for a surprisingly similar skill set. The particular musicality of blood whooshing past a valve in the heart helps us differentiate an innocent murmur from one that may require surgery. The flicker of an eyelid, the tenor of a baby’s cry, and the feel of a rash on the fingertips hold information that must be translated for their meaning to be communicated. The famous learning objective of a first-year medical resident is to discern “sick or not sick” from the gestalt of a person’s presence, pulse, breath. This is body language. This is the poetry of the body.

Let us imagine that poetry is the translation of the world’s body language. Poetry, for me, is the generation of knowledge, on some level, from our emotions. All poets, then, are diagnosticians and potentially healers. I think that both poets and doctors use particular types of language (poetry, science) to bridge the gaps between sensations (feelings, symptoms) and knowledge. Both answer the question, what does it mean that I/you feel ____?

As physicians, we are faced with malfunctions or different-functions (large or small, temporary or terminal) of the body; some we can help to manage and some we cannot. Regardless of the physical outcome, an important part of our job is to recognize and support the humanity that persists in the face of the body’s change in functioning, the body being our interface with the world and our only truly necessary physical possession as living beings. Perhaps the supporting of humanity, individual or collective, is a core quality of healing in both poetry and medicine.

You’ve also written about the importance of writers and scientists alike nurturing their curiosities about other fields. What do you think best drives that kind of curiosity, either for writers exploring new fields or medical professionals exploring the social sciences and humanities? What do you think the biggest gaps are in the humanities that could be aided by better understanding of science? Vice versa? 

I think that most if not all people have varied interests and curiosities. I also think that our educational system sadly does a good job of forcing us to silo our interests into falsely discrete categories – humanities “versus” science, for instance. Unfortunately we don’t all have the time/money/opportunities to explore all of our interests, but in my case I’ve tried not to neglect things that interest me, even if they don’t seem applicable to the task at hand. Because I went to a liberal arts college I was able to take coursework in a wide variety of fields that I saw as complementary. As a busy medical student and now as a resident physician, I explore non-medical topics primarily through reading and taking advantage of arts and cultural events in my city – especially those books and activities that have no ostensible connection to medicine or science. Constant exposure to new ideas and new work keeps me curious and engaged in the world outside the hospital.

The second part of your question is huge. I don’t want to presume what humanities folks know or don’t know about science and vice versa, because certainly there are many, many people who have a foot in both worlds and who understand the gaps and cross-linkages quite well. My general wish is that we can, as a society, learn to let go of the idea that there are limited ways of knowing things, and that some are better than others. I sense that there’s a hierarchy of epistemologies that keeps some people on the margins of what’s considered “legitimate” knowledge production. For instance, quantitative data is extremely useful in epidemiology – but so are stories, and qualitative research in public health doesn’t get nearly the attention/time/funding that I think it deserves. I guess I just want folks to be open to a broader diversity of epistemologies and to the idea that each can be valuable in multiple contexts.

Are you involved with narrative medicine? If so, how do the principles of that field resonate with what you’ve already intuited, as a writer, about the importance of language and storytelling in medicine?

I do narrative medicine to the extent that I sometimes blog about my experiences as a physician, and how they relate to my writing life. I haven’t participated in any formal narrative medicine programs, but I do think there’s a lot for physicians to learn from storytelling. It isn’t only what a patient tells me that’s important; it’s also how she tells me, what she chooses not to tell me, where she pauses, where the silences are. It’s why he’s chosen to tell me this particular story about himself or his child at this particular moment.

Communicating that patient’s story to another provider is also important. How do we paraphrase someone else’s story? What vocabulary do we use to describe our patients, and why? How do our own assumptions, experiences, biases, and fears impact our interpretation of someone else’s story? I’m not sure how the field of narrative medicine tackles these questions, but they’re things I think about a lot.

Your poem “Fear of Causing Pain,” begins with an experience and image unique to a doctor’s work, that of injecting a needle. How often does your clinical experience make it into your work, and how does the act of writing change it for you? Do you ever hesitate to reference more technical medical situations or processes for fear of losing the reader?

“Fear of Causing Pain” is a bit of an anomaly because my clinical experiences don’t usually make it into my work. I write a lot of eco-poetry and poems inspired by articles in the news or things I’ve seen in my travels. I find myself using these themes to write about the root social causes of illness more generally, so my work often draws from current events rather than my clinical experiences. Right now I’m working on a more archival manuscript based on family history. My poetry tends to take a more upstream view of health and illness – that is, how we get to where we are – but I don’t typically write about what goes on in the hospital.

I am an editor for the Humanities section of the Journal of General Internal Medicine, so I do think a lot about others’ use of medical jargon in poetry (and prose). It’s very easy to lose a reader in a jargon-heavy poem, and it’s tempting to write a poem like that when you’re a physician with all this fantastic, odd language at your disposal. The language of medicine is rich and historied; I think as long as it’s used in service of the poem, and not simply for its own shiny sake, it can be additive rather than distracting, but it’s a difficult balance to strike.

 Who are some of your favorite doctor-writers or scientist-writers?

I admire Nawal El Saadawi, an 84-year-old Egyptian psychiatrist, writer, feminist, and activist. She has never shied away from confronting injustice with powerful words, a quality I aspire to emulate as a physician-writer myself. Louise Aronson is a physician and writer who’s turned narrative medicine into some really neat short stories. Rafael Campo is a poet and physician who writes not only great poetry, but also some wonderful prose about the connections between medicine and poetry. It’s cliché, but William Carlos Williams is a poetry giant – and also a pediatrician!

What advice would you give to other medical professionals who want to write? To writers who are looking for ways to deepen their knowledge of science?

Read! Read deeply and widely. Read works by people whose experiences you know nothing about. And then write regularly. It’s hard for most medical professionals to find the time and space for an ideal writing practice, so make up a non-ideal writing practice. Write when and how you can, whenever you can. Identify why you are writing (Coping mechanism? Advocacy? To create something beautiful? To make sense of something you feel?) and keep that drive close.

For writers who want to deepen their knowledge of science: go to the scientists themselves. There is a lot of distorted information about science and medicine in the media, so often the best sources for accurate information are professional societies. In the case of medicine, many specialties, hospitals, and clinics have information about a variety of topics written for the non-medical public. If you’re not sure where to find this, ask someone who has a connection the specialty or field that interests you.

Irène Mathieu is a pediatrician, writer, and public health researcher who has lived and worked in the United States, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Peru, and elsewhere. She is interested in social determinants of health, global public health, community-engaged research, and medical education.

Irène is the 2016 winner of the Bob Kaufman Book Prize and Yemassee Journal‘s Poetry Prize, and author of the book orogeny (Trembling Pillow Press, 2017) and poetry chapbook the galaxy of origins (dancing girl press & studio, 2014). Irène has received fellowships from the Fulbright Program and the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop. She is a poetry book reviewer for Muzzle Magazine, an editor for the Journal of General Internal Medicine‘s humanities section, and a contributing author on the Global Health Hub blog. Irène holds a BA in International Relations from the College of William & Mary and a MD from Vanderbilt University.

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An Interview with Nicole Sealey

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What made you decide to get an MFA, and where were you in your writing and the rest of your professional life when you decided to go for the degree?

Time to write was the reason I decided to get an MFA. I figured I’d have at least two years of uninterrupted writing time. I’d been working full-time at a literary nonprofit for 7+ years. Though I enjoyed the work, I was always tapped out by day’s end. My professional life was flourishing, while my creative life suffered. I very consciously decided to go back to school. I’ve not looked back since nor thought twice about my decision.

What does a typical workday look like for you — where, how, and how often does your own writing fit in?

I love what I do! Working at Cave Canem Foundation feeds me in a way that no other job has. A typical day at Cave Canem is atypical–each day really does vary one from the other. I write during my commute, after work and on weekends. I’m not a writer who wakes with the sun and writes for hours every morning…I’m pretty useless before 8 am.  

What skills and strengths does your day job involve that you feel you had already when you started it; what have you had to learn on the job or improve along the way?

I’ve planned programs of the highest quality for years. Nothing, however, prepared me for the pace at which programming is planned at Cave Canem. This fast-pacedness is actually one of the many thrilling things about the job. There’s never a dull moment, never an opportunity for boredom.

If you didn’t have to do your job to pay the bills, would you still do it?

Absolutely–my job inspires and motivates me!

You’re the Programs Director for Cave Canem, an organization of which you’re an alum. How did the Cave Canem fellowship experience impact your writing differently than the MFA did? If you were advising a young poet of color, which would you recommend they experience first?

As a graduate fellow, I would have no MFA were it not for Cave Canem.  Beyond confidence, Cave Canem invited me into a community, gave me much-needed artist tools and helped me find my voice. The MFA worked for me because I’d already received much of what I needed as an artist. I’d rather not use myself as a measure, so I would invite young poets of color to take from my experience what they will.

What’s it like to work for an organization whose programs you experienced as a participant?

It’s cool to experience Cave Canem’s programs from this vantage point.  From inception and promotion to administration and evaluation, I get to see firsthand the great effort and hard work that goes into each program. And, our constituents deserve nothing less that great effort and hard work on their behalf.

What advice do you wish you could have given yourself as a writer ten years ago?

My husband always says that publishing is cheap and easy… and he’s right. It is easier to publish an underwhelming poem than it is to write a compelling one. I’d advise my younger self (like I advise my current self) to write poems that have the capacity to endure.

Born in St. Thomas, U.S.V.I. and raised in Apopka, Florida, Nicole Sealey is the author of Ordinary Beast, forthcoming from Ecco in fall 2017, and The Animal After Whom Other Animals Are Named, winner of the 2015 Drinking Gourd Chapbook Poetry Prize. Her other honors include an Elizabeth George Foundation Grant, the Stanley Kunitz Memorial Prize from The American Poetry Review, a Daniel Varoujan Award and the Poetry International Prize, as well as fellowships from CantoMundo, Cave Canem, MacDowell Colony and the Poetry Project. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker and elsewhere. Nicole holds an MLA in Africana Studies from the University of South Florida and an MFA in creative writing from New York University. She is the Programs Director at Cave Canem Foundation.

There Is No Typical Day: An Interview with Rosalie Knecht

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You’ve been writing for quite a while – congratulations on Relief Map, which looks wonderful – but did not go for an MFA. Did you have a conversation with yourself at some point about whether or not to get the degree? What was that conversation like?

I definitely did have that conversation with myself, and I more or less concluded that if I was going to try for a funded MFA, I would have to leave New York, and I didn’t want to leave New York. Of course, there are some great low-cost MFA programs in the city, but I think I felt really cautious about committing resources to an MFA because I had this vague feeling that having low overhead was my main advantage at that point, as a writer. I was anxious about getting into debt. Of course I ended up getting into debt anyway when I got my MSW.

You’re also a social worker. What does a typical workday look like for you, and where/how often does your writing fit in?

I am just at this moment transitioning from working in residential foster care to working at a mental health clinic. So I’m in my last weeks in foster care. There kind of is no typical day. I see my residents, we talk about what’s going on with them – family, girls, school. I try to write service plans and reports, and get interrupted a thousand times. I go to the kitchen for mac and cheese. I’m getting nostalgic now.

When I get home at night I’m really not fit for anything but heating up dinner with my fiance and watching TV. I write on the weekends. Once in a while I give myself a treat and use a free morning (I sometimes work a late schedule) to write instead of going to the gym. That’s the best.

How has that balance changed for you since graduating from college? Can you give me a snapshot of a time when writing + making a living looked very different than it does now?

For a few years I was mostly working part-time, and for a lovely period I was working M-F 2-8 pm at a ballet studio and I wrote every single morning for two hours. I got a lot done then. I lived in very cheap housing because I was sharing with a dozen people, and I had the advantage of having gotten through undergrad without loans– I want to be clear that some of this was facilitated by that kind of dumb luck– so my overhead was low and I could pay my bills without working full-time. Eventually I moved out of that shared living situation and couldn’t make it work anymore financially, which is when my shift to social work started.

You live in New York, a place that retains some of the allure of being a great place to make art without always acknowledging how difficult it is to keep a roof over one’s head while doing so. Did New York ever hold that kind of attraction for you? If so, how has your view of the city as a home for artists or a place friendly to art-making changed over your time there?

New York is a bind. It is a good place to make connections – maybe for writers, the best place to make connections. But you’re right, the cost of living is hostile to artists. This issue was the primary problem in my mind for a period of about three years. I was keeping a roof over my head and writing, but it all felt very precarious. I didn’t have health insurance a lot of that time, and I felt like my skills were not specialized enough to be safe from losing a job, and I didn’t think I was getting anywhere.

But it’s a place where there are lots of other people doing the kind of work you’re doing, and having friends and support networks of like-minded people is such a huge help. So sure, if you’re an artist, move to New York. But you are going to have to have a whole functioning career aside from your art if you want to stay here. But that can be really good for you, I think!

Do your social work colleagues know about your writing? Do you prefer to keep those parts of your life totally separate, or is it preferable to have permeable borders?

Some of them didn’t know until last week when I explained that I needed Tuesday off because I was going to be reading in Philadelphia on Monday night. I was uncomfortable at first bringing it into my work life, but then one of my colleagues said, “Well, you want to be seen.” And I did. I kind of did want to be seen. My first book was published while I was in this job. Again, I had to take a day off work to prepare for the launch! That would feel weird to keep entirely to myself. It would be like getting married and not telling anyone. It’s a big part of my life.

If you didn’t need your day job to pay the bills, would you still want to do it?

Yes. I would just want to do less of it. From experience, I can tell you that the ideal balance of work and life is to be working 20-30 hours a week. You get plenty of sleep. You exercise regularly. You cook. Your skin clears up. Your apartment is clean. It’s the best.

Elsewhere, you’ve written: “I’ve always been a writer and I’ve always found this fact embarrassing. Writing fiction is a suspiciously childlike activity. If I meet you at a party I will tell you I’m a social worker, which is also true, and then try to get you to talk about yourself instead.” Have conversations with strangers about your profession changed for you at all since publishing Relief Map? Has having a novel in the world seemed to legitimize saying “I’m a writer”?

Yeah, a little bit. I still find that it doesn’t come up organically very much. But when I was a kid, I was really secretive about being a writer, and for years I had a rule in my head that I couldn’t say “I’m a writer” to people until I had published a book. So by my own standard I should be saying it now. But I still feel a little inhibited.

You’re part of a long-standing writers group in New York – what’s been the role of a regular writers’ community for you in being able to write while working full time?

They are the best, and they are really understanding about long periods of time when I haven’t been able to contribute much. They’re great writers and great editors and they’ve been as flexible as possible about scheduling when I’m too swamped to do much of anything. Agents, hit them up! Helen Terndrup– writing a brilliantly constructed detective novel set in ‘50s New York; Tom Cook, working on adapting a screenplay about the AIDS crisis and the decolonization period in Botswana into a novel; Bonnie Altucher, writing a novel about the real-life Sorenson therapy sex cult; and Jenna Evans, who published Prosperity, a satire about a near future where debt is criminalized, with Dog Ear, and is now working on a novel about a climate-change-related weather catastrophe hitting hipster Brooklyn.

What advice would you give to someone who’s struggling to both keep a roof over their head and write every day? Someone who wants to quit their day job to write?

I don’t write every day. So first I would say: cut yourself some slack. The beautiful thing about writing is that you can do it a little bit at a time. All you have to do is not stop, and eventually you will be finished.

Also, don’t quit your day job. I mean, quit if it makes you miserable, but don’t quit to write. Looking back, I can see that the primary problem I actually had during the time when I was completely hung up on the idea that my job was keeping me from writing was that I was bored and miserable in the field I was in (nonprofit administration). I was constantly wishing I could go home and write all day because I thought my job was pointless. If you like your job and derive meaning from it, you won’t be staring at the wall all afternoon thinking about the things you could be writing instead. The day will move quickly and you’ll feel like you accomplished something that mattered and you’ll get a paycheck and you’ll write when you can and after a while, you’ll have a book in your hands, and you will also be able to go to the doctor when you have a rash.

Rosalie Knecht is a writer, social worker, and translator in New York. She was born and raised in Pennsylvania and is the translator of Aira’s The Seamstress and the Wind. Her first novel, Relief Map, was published in March 2016 by Tin House.

Landscape with Broken Fire Hydrant: An Interview with Jamie Zvirzdin

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You did a low-residency MFA at Bennington College, starting five years after completing undergrad and with lots of experience under your belt as a science editor. Tell me a little bit about why you decided to pursue the degree.  

From 2011 to 2013, when my family was living in the Marshall Islands—a very isolated string of atolls in the Northern Pacific Ocean—my days were devoid of television, billboard ads, and people telling me what kind of woman I should be. With such freedom from cultural constraints, this incredible wave of words was released. It was like a broken fire hydrant blasting pressurized water everywhere. With hermit crabs crawling over my toes as I typed furiously on the edge of Majuro Lagoon, I wrote several essays and poems, finished a novel, and created the Unbound Bookmaker Project, in which 300 Marshallese students from all over the Marshall Islands wrote and illustrated 15 Marshallese-English children’s books. I feel like remarkable things happen when we take time to shut out opinions of the world and think our own thoughts.

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All I Need to Get By: An Interview with The Hustle Reading Series

The Hustle is a Brooklyn-based reading series that highlights all of the elements that go into sustaining the writing process: from day jobs that pay the bills to mentors and friends who read drafts, to living situations whose rhythms make it possible to retreat into writing. Last week in Bed-Stuy’s Herbert von King Park, MFA Day Job talked with The Hustle organizers Courtney Gillette, Jennilie Brewster, and Anna Marschalk-Burns.

 LF: Why don’t we just start from the beginning – tell me what the Hustle is, how it got started, how does it relate to your lives?

JENNILIE BREWSTER: I’m pretty curious to hear if we all have the same recollection of how it started.

COURTNEY GILLETTE: The three of us started meeting as something called Writers Support Group,

JB: But I would even go a step back further. Which is that you and I took a class together, and then you and I started our own writing workshop and basically edited our memoirs for several months, then the three of us linked up into Writer Support Group.

CG: Writer Support group was once a month, we’d get together, usually at Jennilie’s apartment, share what we were working on, and then just sit and work quietly for two hours. So it was like, accountability. I was applying for a fellowship and Anna and Jennilie read my cover letter, and Anna was preparing to do a reading, and we helped her pick something to read – that was how it began. And then – how did we come up with The Hustle?

ANNA MARSCHALK-BURNS: We were talking a lot in general just about how people make a living, our interest in how that happens for people, and I think as we were talking about a reading series – I don’t know if it became, let’s do a reading series and then we came up with a theme, or –

JB: I was interning for [The Renegade Reading Series] at the time, and sort of got to see what it would be to do a reading series, and Anna was like, but let’s do it differently.

CG: Yeah, Brooklyn needed another reading series like a hole in the head, so we were like, how will we start a reading series that offers something besides, ‘here’s six of my friends reading’? At first we came up with two ideas: we were either going to do one that was about process, where writers brought in rough drafts of something they had published, and shared both the rough draft and the finished draft, and we also came up with the idea to do a reading series about day jobs. And then we merged the two things, where we said, what if we did one that talked about process and also about day jobs and how you pay your bills, and what does it mean to you to be a writer, etc.

JB: I personally had a hang-up when it shifted from process to day job, because I was like, wait a minute guys, I don’t have a day job – but I could connect to the idea of “hustle,” and working different jobs at different times. Hustle was the practicals of paying your bills, but also ways of finding time to write, what do you read…

CG: …who has helped you, how do you find mentors, what’s the best advice you’ve gotten. In terms of day jobs, it’s like, I have my MFA, and I have worked in education for the last 14 years. My day job has been as the secretary of a nursery school. And Anna works full time as a teacher – so we had that kind of experience of, what about writers who don’t work in publishing, who don’t freelance, who don’t TA – how does that work?

LF: You’re thinking of ‘the hustle’ as less just the job that you permanently do in order to get by with your writing, and more the whole picture.

CG: The response to people wanting to talk about money – it worked out really well because our first event was in March, and I a few weeks before was when that Salon article, “Sponsored by My Husband,” blew up. On social media I could see all these people being like “yeah, transparency.” Is your husband an engineer, and you’re being supported by them? Do you work for a nonprofit? Are you living off a fellowship? People actually saying I write, but I do it in this way.

LF: People are posting about their accomplishments, and you see when someone’s new book comes out, but you don’t see all the stuff that happened to make that happen.

CG: The babysitting gigs, and their great uncle died and they inherited ten thousand dollars – just the nitty gritty. Some people don’t want to talk about that stuff, and that’s totally fair, but for me it’s been comforting in reminding myself that I can write, and I can pay my bills, these things are not mutually exclusive. Also, a lot of solid writing advice I’ve read over the years has been like, sit and write for six hours a day, six days a week, and I’m like that sounds awesome, but what if you’re working full time? What if you’re writing four hours on a Sunday, and that’s it? One of our first guests, Daniel Jose Older, said “one of the myths we have to break is that you have to write every day.’ If you’re working a lot, you can’t write every day, so write when you can. It was so refreshing to hear him say that.

JA: We’ve had two [Hustle readings] now, and we had Daniel, who writes sort of sci-fi/ fantasy, Ashley Ford who’s an essayist primarily, and Cynthia Cruz, who’s a poet, and we also asked each of the guests to share the best advice they’ve gotten as a writer. For Ashley part of that advice was “don’t let people not pay you for your writing” which was really good for people to hear, and then Cynthia was like ‘I’m a poet, there is no money” and that was good for other people to hear.

LF: How does the fact of living in New York play into these conversations – not getting paid as part of a poet’s life may be a thing one has to accept, and maybe that’s easier to contend with in rural Ohio, say, but in NYC, the cost of living is so much higher.

CG: I think it makes the question even more important. I think about Patti Smith making statements like “you can’t be an artist in New York anymore, you have to move to Detroit.” Because there are so many writers in New York, [the question becomes not just] how do you pay the bills as a writer, but how do you pay the bills as a writer in New York? I do pay attention to people outside of that conversation. One of our guests last month was Stacia Brown, who drove up from Baltimore to read, and she said at one point, you don’t’ have to be in NY to do this writing thing. You can live somewhere with a lower overhead.

JB: That was another good ‘myth buster.’

CG: it’s easy to get stuck in that here. This week was BEA, and all my friends from publishing and I were all going to parties, and I was like this is why I live in New York, because I’m standing on a boat with all these Riverhead people, like Edan Lepucki. but I’m sure if I didn’t live in places where I was invited to a boat with Edan Lepucki I might get more writing done?

AMB: I feel like I sometimes have the opposite feeling about it, where the more that I learn about money in NY, the more I feel completely idiotic for living here. I see this incredible privilege of being able to have experiences like what you’re describing, and being able to know you all – those are things I wouldn’t find in other places, but at the same time, I might be able to not work sixty hours a week. So it’s humbling to think about that, and ask, is this actually what I want to be doing with my life? Maybe not. Maybe not for good.

LF: Have any of you had the experience of working a day job with other people who have another thing going on (roller derby, amateur opera, writing?)

CG: I think you get more of that in New York. I have more friends who are writers and have other day jobs, than I do friends who are just full time writers. I have friends who are booksellers, and work for nonprofits, and have worked in magazines, or…babysitters. At my workplace, there’s one guy who’s a painter and a poet, and my first year we all came back from summer break, and we went around the circle and he was like, yeah, I finished a book of poems, and I was like, what? But this job at the nursery school is the first job I’ve had as a writer where people know that I’m a writer, and that I’m just doing this to make cash. And it’s been really freeing. There is some awkwardness – I’m leaving the school after this year, I’ve been there too long, and we announced that I’m leaving, and all the parents are like ‘where can we read your work? this is so exciting’ and I’m like ‘I write lesbian memoir and explicit sex scenes and lots of stuff about how I’m sober and I used to drink a lot.’ There’s a weird professional line – I’m okay with telling you I’m a writer, but I’m not going to share my website with you. But it has been my first experience where people knew I had another interest outside of the job.

AMB: I don’t have that experience at my job at all. The school I work at is very intense, there’s actually not a lot of time for [another pursuit] so, nobody. Everybody’s like, I’m a teacher, or I’m going to leave teaching to become a lawyer. It’s pretty much on the straight and narrow. The one thing that’s been so great about knowing Courtney and Jennilie, is that when things that are good have happened to me in terms of my writing, and I go to my coworkers who I’m close friends with but don’t’ have any stake in this game, they have no idea how to react to it. It’s like oh, that’s neat –? And I’m like no, this is a big deal! I’ve been working so hard for this. So it’s really nice to have people who know all of the blood, sweat, and tears that gets put into this.

LF: A couple of you have done a number of residencies. What did you take away from residencies that you came back and applied to your more harried writing lives?

CG: My most concrete thing was, my writing studio [at Vermont Studio Center] had this big bulletin board above the desk, and I just collaged it. By the end it was covered with quotes and pictures and magazine clippings and I loved it so much that I was like, why am I not doing this in Brooklyn? So my first week home I took down everything above my desk and did the same thing, so when I make it to my desk now, the first thing I see are these inspiring quotes, and the list of people who backed me to go to Vermont, I still have that – a concrete list of 45 people who absolutely believed in me, I can’t refute it – so that was the most literal translation of this was my writing studio in Vermont, and I just brought it home.

JB: The last couple residencies I’ve done I applied to them as a painter, but the last two I’ve been writing at. They were open to that — it wasn’t about production, it was about time and space to explore.

CG: One of the writers at Vermont was in the metalwork studio every day learning how to make knives.

JB: I definitely had the experience of just really connecting to a different kind of pace. It’s very easy to fill up one’s time in the city with “I’m going to meet this person for coffee.” I think I came back from my residency and it was like, I’m not doing all the coffee dates anymore, I don’t need to catch up with everybody.

CG: All the brunch. I love brunch, but goddamnit.

JB: It’s like, there goes a day! It’s allowing a change — the residencies I did were also all out west, and it’s just spatially different, mountains, desert. It’s like geologic time — I guess I try to bring a little bit of that back in my life. But with New York I find myself constantly renegotiating my internal rhythm with the city’s rhythm. It’s very easy to just get caught up in the current, a current that maybe isn’t so conducive to doing the kind of writing I want to do. So just trying to find the psychic space in the city.

AMB: I’ve never done a residency, but I did have a day job four or five years ago that I quit three months before my contract was up in an attempt to give myself time and space to write, and I did nothing. I watched six seasons of Law and Order. And that really scared me, and since then it’s been a terrifying thought to actually stop working, because I think the best things I’ve written are the things I’ve written at 3 am before they’re due for a class that I’m in, and trying to cram things in in the margins of a really full day is when I’m able to get things done. It’s very hard for me to have a wide-open time frame.

JB: Everything changes.

AMB: I might have more discipline now.

CG: At Vermont, I would leave my phone in my room-room, and when I was at my computer it was just me. But I also napped a ton — I had to accept that that’s what my body needed. Maybe you needed to veg out for three months.

JB: I immediately started thinking about some of the stories I’ve read of Anna’s and how the pacing of Law and Order may have affected her fiction writing.

AMB: That’s a huge compliment.

LF: I like to think about two categories: the things that have ‘happened to you’ as a writer or artist – you get into a program or residency, someone accepts your work – and then there’s a category of things that you feel like you made happen. And sometimes those things overlap: someone couldn’t have accepted you to this thing if you hadn’t put work into it. So since there’s a junction between them, but there’s also the way we feel about those two things. What are some things during the last couple years that you feel have happened to you by a stroke of luck, and things you have pushed through and made happen?

JB: One thing that I feel like really good about is The Hustle. That we have gotten together and that this sort of emerged out of our community, and that’s a cool thing that’s happening. And there was no waiting for someone to give us permission, it was about actually building something.

CG: One of my big ones was I sent a story in 2012 to The Master’s Review…and I was a finalist and then one of 10 stories chosen by A.M. Holmes to be in this volume. I later met A.M. Holmes at the Brooklyn Book Festival, and I was like ‘hi, I’m Courtney, you picked my essay for this thing’ and her face lit up, and she was like, ‘I remember that essay,’ she was like, ‘I look forward to whatever you write.’ She signed my book, and for a couple of months I slept with that book under my pillow, because I was like, A.M. Holmes likes my work. I will float on that for a while. Because my self-confidence plummets every day. Every day it is like me versus self-doubt. And I think for the ‘working hard’ thing, one of my things has been I just have started to freelance. I’ve always sent work to literary magazines and now I’m starting to send to online publications, because you actually hear back quickly and you get paid, which is incredible. I had this essay I had written for modern love, I workshopped it with some people from my MFA program, Jennilie and Anna read it, I sent it to Modern Love, it got rejected. It sat on my desk for a year, I spruced it up and sent it to Buzzfeed, and they were like, yes, love it. And I worked with that editor back and forth for a few weeks to get it into the best shape, and that was one of those moments where I was like ‘I burned this.’ So I think those are my two —

JB: This isn’t something that’s happened yet, but — I’ve been working on a book project for a long time, it’s a text that accompanies a series of paintings that I did. But I just allowed myself in the past couple months to say ‘I’m a writer,’ this is what I’m doing and it goes beyond this book, and I’m gonna write an essay. I’m gonna untether myself from this one project, and explore writing in another form. I sent it to a few people…and then to a couple other people who’ve been kind of like mentors to me, and who’ve both published a lot. I felt like I was asking my friends who are further along in their writing life for permission – like, can I do what you guys are doing? And I really felt like I got the thumbs up for this essay. Two women have both offered me ‘I’ll give you this editor’s email, or I’ll give this editor the heads up that this essay is coming.’ Who knows if that’s gonna play out, but I feel like it does touch on this idea of luck. It’s like I’ve worked five years to be able to write this essay, and it would be really nice if this personal connection happens and it gets noticed and moved out of a pile of a thousand into a smaller pile. Networking is sort of a dirty word, but the reality is you start to make friends who are doing what you’re doing. So I don’t know. I hope that luck works out for me in this one.

LF: Part of luck is others working on your behalf, to some extent.

JB: Another artist told me: it’s your job to be prepared for when luck happens. Have the work ready.

CG: I’ve tried in the last few years to view it not so much as networking but more as kindness. Whether that’s just being gracious at an event, or offering to read something – to be as generous and forthright as you can be. And that I think has gotten me pretty far in terms of people being accepting, and available. That’s become my framework for it.

LF: There’s a poet who wrote an essay about asking an older male writer for advice on getting into a particular journal – and he declined to give her the information she was asking for, like it was an industry secret that he couldn’t tell her. She said that made her want to tell anyone who asked her the secret information that they were asking for. Like, oh, you want the name of that editor who’s not listed on the website? I have it; you can have it. Do you want to know the best way to write a cover letter? I will tell you; I’ve written a successful one. And she considers that a sort of feminist way of spreading information.

JB: I’ve been looking toward women my age or even younger, as opposed to that older dude who’s part of the establishment.

CG: Binder Con has been a huge forum for women and gender non-conforming writers helping other women and gender nonconforming writers. The Binders [Full of Women Writers] Facebook group was started last summer, and Binder Con grew out of that as a physical conference experience that I helped with in NY last fall and it was magic. I remember standing outside of the speed-pitching sessions, where women editors had come to listen to pitches by women and gender nonconforming writers and these women were coming out of the pitch session high five-ing and hugging each other. It was this camaraderie that I think is absent a lot. There have been a lot of awesome dude writers in my corner, but there was something really unique about that experience.

AMB: Both [getting into Brooklyn College, and] my first published fiction, which came out last year, and felt like so much luck to me. Because it was just a slush pile submission.

JB: I guess I was thinking luck more “when the world sort of smiles at you.” That seems to me, your work had to be so great that it stood out — nobody knew to look for your name.

AMB: I guess that’s probably true.

CG: And your part is that you submitted. When we had writers support group…we’d share which journals we were submitting to, and I remember when [Anna] submitted to [The Atlas Review], and finding out months later that you were being published, it felt like a win for all of us. I think that’s especially with submitting to litmags, it’s such a numbers game. Yeah, you’re going to get rejected a lot, but if you don’t submit, there’s no chance.

AMB: I think getting into the MFA program felt really like luck to me. In part because the person who wrote my recommendation letter is a graduate of the program, close to the program director – I’m sure that helped. But also just the way that the program has been so welcoming and kind, it doesn’t possibly feel deserved. It’s like this is the nicest reception I’ve felt in this particular arena in my life, and I’m confused by it. I think it just brings up a lot of feelings of impostor syndrome, but you know, I feel very lucky.

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Keep the Humanities, Lose the Fetish: A Consideration of Life after the PhD and MFA with Brian Matzke

Leah Falk: Let me start by asking (although I know you’ve covered a lot of this on your blog) how have some of your expectations changed about being a humanities scholar from when you entered the University of Michigan to now?

Brian Matzke: Well, the first thing to bear in mind is, I started grad school at 22, fresh out of undergrad, so to be honest, I didn’t know what to expect. And to be honest, if a college student asked me about grad school right now, one of the first things I’d recommend is to NOT go to grad school straight out of undergrad. You just don’t have the perspective. I suppose I was somewhat naive about the process and figured a Ph.D. from a top-tier institution would be enough to secure a professorship. The biggest thing that has changed in terms of my expectations is I know that’s no longer true. 

Leah: Yeah. I think many people starting MFAs, too — whether right out of the undergrad gate or not — also labor under this misapprehension (although it seems to be understood that at least one book publication is also required to be competitive for the tenure-track). What do you think you might have done differently during your Ph.D. if you’d spent a few years out of school? (A sort of impossible thought experiment, I know.)

Brian: Probably the biggest thing I would have done is prepare a “shadow resume,” as some people have put it, and seriously explored alternative career paths. This is something I’ve just started to do in earnest, and I wish I’d done it 5 or 6 years earlier. I’m still pursuing TT jobs as well, but my options feel broader now than they did in grad school, and I think I would have felt more empowered if I’d had less tunnel vision earlier on.

A big part of that is also work/life balance. It’s easy to be a workaholic at 22/23, but now I’m engaged, I’m thinking about family, etc., and I don’t want to be in my office or in the library 12 or 14 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Leah Falk: For sure. You’ve written a little bit about alt-ac and how the lip-service paid to it isn’t really enough in the face of how competitive the TT job market is, the reality of how many humanities graduates will actually go on to non-academic employment — what kinds of resources would you like to see there, and how likely do you think current students would be to take advantage of them early on?

Brian: You know it’s funny, in my latest blog post I mentioned an alternative career paths seminar that [The University of Michigan’s] Rackham Graduate School was hosting. I actually signed up for it (I lied on the online form and said I was still a grad student–ha!). It was remarkably well-attended, especially by second and third year Ph.D. students in English. That was a really useful resource, actually (and would have been more useful if I were still in grad school). Simple things like sessions on how to write a resume, how to approach people for informational interviews, etc., can go a long way, and I definitely think students will attend.

In some ways I think I’m old enough at this point that I’m not representative of the current mentality. I entered grad school prior to the 2008 financial crisis, when things were still good enough that we could afford to be a little naive. I think current grad students are at least somewhat more realistic about the market and the need to keep their options open.

Leah: Among MFA students, especially those who come right out of undergrad, I’ve sometimes encountered the attitude that “I don’t have any other skills” but this particular kind of writing. Which makes me kind of mad, because out of necessity I feel like I’ve discovered all sorts of skills and interests in the working world that I wouldn’t necessarily have had to countenance in grad school, or if I’d gone straight from grad school to an academic job, etc. Do you encounter anything similar in English Ph.D. students, or do you think they tend to have a better-rounded sense of their own range of abilities?

Brian: Oh I absolutely encounter that among Ph.D. students, and am guilty of it myself. I still find it somewhat difficult to conceive of what the day-to-day experience of a lot of nonacademic jobs are like. But the important thing to bear in mind is, with academic jobs, so much of the actual work is basic white collar tedium–answering emails, attending meetings, serving on committees, etc. The basic skills that comprise 80-90% of an academic job are virtually identical to the majority of nonacademic white collar jobs out there.

I don’t know about you, but I see it as a two-pronged problem: on the one hand, an anxiety about being able to DO a nonacademic job, and on the other hand, an anxiety about not being FULFILLED by a nonacademic job. In both cases, I think that anxiety is fueled by a poor sense of what both an academic job and a nonacademic job actually entail.

Leah: Yeah, I agree. I think the fear of 9-5 (which I was totally guilty of, and now that I DO work 40 hours a week, it hasn’t totally gone away) comes largely from not being able to imagine any kind of stimulation coming from that rigid a schedule. I think I became more comfortable with a non-academic career path when I realized I’d have just as much time (or more) to write coming home at 5 pm (and not bringing much work home with me) as I would if I were teaching 3 courses a semester.

Which brings me to the question of scholarship: do you feel like you have time to privilege research and writing? And do you feel like your former teachers, who taught you as an assumed future professor (maybe) treat you as an equal in that manner?

Brian: Yeah, I got virtually no scholarly writing done this past year. Part of that was due to the demands of my teaching schedule; part of that was due to the time demands of searching for a job, since I’m still pursuing TT positions; and part of that was due to some unexpected family health concerns that took up an unexpected amount of time (which is another factor grad school doesn’t really prepare you for). With my teaching load at Michigan, keeping up with scholarship is theoretically possible, but it’s damn difficult.

As for how professors treat me, it’s a mixed bag. Some I’ve found to be very collegial, while others essentially still regard me as a grad student. Really, the most awkward encounters have been with professors who I didn’t know as a grad student. They seem less able to interact with lecturers, since their job is so research-focused, and they assume my job is so teaching-focused. 

Leah: At the same time, there’s an incredible amount of professional energy in the department devoted to the [English Department Writing Program] at Michigan (much more, I’ve since learned, than at other institutions). When you’re together with other lecturers, do you tend to talk about your students, the job market, your own research?

Brian: It really depends on which lecturers. We do really seem to be undergoing a sea change at U-M (I’m not sure how representative that is of the field as a whole). The lectureship seems to be more and more professionalized. Some people still treat it as a temporary position and are very focused on the job market while others are invested in staying in their current position. Those people are much more teaching focused. It’s common, however, for research/writing to take a back seat to teaching and/or the job search, however. 

Leah: You’ve written that you wouldn’t say “don’t” to someone interested in pursuing the humanities, except in the case that it involved going into debt. Imagine a scenario where a prospective student does regard the time spent as a kind of debt, one that he/ she has to pay off by advancing in a non-academic career several years behind her peers, but is still dedicated to the humanities as a field and wants to contribute to it. What would be your advice to this person?

Brian: That’s a really good question. I was just discussing the prospect of teaching at independent high schools with someone, and the sad thing is, that’s a career I’d be very interested in, but it’s one that it’s often hard to break into with a Ph.D. because you’ve essentially priced yourself out of an entry-level position. It’s a really difficulty cost/benefit analysis.

I guess I would say, on the one hand, if you’re contemplating grad school, but you also have some solid ideas of nonacademic jobs that you could be fulfilled in and still carve out time to read, write, and live a life of the mind in your free time, then you should not go to grad school. If you honestly can’t imagine anything other than grad school, then go ahead and go to grad school, and enjoy the time, but devote yourself in those years to really exploring alternatives and not simply doggedly pursing a narrow path.

Leah: Basically, the ideological advice there is to stop considering grad school in the humanities as a certain professional path — or as only encompassing one professional path. 

Brian: Totally. As a friend of mine recently put it, the myth of a “calling” can be very damaging.

Leah: Yes. That totally resonates with me. Although I wonder: if humanities departments really changed their career resources and the way they talked about students’ futures, they’d be accommodating those multiple professional possibilities and seem relevant as a form of professional preparation again. If they refused to, (and some MFA programs just don’t really talk about post-grad issues, because they bill themselves as a time and support resource for students, not a pre-professional program) would they lose some professional credibility? 

Brian: That’s a real risk. I know for PhD programs there’s a strong incentive to boast high placement rates in academic positions. And we do have to admit that professional development opportunities are kind of a Band-Aid on a bullet wound. Looking more macroscopically, the bigger problem is the erosion of professorships. 

Leah: Right. Which has been steady. 

Brian: I think I read recently that a generation ago 3/4 of university classes were taught by professors, 1/4 by adjuncts; now those numbers have flipped. You’d have to fact check me on that though.

[Ed.: See Figure 1, “Trends in Instructional Staff Employment Status” in the  2012-13 Economic Status report of the  American Association of University Professors for accurate figures since 1975] 

I’ve often thought that a kinder solution would be to simply accept far fewer students into grad school to begin with–only accept as many as you feel your program could place, and devote all your resources to placing them in professorships.

Leah: Interesting. And that also does away with the problem of the student who feels she’s gone into professional debt after a Ph.D. program that doesn’t result in a tenure track job. 

Brian: Yeah.  

Leah: A cold question, though: if there are fewer Ph.D. (and let’s just tack on MFA) candidates, who teaches the intro writing and lit courses? Do we increase the course-loads of full professors? Keep hiring contingent faculty, assuming that a gap between earning a degree and getting a job will persist? (Obviously this is not the main concern of the candidates, but it probably is a big one of university administrators).

Brian: I can think of two possible ways of answering that question, both of which are preferable to the current system, but both of which have the same problem (i.e., costing the university more money):

One would be multiple tenure-tracks: one that’s based primarily on research, and one based primarily on teaching, so it would be possible to attain tenure while focused on teaching freshman level courses.

Another would be to professionalize fixed term faculty, so you’d have more people appointed to what at U-M we call Lec3 and Lec4 positions, with a certain amount of job security and longer-term (but still non-TT) contracts.

None of those are actually plausible, I have to admit, but I’d advocate for them over the system of current contingent faculty and grad students teaching all the intro courses.

Leah: The first option sounds kind of like combining an R1 and a liberal arts college, and seeking a mixture of the kinds of faculty who’d do well at each. 

Brian: Yeah. 

Leah: I mean, I don’t see the second option as totally implausible – if you have fewer fully-funded grad students across the board, you have some additional funds available for long-term lecturers — although maybe not enough to cover health benefits, etc.

Brian: Yeah, that’s a sticking point. I’m also sympathetic to administrators who deal with a lot of uncertainty with regard to funding and enrollment. That makes it really difficult to know how many people you can hire from one semester to the next. 

Leah: I remember at the end of the last semester I taught at Michigan, there was apparently $17 million or something withheld from the university by the state? 

Brian: Yeah, it’s utterly ridiculous what’s happening to higher-ed budgets. That’s another thing I’d say to those considering going into academia–if you think that this “life of the mind” career is somehow outside of the forces of neoliberal capitalism, it most definitely is not, and this is not a way to avoid those stressors. 

Leah: Right! It’s not a monastery.  

Brian: I’m curious how the MFA experience differs–the general tone of these discussions among Ph.D.s is that this problem is relatively “new,” but I’ve kind of assumed that alternative “day jobs” are much more the norm among creative writers–is that accurate or a pernicious Ph.D. stereotype? 

Leah: No, I think it’s accurate, in part because the MFA is a relatively new degree, and in part because the professionalization of the degree, in the form of “you get this degree so you’re qualified to teach in MFA programs” is even newer. Before Iowa became a big thing, for example, most writers who taught got Ph.D.’s. All of my creative writing professors in undergrad had Ph.D.’s, and were of that generation. And then MFA programs started to proliferate, so there was both more opportunity to concentrate on creative writing, and more opportunity to teach creative writing. But think of the numbers: for every new MFA program that accepts 10-20 people per year, and is 2-3 years long, there are probably only 3-5 full time faculty, most of whom do other duties in the English department or elsewhere. So the odds, even when times are/ were good in academia, were never great.

Brian: Wow. Yeah, as a lecturer I’ve worked alongside people with a variety of degrees, and one thing I’ve noticed is, a lot of us feel like we’ve experienced a bait-and-switch, where we got a degree in one thing, but ended up teaching something else. In English, the jobs are in teaching composition, but creative writing MFAs got in it to teach creative writing, literature Ph.D.s got in it to teach literature, etc. But we’re all just teaching comp. Not that there’s anything wrong with comp. I actually enjoy those classes a lot. But at least starting out, I and a lot of other people were less qualified than someone with a rhetoric and composition degree would be. And it’s not really what we envisioned.

Leah: I kind of enjoyed teaching comp, also. I think there’s a whole other conversation about what comp is for, how students transfer the skills they learn there, but that’s probably for another time.

Brian: Yeah, that’s something that didn’t really get discussed in our pedagogical training. 

Leah: I know one guy who had been an engineer before starting the MFA (and is again now, there you go) and they assigned him specifically to a writing class in the school of engineering. Which in some ways seems like the way to go: letting kids know that writing matters within the discipline they’ve chosen. 

Brian: Of course, that then raises the question as to whether there’s value in exposing kids to “humanistic” writing outside of their discipline–for the purpose of cultivating a well-rounded citizen, etc.

I tend to believe there is, but then I also believe that if that’s the case, then the course shouldn’t be graded, since grades hinder the ability to cultivate a “free” space for intellectual exploration.

Leah: I think the professors of those disciplines (engineering, nursing, etc) also have to agree that humanistic exploration matters. And that actually brings us full circle, in a way: if one does end up outside of academia, what matters is that you get hired by and work with people who recognize that what you know how to do, and the ways you have of finding and creating knowledge, matter.

Brian: Absolutely. Sometimes I think that people outside of the humanities (both professors in other disciplines and people in nonacademic professions) are better at recognizing that than humanities professors are, since humanities professors too often have a kind of disciplinary tunnel vision..

Leah: I work in an office now where there are lots of academics working outside of academia, and that’s a nice environment, too — everyone has a sense of the potential for research and ideas outside of their usual classroom / peer reviewed journal box.

Brian: That’s awesome.

 Leah: Sometimes those applications are just as impractical as they would be in the academy, but whatever.

A last word? 

Brian: I guess just to reiterate the point that academia can be great in a lot of ways, but the longer you’re in it, the more important it becomes to understand it as a form of work–one that can be rewarding but that comes with its own set of problems–tedium, opportunity costs, complicity in certain structures of capitalism, etc. It’s not something to be fetishized above all alternatives.

Leah: Hear, hear!

*

Brian Matzke received his Ph.D. in English Language and Literature at the University of Michigan in 2013. He currently works as a lecturer at U-M in the English Department and the Sweetland Writing Center. His research is on the depiction of science in literature and popular culture, particularly in twentieth century America. He lives in Ann Arbor with his fiancee, Paula, and pug, Jordan Baker.

Leah Falk received her MFA in poetry from the University of Michigan in 2012, and is the founder and editor of this here blog. More about her here.

 

Set Realistic Goals and Daydream: An Interview with Laura Bogart

Dany bangs

Your recent piece for Dame Magazine, “The Price I Pay to Write” responds to another piece at Salon by Ann Bauer, “Sponsored by My Husband: Why It’s a Problem That Writers Don’t Talk About Where Their Money Comes From.” Bauer’s point is that many writers have a “sponsor,” whether it’s parents or a spouse, and it’s unfair for writers not to be transparent about it. You suggest that the larger issue is our failure to discuss what writers have to do to get by when (as in the majority of cases) there is no benefactor. But admitting to a benefactor or a day job means, effectively, that we’re not making enough money writing to claim it as our sole occupation. Which do you think is actually more shrouded in secrecy, and why?

I think that having a benefactor and working a day job are both equally shrouded in secrecy in their own particular ways. And there are various strains of benefactors: parents, partners, or grants. Obviously, winning some big award or getting sponsorship from some external organization (here’s lookin’ at you, Guggenheim) is a matter of prestige—but one that still isn’t really discussed, I think, because there are issues of jealousy (even though we want to support our friends and colleagues who win these prizes, we really do, but man, it’s just so hard not to wish we were the ones who’d opened that letter or got that call) and humility (we’re excited enough to sing from the rooftops, but we don’t want to be that lucky bastard who rubs our fortune in other people’s faces) at play.

Obviously, receiving assistance from one’s parents (especially after one has blown out the candles on a twenty-fifth birthday cake) carries the stigma of being labeled a Hannah Horvath—although, given how rough the economy is right now, with a paucity of jobs and affordable housing, I think there is more general empathy for people who need a little help from the folks. In truth, when I was working my first publishing job out of grad school, which paid me a grand $28,000 (just enough to put me above the poverty line, but not out of actual poverty), I moved back in with my parents—not to help with my writing, but to not be homeless and starving. Did I personally feel a great deal of embarrassment? Yes, yes, I did (and given that I have a rather complex relationship with my parents, that sense of shame was compounded), but none of my friends, or even casual acquaintances, that knew my deal, ever made me feel bad about it. We all know someone (hell, even married couples) who has had to move in with family or friends because we live in such a brutal economy.

Which leads me to the spouse or partner as benefactor, and that I do think carries a particular tarnish that is made darker and stickier by the harshness of the times. Most couples I know have to be double-income families (especially if they have kids) just to keep afloat, and there is a lot of class resentment against people who can afford to have one partner stay at home (especially if that partner isn’t doing the typical stay-at-home spouse work of raising children). Part of the reason I admired Ann Bauer’s piece is that she does acknowledge that hers is a position of considerable privilege (and she recognizes this so clearly because she has lived on all levels of the spectrum), and that it’s natural to have some resentment of people who seem to “have it all”: the great spouse, the comfortable life, and the time and energy to pursue their passion.

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Writing in Safety, We Don’t Have to Hide: An Interview with Charif Shanahan

charif shanahan

At what point in your life did you begin writing? At what point in your writing life did you decide to get an MFA? 

I began writing as a boy, perhaps at nine or ten, and I recall that my earliest writing efforts were stories, not poems, which I did not begin writing until high school. In college, I encountered an inspirational mentor in the poet Linda Gregg, who is the reason I’m still writing poems today, and although MFAs were on my radar from that time on, I did not seriously consider pursuing one until I was already moving into my late twenties. I felt, strongly, that before beginning to write in earnest, I needed to spend time exploring the planet and, thus, myself.

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Poem off the Page: An Interview with Elastic City Founder Todd Shalom

todd_shalom_headshot

You’re the founder and director of Elastic City, an organization whose m.o. has been the participatory walk for nearly six years, and you’ve been leading such walks for over a decade. In what way do you see your work as an artist who facilitates experiences for and with other people as being connected to your background in poetry?

For me, the walks are a poem—just taken off of the page. I wrote a lot of poetry about 12-15 years ago. My poems were functioning more like songs, perhaps better heard than read. With other poets and audiences, I wasn’t getting the dialogue I wanted. My work was both personal and coded. It’s what I needed to do for me. (I was in my 20’s). After getting over myself a bit, the desire to connect with people became more urgent, and the walk form gave me the opportunity to both learn from and share with the audience, as they became active participants in the work.

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Academia’s Freedom is Also Its Dysfunction: Farren Stanley on Why She’s Leaving

farren stanley

You made a decision to leave adjuncting behind after this past semester. What motivated this decision?

In order to be able to live, I was teaching three classes (with three preps) and working a 25-35 hour-a-week job as a supplement. The result was something like 70-hour work weeks, and no weekends. I had 5 (FIVE) professional email accounts. It was grinding me down. Eventually, the money at my part-time job got very attractive, and then I began to notice things. For example: I have agency at the firm I work at now. If I see a problem, I can take it to my boss and it will be corrected. If I need something for the office, it’s provided. I get regular raises, bonuses, promotions. Every day the skills I need to employ are new and necessary.
In my experience, adjuncting occurs in a vacuum. There is little infrastructure for the students (where do I send my student who is ill/mentally disturbed/in need of tutoring?) or for the instructors (I have never once seen my evals, or been given professional development opportunities). There are no awards, no promotions, no raises. Nothing to strive for. There is no upward or even lateral movement available.The offer on the table for adjuncts is: keep teaching the same 3 combinations of classes for the same amount of money, for the rest of your life. Fast food workers have a better potential quality of life than do adjuncts/instructors. There are better offers out there.

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