Guest Post: From Adjunct to Amateur Astrologist

Guest posts are intended as first-person windows onto contributors’ journeys to make a life in writing. 

Psychic Barista by Ariel Fintushel

by Ariel Fintushel

Part I. From Double Shifts to Graduate School

As I write this, there is a partial Full moon eclipse in Aquarius which means something is being excavated. A hand – is it mine? – reaches in and extracts: what will you let go of and what will you become?

In between double shifts as a barista and as a waitress in a Middle Eastern restaurant serving soggy aram rolls, I read Rob Breszny’s horoscope column in the Bohemian newspaper. These are ridiculous, I think to myself, I’d do a better job. It reminds me of what Bukowski said, “When I begin to doubt my ability to work the word, I simply read another writer and know I have nothing to worry about.”

It was the year after I graduated from UC Santa Cruz with a B.A. in Global Literature. I thought I might travel to Thailand to live in a monastery or trek in wild landscapes, but instead I moved back home, got a small apartment with my boyfriend, and worked. I found a copy of Wang Ping’s The Magic Whip and Kim Addonizio’s Tell Me in the local library and would read at night, dreaming of a way to escape customer service: “When asked where I’m from,/ I say ‘Weihai,’ even though/ nobody knows where it is,/ even though I’ve never been to that place” (Wang Ping from “Mixed Blood”). I started wearing someone else’s name tag: “Mariah, it means wind,” a customer told me.

When I learned I was accepted to SF State’s MFA program as a poet, I had surging feelings of self-worth and even arrogance. It made dealing with snotty customers and overflowing toilets that much better. “I’m going to get my MFA and become a professor of poetry,” I told them. “Not that scone,” they replied, “the one with more blueberries on it.”

Part II. My First Class with Stacy Doris

The year I moved to San Francisco was 2009, and Jupiter in my ninth house meant my ideals were not matching up to reality. I found a house on 34th and Judah where the ocean made a steam room of the streets and rode my bike to Stacy Doris’s class for the first time. “Any poetry that doesn’t somehow begin in a realm of wild fantasy is not worth the writing,” she said. I liked her already.

The MFA is supposed to take 3 years, but because I took every class Stacy taught regardless of whether I needed the credit, it took me four. Her classes were workshops for collaboration where we listened with a meditator’s focus investigating the nature of sound and its implications for our writing. They were experiential classes, and we traversed the campus banging garbage cans and cataloguing the noises it could make. Once Stacy led us through Union Square and Chinatown where we recorded a parade, an opera in the alley, wind chimes, and the Blue Angels in order to make sound compilations exploring the phenomenon of interruption.

Stacy was my advisor, but she was also a friend. When my boyfriend broke up with me over Christmas, she said, “You’ll meet someone fun.” We got soup at Judahlicious, and she showed me her poem, “A Month of Valentines”: “To my Love Supreme// from her little/ lotus flower: Bud/ stamen and leaf/ my heart only beats/ with hope of your/ touch./ Kevin.” or “Red Rose:// All leather, rare/ flowers/ your cavelier lips/ my ponytail puff/ to dinosaur shape./Let’s fuck.// Ph.D.”

Part III. The Graduate Thesis

When Stacy passed away from a rare cancer affecting her smooth, involuntary muscles, Camille Dungy became my advisor. While Stacy told me, “I see a book in here,” Camille asked important and difficult questions: “what’s at stake” and “where are you in all this?”  Many of Stacy’s students felt suddenly lost and abandoned. Like one of her beloved disciples said, “Now the world is just a little bit shittier.”

Instead of “When where am I is I,” I took Camille’s class, Literary Mapping. I tried to write things that were more personal but sometimes felt like I was trying to dredge up traumas that did not exist. “Sometimes what is neutral is most powerful,” she suggested.

I focused on learning to teach. With two sessions of my own 25 person Introduction to Creative Writing class, I was overcome with excitement that also manifest as anxiety. If one student looked bored, my whole world ended.

In the meantime, my graduate thesis was a slurry of writing including illustrated comics inserted on a whim to make things feel more coherent. I was not disappointed with my thesis because I knew there was a lot to digest between Stacy’s and Camille’s different approaches to poetry. Like Basho said, “‘To learn about the pine tree… go to the pine tree; to learn from the bamboo, study bamboo” (qtd. in The Heart of Haiku by Jane Hirshfield). Both Dungy and Doris taught me this principle, sending me out into the field to investigate my questions.

Part IV. Teaching in New York City

After my MFA, I took a chance and moved into a Queens apartment with a new love. I got a job teaching English and Literature at Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC). There I met poet Andrew Levy who gave me a copy of his book, Nothing is in Here and gave me advice over coffee.

BMCC’s small adjunct offices were packed with books and shoved you right up against your co workers encouraging conversation. I met a Syrian man with a PhD. in theater who said he had been there on September 11th, wandering aimlessly, unable to get a cab home. I met another who told me how to teach MLA citation and also buy an umbrella that would last. One adjunct told me how he supported himself by writing curriculum for tests and leading a trivia night in a metal bar.

The students at BMCC had a lot of energy. They were from all over – Haiti, Puerto Rico, Africa, the Bronx – “You have to live in the Bronx,” they told me. They wrote about dancing the Bachata and their New York identities whether immigrant or native. I made wacky essay assignments like compare Bob Marley to Salman Rushdie and defend a new set of laws for America. It was exhilarating but also exhausting. I took two trains lugging my heavy book bags through security and up six escalators to my classroom then all that in reverse on the way home.

Part V. Teaching in Los Angeles

After a year, I moved to Los Angeles and got married. I got a job teaching at the Acting, Music and Dance Academy (AMDA) and Oxnard College. I found it more difficult to meet coworkers at Oxnard and often felt lonely.

One day, during a heat wave, lugging my bags to a cafe to grade between classes, I had a thought: I’m a manual laborer. I did the math – I was making about $5.00 an hour tops if I counted lesson planning, grading, emailing and even less if I counted the commute. My back was always sore and I had to put my legs up the wall at home like when I was a barista. Also, I was always sick and had recently been to the emergency room for bouts of asthmatic coughing attacks which disrupted my lessons.

Diane di Prima said, “I wanted everything—very earnestly and totally—I wanted to have every experience I could have, I wanted everything that was possible to a person in a female body, and that meant that I wanted to be mother.” When I got pregnant, I had all-day morning sickness and used that as impetus to quit teaching in the middle of the semester. I broke out of the cycle, and that gave me a new perspective. I felt like Saturn gone retrograde had liberated my idealistic, Neptunian instincts. I lounged around for a month imagining other possible career paths.

Part VI. Life Beyond Academia

For fun, I picked up a freelance horoscope gig writing weekly and monthly sun-sign horoscopes. The pay was better than what I made as a professor. Plus, it was fun to spend time thinking about the Cosmos–I felt like the guy who burns down his house to buy a telescope with the insurance money from Robert Frost’s poem, “Star-splitter.”

Since I still had time on my hands, I volunteered with a non-profit called Women’s Voices Now writing curriculum. All of a sudden they said, hey, why not make a films and poetry workshop. Before I knew it, I was writing a grant proposal then driving alongside the ocean on Hwy. 1 to teach my first class. Stacy wrote, “Only the nerves are a sea plant we can’t gather. They spread like fire on a curtain of trees.”

Every moment I spent planning and facilitating the workshop was in honor of the residents who took my class. It felt important to publish their work, so I made them a small anthology and also a video poem where their words and voices were raised up in honor of their creations. They wrote about homelessness with the poignancy of Rumi yearning for the Beloved: “We have the Right 2 Rest/ We have no home/ Where can we go?/ Sleep at the Mayor’s house, or the Governor’s mansion?/ Will they roll out the red carpet 4 us?” (Sunshine). Where the government failed them, I hoped to offer something: a spot they could return to be themselves, to be heard respectfully and speak with dignity.

On November 18th this year there is a new Moon in Scorpio representing an intimate blossoming and reverence for mystery. Overlapped with this cosmic event, my friend and I are hosting a 3-day inaugural retreat. Participating artists and writers will encounter a series of experiential workshops to commune, engage and dialogue with the desert culminating in an anthology.

In “Song of Enlightenment” Yoka Daishi sings of the desert, “You cannot take hold of it, and you cannot get rid of it; it goes on its own way. You speak and it is silent; you remain silent, and it speaks.” Sometimes I want to pin my purpose down, or pin down a poem, but of course that ruins it. “Poetry buckles under the weight of seriousness of purpose,” Doris wrote. Even the stars and planets are constantly in transit, pummeling us with a mishmosh of intentions and forces that result in the rough and wild terrain that becomes both art and life.


Ariel Fintushel is a Los Angeles poet working as the Curriculum Developer for the non-profit Women’s Voices Now. She runs a creative writing workshop called Films & Poetry at Turning Point Shelter in Santa Monica, and has previously taught at SF State, Borough of Manhattan Community College, Oxnard College, The American Academy of Music and Dance, and is a creative writing instructor for California Poets in the Schools. She has an MFA from SF State. Her writing has been published by Huffington Post, Zaum, Baltimore University’s Welter, The A3 Review, and elsewhere. She enjoys making audio and also illustrated poems and is interested in the desert as a place of deprivation and miracles, latent energy, adventure, malice, and mysticism.

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“Get an MFA or don’t, but please get to work”: An Interview with Aisha Sabatini Sloan

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Tell me a little bit about your background as a writer: how did you begin writing? What were some professional identities you’ve imagined for yourself over the years?

In the ninth grade I wrote a research paper about America’s prudish response to Sally Mann’s photographs of her naked children. I had recently gone to a public pool in Europe and had the image of a topless woman with a jungle print thong seared into my brain and I remember coming home feeling very aware of how Americans, including myself, are sort of dumb about nudity. I did poorly on that paper—and it’s just now occurring to me to wonder whether this was because of my writing or because of the topic—but I remember feeling so lit up by the prospect of using research to write about art and society even then. But I was and am equally inclined toward photography, printmaking and painting, and I’ve probably spent about as much time in undergraduate and graduate school pursuing studio art. I’ve had a harder time envisioning visual art as my professional identity, perhaps because I spent a year or so working in a gallery and felt pretty grossed out by the business side of art.

Why and at what point did you decide to pursue an MFA?

Before getting an MFA in creative writing I got an MA in cultural studies and studio art at NYU. It was an individualized study program brought to fame by the Olsen twins and for the thesis you could choose between writing a theoretical paper, doing a performance or making some sort of project. I put on an exhibit and wrote a theoretical paper about Adrian Piper, not realizing that I had gone a bit overboard. And I remember sitting in my thesis defense and the professors on my committee said, “I really enjoyed reading this. Have you ever considered writing?” I loved writing but this came as a bit of a surprise. It occurred to me that getting an MFA in creative writing was almost too exciting, I was somehow withholding this option from myself. But this moment gave me the permission to go for it.

Did you ever imagine yourself in academia, or do you still? What do you think is a healthy attitude for writers to have toward the academy when contingent labor is on the rise and full-time jobs are scarce?

After getting my MFA I ended up teaching composition as an adjunct for a several years and I promised myself that I would stop because it felt so disgusting to see how universities have shifted the burden of labor onto the most poorly paid instructors. But I have always adored teaching. It makes me exactly as fulfilled as writing does. I’ve been lucky enough to teach in some truly wonderful academic environments these past few years—at Carleton College, my alma mater, the New England Literature Program out of the University of Michigan, and OSU-Cascades’ Low-Residency MFA program. Even though I continue to be contingent in these contexts, and this is a problem for me financially speaking, I get so nourished by having the chance to teach, and I end up feeling so buoyed by my radical, hopeful, brilliant students that I end up feeling more empowered than disempowered. Or, in the worst of times, one cancels the other out. This might be an unhealthy attitude for a writer to have toward the academy. But I grew up with artistic parents who always had to stand up for themselves in all kinds of work environments so I don’t feel this problem is limited to academia. I think an important question to ask yourself is whether or not the student demographic that you are working with is composed of people you are happy to serve.

In addition to teaching, you work at the University of Arizona Poetry Center in their K-12 education program. What skills and experience do you feel you needed for that job, and what new skills have you learned while in the position? Have you discovered something you’re good at that you wouldn’t have identified before?

When I first interviewed for this job I realized that I’d done all sorts of things to prepare that I hadn’t originally realized were relevant. Like, a few years ago, I collaborated with some friends to put on a bunch of fundraisers and events for this initiative we called “Detroit Ho!” We did a reading and a silent art auction in Tucson then spent the summer in Detroit, fixing up my parents’ house and hosting literary and artistic events. I made a blog documenting the whole process. Another time, my friend Arianne Zwartjes and I went on a book tour and we put together our own tour dates and I made us a blog. Things like that—collaborative projects that you just dream up and start from scratch— end up feeling useful to me now as we are constantly brainstorming how to engage with our community and plan events, how to compile and present student work, who to work with and in what capacities. My colleague in education programming at the Poetry Center, Renee Angle, is so wonderful and encouraging, and she really built a lot of the infrastructure for this program by herself. So it’s been empowering to realize that if you want to do something, you should try it. And because Renee is so supportive I’ve discovered that I’m better at administrative things than I would have initially imagined. But I have a lot to learn.

How does academia feel different to you as a teacher and as a program administrator? Do you feel like you have more or less control over your work and its context? Are you treated the same or differently by the institution’s leadership? 

In some ways things haven’t changed much, because I also teach as part of this job—we offer a course on how to teach residencies for undergraduate/graduate students. I feel very free in terms of curriculum design and all that. We have a good amount of creative control in terms of our programming. But funding is really tricky. And I was disheartened to realize that I am making a lot less money now than when I was an adjunct even though the work feels quite a bit more dynamic. I’ve felt supported, or at least heard, when I’ve articulated my frustration. Even though I don’t feel well compensated I do feel respected as an administrator and even as a writer and a teacher. I am really invested in the work that we do and in the fact that we’re serving these amazing children, but I feel that at this point in my life I have to get better at noticing when I’m working for free. Because it’s so normal to do this when you are a teacher or a writer. You don’t even realize this is what is happening it until somebody does offer to pay you and you think, “YOU’RE GOING TO GIVE ME WHAT?” So I’m having to draw boundaries that I don’t necessarily want to have to draw simply because I have to learn how to respect my creative energy and my time. But it becomes a bit of an acrobatic trick to figure out how to give the highest quality service to the most people with the fewest resources. Which is another way of saying: I work for a nonprofit.

Where does your own writing fit into a regular day or week? To what extent does being in a professional setting with other writers help create a supportive community for producing creative work?

I work part time, so I get time to work on my own projects. I am a person who needs a whole day to get down to business, creatively speaking, so I don’t think I could do a full on 9-5. And it is absolutely awesome to be surrounded by brilliant creative minds at work, too. One colleague just published a book of poems and writes these amazing essays about Jem and the Holograms. The librarians are superheroines. Three people who have worked at the Poetry Center in the last year have books that were just on Entropy’s “best of” lists for poetry and nonfiction. The teaching artists we hire to teach these residencies are phenomenal teachers and writers. I work with extraordinary badasses. And a huge work perk is getting to spend time with visiting authors like Aracelis Girmay, Claudia Rankine, Camille Dungy, Eileen Myles, Vickie Vertiz, etc. Hearing these folks speak and read supports my creative practice a lot. But some days I miss waitressing, actually, because when you aren’t surrounded by language and poetry and brilliance all the time you crave it in a way that can actually be quite motivating.

Your work is sometimes identified by other people as memoir, sometimes criticism, sometimes creative nonfiction. Do you identify with any of these genres? Do the connotations of any of those genres highlight or downplay elements of your work you consider essential?

This labeling thing in nonfiction just keeps moving, huh? Creative nonfiction, lyric essay, auto-theory. I just spoke with someone who offered the identifier critic-at-large, which I love. But yes all of these terms seem to leave something important out. The problem with the word memoir to me is that people expect super linear personal narratives so if you don’t explain a transition or if you refer to more than one artist or writer in the same essay readers might get annoyed… I may or may not be summarizing two Goodreads reviews that continue to stick in my craw after I published my first book. When you call it criticism you can go ahead and usher in the imposter syndrome. And when you call it creative nonfiction, I think you have to pay a fee to Lee Gutkind. I get the sense that you have to be white to call something a lyric essay. I’m being aggressive maybe because these labels bring up questions about capitalism, ownership, power and exclusivity. But then you go back and read Audre Lorde and James Baldwin and you figure: who cares what it’s called. I mean, a great thing about being queer and part of any minority group as a writer is that your approach to form will always feel problematic. If it felt right it would mean something impossible had happened to the machine of America.

In the wake of the election, especially, it’s struck me that what people write to convince one another on social media occupies a rhetorical space that might have only been found in newspapers or magazines a generation ago. (This isn’t a particularly new observation about social media, I realize). As an essayist, to what extent do you allow yourself to use social media as a proving ground for your ideas, and to what extent is it useful for you to keep some of that in reserve for more formal, solitary writing?

I remember a while ago the poet and essayist Wendy S. Walters posted something on Facebook about how she needed more time to process things than it seemed social media allowed for and I felt so relieved. I have something to say about Freddie Gray and I won’t know what it is until 2025. I find that if I write about something in a post that feels like it’s from my little jar full of fermenting ideas and images, I am letting go of whatever potential that this thing had to be art. Have you seen that TED talk where the guy says that if you say you’re going to do something you’re much less likely to do it? This is what I think is happening for me when it comes to writing projects and Facebook—posting on social media makes me feel like I’ve processed or internalized something that is still eons away from making sense. I honor writers who can, as you say, use social media as a proving ground. But my practice is so much more solitary and weird and time consuming than that. And predicated upon solitude and synchronicity and waiting in a very witchy way. I have the superstition that if I share something too early it will die from exposure.

What advice would you give to writers thinking of pursuing an MFA? Those interested in crafting a humanities career in general?

Now that they feel under threat I can’t think of a more beautiful word than “humanities.” I feel resistant to answering this for some reason. I really believe that we need to be better collaborators at this point in our history. I think art is essential but I think communication and brainstorming and problem solving with other people’s best interest at heart is much more important than pursuing our personal objectives any more. If getting an MFA is part of how you plan to get us out of this mess, go for it. If it’s part of the ego game you’re using to distract yourself from death, don’t. The humanities are an absolutely vital part of how we learn to think and communicate across difference. But the individualistic way we’re taught to envision our careers feels more and more corrupt to me. I hope that we can figure out how to be creative in ways that are essential. I say get an MFA or don’t get an MFA but please get to work.

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Aisha Sabatini Sloan was born and raised in Los Angeles. Her writing about race and current events is often coupled with analysis of art, film and pop culture. Her essay collection, The Fluency of Light: Coming of Age in a Theater of Black and White was published by the University of Iowa Press in 2013. Her most recent essay collection, Dreaming of Ramadi in Detroit, was chosen by Maggie Nelson as the winner of the 1913 Open Prose Contest and will be published in 2017.

 

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.

Poem as Calendar: Adrienne Rich and the Working Writer’s Time

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Some cows, composing in the interstitial moment.

“It’s true that a poem can be attempted in brief interstitial moments, pulled out of the pocket and worked on while waiting for a bus or riding a train or while children nap or while waiting for a new batch of clerical work or blood samples to come in. But only certain kinds of poems are amenable to these conditions,” Adrienne Rich wrote in the early nineteen-nineties in her brief essay “How does a poet put bread on the table?” She goes on to draw a distinction between types of “free” time: the infrequent gulps of unoccupied time amid obligations versus the time that has no pressing frame around it, the time made of the absence of all obligations but the one the poet makes to her art.

I’ve taken more than a year’s hiatus from writing and posting here, in part because until a few months ago, I was job searching and felt I couldn’t post publicly about that process. Going forward, I want to address the search process while examining what it’s meant for my and others’ writing, but those future posts will be in retrospect. Now that I find myself in a job I like, time crops up like wildflowers: the time I spent feverishly writing cover letters, the time I spent stressing about how much I wanted to leave my old job, the time spent unraveling myself from those tensions: it’s all been returned to me as a blank page. Just part of the day for me to do with as I will.

Rich writes that a poet’s feeling of fluency, when we experience “the speeding up of our imaginative powers” and “what was externally fragmented is internally reorganized, and the hand can barely keep pace” grows out of an accumulation of unplanned moments, crucially without the temptation of either interruption or distraction, when we could “simply stare into the wood grain of a door, or the trace of bubbles in a glass of water as long as we wanted to.” As part of a life that obliges one to make a living apart from art, she writes, such moments are often “fearfully taken because [they] do not seem like work.”

That’s the psychic exercise I find myself embarking upon, now that I’m free of the invented urgencies of my old life. To rail against a job I disliked seemed to take priority over the centering of my own attention, over the will to jettison busy-ness in favor of my own work. Now I find myself tasked with making my way back to the kind of time that is suspended in time, and getting rid of the feeling that I don’t deserve that time, that I ought to be “busy” or worse, “relaxing,” instead. Actual bubbles in a glass – suspensions of air in water — of the kind that Rich’s uninterrupted poet can contemplate, are formed at activation points on the inner surfaces of their containers. The activation points of our time-within-time bubbles, especially when we divide the day into job and not-job, are necessarily those interstitial moments Rich describes: putting an ingredient for writing down on paper in the time waiting for a train, or cooking dinner, can mean the difference between feeling shiftless and feeling fluent when we do have an open expanse of time: a day off, or a partner away on a trip, or a long city walk to ourselves. 

“Only certain kinds of poems” can emerge, writes Rich, during the caught moment, the fleeting second when no one demands our attention – or during which we make ourselves temporarily unavailable. Fine: water takes the shape of its container, a poem takes the shape of the moment it’s made in. There’s the story of Williams making poems on his prescription pads. Here, Rich subtly builds on Woolf: a woman – she is pointedly speaking of women writers – needs not only the privacy and means to write, she needs the time. Rich goes one step further than Woolf, who argued that money for women meant privacy, meant freedom of speech: for the writers Rich knows, who don’t have to contend with the opinions of benefactors or inheritances, a little money translates directly into time.

But rather than embrace Rich’s suggestion that either we have the luxury of the kinds of poems that require long hours gazing at wood grain or we do not, that either capitalism squashes us into a corner where our freedom is compromised or it does not, I’d rather accept that the writing we do in the moments between our obligations will end up keeping our calendars for us, rather than existing only when we manage to banish the calendar. The working artist makes a long moment of many short ones; composes not the poem out of time, but the poem as time.

Change Your Search Terms: An AWP Recap for Day Job Seekers

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This weekend I was at AWP, that most un-conference-like of conferences, where the book fair refreshment kiosk starts selling hard liquor and tacos at 11 am, and where you can take home a candy bar, a beer cozy, and a condom emblazoned with the logo of your favorite litmag.

I won’t bore you with my AWP philosophy – better poets have beat me to it – but having attended once before in an aimless way, this time I was glad to have a scheduled reason to be there. I spent an hour on Saturday as part of a panel called “What are You Going To do with that? Writers Side-Stepping the Adjunct Trap,” featuring off-the-academic-derech writers Erin Keane, Stacy Barton, Dan Bernitt and Daniel Bowman.

I’d spend the earlier days of the conference snooping around other post-MFA-oriented panels, most of which focused on things like how to get a job as an arts administrator. I admired (and live-tweeted) the other panels I went to, and couldn’t help noticing that on Saturday, when my colleagues and I sat down to answer our audience’s questions, the same ones came up again and again: what do you do if you want a job, but don’t want to leave your city? What if you’re told you’re overqualified for entry-level jobs in your non-academic field of choice? How do you get experience? What if you don’t feel like you’re good at anything else? Once your creative output stops being a means to a tenure-track end, how do you prioritize it? What is it for?

Some answers were full of satisfying tough love, like: sometimes you have to choose between a city you love and work you love. Or: if you want to break into a field, sometimes you have to do internships, and sometimes you’ll have to work for free. Or: working in business isn’t selling out – it’s a way to support your art-making. Some answers revealed the kind of surprising, personal, step-by-step details of the journey essential to helping others on the way: I learned to code on the job – I was doing what I loved, and my organization bit the dust – Now that I hire people, I would rather have someone with fire and gumption than someone with every skill on my checklist.

And some answers gave me the kind of frustrated feeling that made me start this blog. The frustrating answers were the ones full of holes, the kind that an person comfortable in his profession can give as lip-service to someone starting out and struggling. Freelance writing requires “hustle,” one panelist said, not detailing that “hustle” often means not just a hustle for work but hustle to figure out how to pay doctor’s bills without insurance, hustle to find work that pays in more than “exposure.”

So for those of you who couldn’t make it to Minneapolis, gathered below is something like a top five list from the conference for writers with day jobs or searching for day jobs. This is the list I wish I’d had pinned to my shirt like a preschooler’s allergy list when I wandered out of my MFA program and into the rest of the world.

Don’t let anyone shame you. One of the subjects that came up during our panel was shame: namely, the shame of not teaching. Among writers who’ve passed through academia, it can feel like there’s a pecking order determined by what you do to pay your bills. It can feel like if you’re not on the market, or driving across town to teach courses at two community colleges, you aren’t a “real writer.” But this is absurd, since writing, not teaching, is what writers do.

And I’ll just whip out some stats, here: since 1975, contingent faculty have increased by about 20% while tenure-track or tenured faculty have decreased by 20% as part of the total instructional staff at U.S. universities. Getting a job that pays you a living wage and treats you like a person, not an indentured servant, isn’t shameful or even a consolation prize – it’s acknowledging a bitter reality in higher ed.

You maybe can’t have everything. Over and over, I heard panelists and audience members tell stories of having to choose: the work they loved or the city they loved, their relationships or their work, hours every day to write or a job without a boss who called them “honey.” Sometimes, like if you have a family, a variable gets taken out of the game. Other times, you might have all the flaming bowling pins in the air at once: city, job, how you write, your relationships, your aging parents, your health. But start by catching one.

Change your search terms. Just as you might have to shuffle your priorities in terms of where you live, who you live with, what you do and how much time you spend doing it, don’t let the word “writing” limit what you do to support yourself. Not only are you probably good at more than just writing, but being good at writing already means you can do more than just write.

If you want to write for a living as well as for art, first, learn the names of the shapes writing takes in the business world: communications, social media, copywriting, technical writing, content creating, instructional design. Search for those jobs on Idealist or wherever else you’ve been looking, and take a look at what they actually entail. Better yet, talk to someone who does one.

If you think it might be better for your brain to preserve the writing lobe for your novel, first think about what you enjoy learning: math, or languages, or how to use new tools and materials. Ask people who work in fields you might want to work in –ideally, people who understand their own work holistically – about who uses those skills in their workplace. If you’ve had a job before, you’ll know something about what functions and skills a particular job uses, and it will be easier for you to imagine what “using math” in a library or “people skills” in a museum means. If you’re coming out of an MFA into the workforce for the first time, this paragraph is a longer process (and for another post).

Everyone wants a story. Writers tend to think that what they are adept at – using language – is nothing special, especially when it comes to the workforce. Why wouldn’t we think this way? Every other news story about humanities graduates talks about how there are no jobs for us, which suggests the notion that we’ve been prepared for a specific set of duties that no one wants us to do. This couldn’t be further from the truth: adeptness with language is flexible and, at a moment when every aspect of a company is part of its “story” and “voice,” particularly prized. Just look at the “Our Story” section of the websites of Walmart, Trader Joe’s, the media company Mindshare, Primerica, and that’s just the first page of Google results. Not the “about us” or “history” slugs of yore, this shift promises that people who understand how language works, how narrative and voice work, will be the people making sure companies are heard.

Life has seasons. After our panel, one woman in the audience said that she’d recently taken a job as a proposal writer after giving herself a year after the MFA to land an academic position. She had four kids, and worried about how her writing life would look during the transition into the new job. Stacy Barton, one of our panel’s playwrights, told her: there are many seasons in life. This might be your back-of-the-envelope season. Be very gentle with yourself during this time.

Jewish tradition has a kind of aphoristic recommendation that each person carry with them two slips of paper in two separate pockets. On one should be written: “you are created in the image of the Lord.” On the other: “you are but dust and ashes.” I find this useful: a kind of as-needed upper/ downer prescription, each phrase countering one side of a person’s natural seesawing view of herself. Doing any job, making any thing requires both phrases: we need the elevation of the first to be bold enough to create in the first place, and the bounded quality of the second to look back at our work, to see if it’s what we wanted — and if not, to see if we have the time to change it.

Be very gentle with yourself during this time.

A Pickle Jar for Your Inner Life

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I’ve been on a bit of a posting hiatus for the past month. I hope you’ll forgive me; like everyone I interview for this site, I’m trying to be nine things at once: blogger, poet, nonprofit administrator, essayist, person who exercises, person who makes babka.

William Deresiewicz has a new piece up at The Atlantic suggesting that all our multitasking as artists means that the model of the artist we strive toward — that model perhaps best embodied by a MacDowell residency, with a solitary cabin in the woods to contain our creative energies — is dead. This model is still so much a part of the culture that we’ve forgotten to add what came after it, the institutional support model, to the history books. Today the artist isn’t much of a solitary genius, and the institutional support artists receive is less robust than in the mid-20th century. Deresiewicz argues that we’ve entered an age of artistic entrepreneurship, where there’s more support for selling the average person the means to create than there is for original creations. He pokes a stick at the expansion of the word “creative” to include all manner of non-artistic activities:

“When works of art become commodities and nothing else, when every endeavor becomes ‘creative’ and everybody a ‘creative,’ then art sinks back to craft and artists back to artisans…Artisan pickles, artisan poems, what’s the difference, after all? So “art” itself may disappear: art as Art, that old high thing. Which — unless, like me, you think we need a vessel for our inner life — is nothing much to mourn.”

I always feel like arguing with Deresiewicz is like arguing with a more prickly, aesthetically sensitive version of my dad. They’re both secular Jews who grew up in America during times when everything was changing, not just politically, but intellectually and culturally. For my father born at the end of World War II, the professional world was newly influenced by the G.I. Bill and the hundreds of thousands of new college graduates and professionals it produced, many of them children of immigrants. Deresiewicz, born in the mid-sixties, grew up and came of age as the literary canon and the art world were being challenged to include more women and people of color. Both those sets of changes, writ broadly — who has access to higher education and who defines what qualifies as art — helped upend notions of who was allowed to contribute to certain fields in certain ways. Certainly, we can connect those changes to how artists subsequently built careers. The opening of the gates of higher education to a broader population and the presence of external support from communities challenging the status quo make it desirable for the artist to work collectively, either as part of an institution or an extended network.

MFA programs are a natural extension of the mid-century “professional” model of an artistic career that Deresiewicz describes. We gather in cohorts; we read each other’s work. We’re (sometimes) supported financially by an institution of higher learning, and the cultural capital we might pick up in those programs (like proposal writing) helps facilitate our getting other means of institutional support.

But after the nurture of that pre-professional model, painters and writers alike move into the market, and, necessarily, onto multi-faceted creative careers, rather than limiting themselves to the one discipline they’ve dedicated 10,000 hours to. The “creativity” involved here includes promoting one’s work, finding a way to make a living, finding collaborators, and starting collectives to mimic the institutional models we’ve left behind.

Deresiewicz may think this splintering spells the end of great, career-crowning works of art — Shakespeare didn’t write Lear while updating his website — but he hasn’t seemed to consider that maybe it’s the borders between disciplines that are fading, not the commitment of artists. I’m refreshed and relieved when my friends who are poets post a beautiful personal essay or piece of criticism, or suddenly out themselves as virtuosic pianists or engineers who have helped launch rockets into space. I quietly patted myself on the back when I learned the code to embed a Google calendar in a webpage. Why put ourselves in the ghetto of what we know, when there’s so much to learn? Perhaps I’m embodying some lamentable quality of the artists of my generation when I say some of my most exciting moments as a writer have been in the theater, or in the kitchen, or at contemporary music concerts, and that any chance I have to get out of the “way I work” as a poet and refresh my senses is welcome.

That’s not quite what Deresiewicz means, of course: he means that too much is for sale. He might be raging against Taylor Swift or Vine stars in an article that will mostly be read by young sculptors and fiction writers. But he also seems afraid that if we all share what excites us, what makes our brains feel alive, artists might end up discovering that they like marketing or making pickles or fixing up cars as much as they like making art. Or the other way around! And then we’d lose that separation from the daily and the mercantile that is supposed to give Art its access to truth.

I used to want to live in the woods and do nothing but write, but the last two things I’ve been proud of have been created in the space between sleep and the sign-out sheet at work, and that feels great. I’ve seen the extent to which writers with day jobs go to weave their art in and around those jobs, and around the business of art, and their work is better for it. Thinking too much about separating them often means that one will end up in a corner. Policing what kind of work gives us the buzz that means creation is happening is just a good way to be tired, when we already have so much to do. Do I, like Deresiewicz, feel that we need a vessel for our inner life? Yes, of course. It’s just that some days, it might be a pickle jar.

 

 

 

“I Knew I Wasn’t Going To Be an Academic Poet”: An Interview with Carrie Murphy

carrie murphy

Before we get into your post-MFA life, what made you decide to get an MFA? What were you expecting before you got the degree, and how had those expectations changed by the time you finished?

I’d been thinking about getting an MFA since I was an undergrad. Once I learned what an MFA was, it was just always something I wanted to do. I applied in the fall of 2007/spring of 2008, and I began at New Mexico State University in the fall of 2008.

I had a terrific experience in the MFA program at New Mexico State University and I started to think about what I was going to do I guess about a year before I graduated in 2011.  To be honest, I’m not 100% sure I always expected to go into academia when I was finished. I vaguely thought, early in my MFA, of eventually getting a Ph.D. in comparative literature or cultural studies, but after a while, it didn’t seem like something I really wanted to pursue anymore.

I taught during my three years in grad school, which I enjoyed, but I was pretty sure I didn’t want to apply for Phds, not in creative writing, not in comp lit, and not in cultural studies. It just didn’t seem like the right path for me. All of my friends who were interested in pursuing Phds were a lot more passionate about the academic life than I was, so I think that was one of the clues that made me think hey, maybe I don’t want to become a professor. I feel like you should really want it and know it’s the right path for you, and I didn’t (and still don’t) feel that way.

In your essay on Rachel Zucker, you write “As I neared the end of graduate school in 2011, I knew I wasn’t going to be an academic poet. I love poems and I love teaching, but I realized I wasn’t cut out for a career in academia. What would I be, then, if not a teacher of poems?” You go on to talk about how reading Rachel Zucker (I love her too) helped solidify your decision to become a doula/ poet, rather than a professor/ poet. What made you feel/ realize that you “weren’t cut out” for an academic career?

This is going to sound weird, but in some ways I feel like I’m not enough of an intellectual. I like learning and thinking and learning about thinking, but I don’t think I would be good at being a full-time scholar. I don’t have a desire to talk literary theory, and write papers, and go to conferences, and peer review journal articles, and do all of those kinds of things. I mean, I still do some of that, sure….but, it’s work that I choose to do, when I choose to do it, and it’s not necessarily connected to my livelihood.

Also, to be blatantly honest, I have no interest in competing in the crazy academic job market! It seems like getting a tenure-track job in English or Creative Writing is tantamount to winning the lottery. There’s some healthy competition in my line as work as a freelance writer and as a doula, but nothing like what newly minted academics are dealing with today.

I do really enjoy teaching, and I still do it. I have deeply complicated feelings about adjuncting (who doesn’t?), but I do it because I like it, and because teaching helps supplement the rest of my cobbled-together freelance/doula income.

It sounds like in becoming a doula, you were very much aware that it was work that dovetailed with your work as a writer – the sensibilities of attending births and new mothers seem aligned with your sensibilities as a poet. Big question: assuming some version of this is true for many, but not all writers (that a “day job” is out there that supports and aligns with their writing better than a university teaching job could), why do you think there are such high expectations for creative writers to compete in academia?

For poets, at least, being an academic is the kind of the only way you can be a poet and really make money, right? I mean, be a poet as your sole “occupation,” as it were (although it’s worth pointing out that poets who work in academia do quite a lot of work that is not related to poetry). I think there is also a high degree of legitimacy attached to being a professor, like you’re finally seen as legit if someone hires you to teach other people how to write. It also seems to be the most respectable thing to do if you’re a writer, as least to people outside of the literary world. As I mentioned, I still teach and I weirdly feel that it gives me a little bit more “cred” among my peers (and even some of my grad school classmates) even though I’m doing the often lowly (yet, of course, necessary!) work of adjuncting comp classes, not the OMG dream of teaching upper-level poetry workshops. 

That sense of legitimacy that comes with being a professor applies to the thinking of people outside of academia, as well. You know, the whole, “Oh you majored in English, what are you going to do, teach?” type of thinking…as if teaching is the only logical way to make a living with words. I remember having dinner with my friends when I finished my masters and they were like, “Oh, so you’re going to be a professor now?” And I said “Um, even if I wanted to be a professor, it’s incredibly hard to get a tenure-track job teaching writing. It would probably take me years.” And they were like “Oh, we thought that’s what everyone did!!”

But yeah, everyone doesn’t do that. And everyone doesn’t WANT to do that, either. For me, having several somewhat flexible jobs gives me the ability to make space in my life for my poetry. Others achieve that in other ways, but the life and career I’ve carved out over the last few years is what’s working for me now. 

What tensions, if any, do you feel between writing as an expert, as you do in “Why I’m a Pro-Choice Doula,” where your expertise in a subject is what drives the writing, and writing as a poet, where your expertise in a subject is less important than how you say what you do? What purposes does each serve for you? Do you enjoy one more or less than the other?

I don’t know that I am an expert in being a doula—or that I am not a expert in being a poet. I’m am an expert in myself and in my own experience, so that’s what I try to bring to my writing, whether it is about birth-related topics or whether it’s my poetry. I am always learning, in both spheres, which makes things fun and interesting, whether it’s a new massage technique for a person in labor or a discovering an awesome new book of lyric essays.

I am HUGELY passionate about maternity care and birthing choices for people in the US, so it’s my certainly my passion and my convictions that drive that kind of writing for me. If I’m writing something about birth or about being a doula, I usually want readers to have their assumptions challenged or come away having learned something new, so it’s important to me to write in a way that’s extremely clear, organized, and evidence-based.

But for my poems, I can just be weird and flip and dramatic and funny and it doesn’t matter because it’s MY poem and I don’t have to “prove” it to anyone—except myself, maybe. Readers are welcome to take whatever they want from my poems.

How do you feel about “Call the Midwife”? (I had to ask).

I love it! It’s the best. I cry during every single episode. I love it especially because it shows women giving birth safely, in their homes, attended by caring, well-qualified, and professional medical staff. The midwives (and the doctor!) on the show are essentially offering holistic care that takes into consideration the mother’s personal life, emotional state, and more, just as much as the medical aspects of her pregnancy, labor and postpartum. That’s a model of care that is hopefully coming back into vogue, but one I think that has been largely lost in our age of ten minute obstetrician appointments and induction dates. I’m happy to see this model of care demonstrated, and hopeful that others can see that it works, even if the show does take place during the 50s. The midwifery model continues to work for families and communities all over the world.

Even though the people on the show are obviously acting, I’m sure that Call The Midwife shows some of the only unmedicated births some viewers have seen, so I think that’s a benefit. And that’s not to say that medicated birth isn’t also wonderful and life-changing….but I appreciate the work the show is doing to make it clear that birth can be a normal, joyous event that doesn’t necessarily have to happen while you’re lying in a bed, in a hospital gown, with monitors strapped to your belly.

I also love how honest the show is about the emotional and mental complications involved in doing birth work. As amazing and renewing as it can be, it’s also quite grueling and taxing on both your body and your emotional state. And I’m not even a midwife!

To what extent was your poetry attentive to or influenced by birth and motherhood before you became a doula? Is it more so influenced now, or do you consciously create a separate space for it?

My book, PRETTY TILT, has poems about wanting to have a child, and about the experience of being a babysitter–a “fake”mother, if you will–so it’s been there for a while. All of my poems in some way deal with the experience of womanhood. And I have like five billion references to cervixes and ovaries in my poems, so that anatomical element crops up a lot 🙂

I have a new book coming out later this year and it has a couple mentions of my doula work, and birth, and also deals with my relationship to “motherhood” as a construct. I don’t have any children of my own as of yet, so in some ways I feel like an impostor writing about motherhood, when it’s an experience I haven’t really entered on my own. I’m really interested, and scared, and excited, to see how my writing will change when I do become a mother.

What are some ways you stay connected to groups of other writers? How do these connections feel different than those you made as an MFA student? How often do you meet writers who are also in the birthing business?  

Wellllllllll I tweet a lot. Does that count? I think it does! I have an awesome, supportive community of writer friends on Twitter, and everywhere on the internet, really. There are so many writers today who I respect and enjoy as people (as well as respecting and enjoying their work) and I feel lucky to live in a time where I can connect with them even though we live all over the world. I also keep in touch with some of my MFA classmates, too. I send them work, they send me work: it’s nice to have a sounding board every once in a while.

I wish I knew other writers who were doulas or who were otherwise involved in the birth world! I’m sure they’re out there…I do know (only via Facebook) Sarah Fox, who is also a poet and a doula. And I know one another doula who is also a poet, but she doesn’t live in my local area. But there are a ton of books geared towards expectant parents, so there’s obviously overlap with people who like writing and people who like the world of pregnancy, childbirth, and postpartum. Or maybe those people are just getting paid to write those books—how can I break into that?!

What advice would you give other writers who are finishing MFA programs who feel as you did about academia? 

You have options! It’s awesome to be an academic writer, but that’s not the only path to creativity, happiness and success.

Carrie Murphy is the author of the poetry collection PRETTY TILT (Keyhole Press, 2012) and the chapbook, MEET THE LAVENDERS (Birds of Lace, 2011). Her second full-length book, FAT DAISIES, is forthcoming in 2014 from Big Lucks Books. She received an MFA from New Mexico State University. Originally from Baltimore, MD, Carrie works as a teacher, freelance writer, and birth doula in Albuquerque, NM. 

 

 

 

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Whether Students are Treated Like People in College Has Shocking Effect On Their Lives Afterward

Harvard-University-Tour

When you applied to college, did you know what the f* you were doing? Not me. I thought I might like to live in New York, where my father grew up; I sent away (ah, I date myself) for Columbia’s fancy paper application. When my parents and I visited a few colleges, I liked the combed green of Swarthmore’s campus and the uncombed hair of the wiry tour guide. Eventually, I had a list of brand-name schools, plus the university where my father taught (I could go there for free) and a school in rural Pennsylvania which would offer me a full scholarship.

Of the fancy schools, I got into one. I went there, turning down full rides at my dad’s university (too close to home) and the rural PA school (too fratty, I told myself). My father allowed me to do this, believing that the connections I would make, not to mention the quality of the education and the overall experience, would be better at the private liberal arts school I attended.

But what does it mean to have a better college experience? Yesterday’s Purdue-Gallup poll of college graduates suggests that most of the things middle- and upper-class parents and kids believe matters about college (how hard it is to get into; public or private; its size) barely matter at all. What matters – and for those of you about to click away because this isn’t about MFAs, hang in there – is how good the student’s experience is. Continue reading

MFA vs. NYC vs. DAY JOB

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I’ve hesitated to add my two cents to the MFA v. NYC…(er, debate? Is that what we’re calling it?) reignited by the publication of this anthology edited by Chad Harbach. I’ve hesitated because a) for a long time, I’ve been unsure that describing “two literary cultures” in America is useful at a time when new literature, it seems to me, has rarely been more diverse, genre-bending, and formally challenging, and b) I’m not sure whether I, as a poet, and therefore heir apparent to the tradition of being economically bound to the academy (HA HA) have a dog in a fight that claims to be about fiction writers, and finally c) I’ve been patently ignoring the discussion, because it makes me tired. But here we go.

Starting with 2009’s The Program Era, the large-scale discussion of the worth of an MFA, or its impact on the economics and aesthetics of the literary landscape, has focused on fiction. And not just Fiction writ large—which would have to include all kinds of storytelling, some of which, like comics, are just beginning to have a place in the academy—but namely novels and short stories. The justification for this, it seems, is that unlike poets, who have “traditionally” relied on the academy, not book sales, for their paychecks, fiction writers treating their publications like “credentials” rather than a way to buy groceries is sort of new.

“The NYC writer has to earn money by writing,” writes Harbach in the 2010 essay that kicked off this year’s anthology. Whereas the MFA writer earns money by teaching, making his writing, according to Harbach, strain or bloat with a lack of urgency or readability. Say what you want about that—anyone who reads feverishly knows that there are complex, timely, readable writers who teach in MFA programs just as there are duds who miss the mark. If the market “takes care” of crummy novelists in NYC (as it will, in time, take care of all of us, *evil laugh*), we can probably just let time take care of the fiction that comes out of creative writing departments, rather than being irritated that a more uneven array of it seems to be published each year.

But what about the writer who earns money a different way? Who waitresses, or teaches high school, or builds houses or iPhone apps. Who isn’t “immediately championed” by a university and perhaps never by New York critics, who doesn’t have teaching to lean on as a way to feel “professional” as a writer when her ideas dry up, and who also hasn’t made it in the “blockbuster-or-bust” world of New York publishing, threatened as it is by the looming specter of Amazon? Isn’t this a writer who, between the supply and demand problems of creative writing jobs and the frightened scurry of Random-Penguin-House, is destined to emerge as a “third culture” of American letters?

Does this writer—who could have, pre-program-era, been Muriel Rukeyser, or Amy Clampitt, or Richard Hugo—count in the MFA/ NYC tally? Does her slow, steady work in the hours when she comes home from the office or before she gets on the bus in the morning matter to the people who must divide America into literary Communism and capitalism? When I think of these writers, they are mostly poets: publishing in Poetry and The Missouri Review and Conjunctions, celebrating their new books after they sign out for the day or in between grading high school essays. If they are poets, they will always be more or less ignored by the market, and thus by the public. But it doesn’t make their innovations in language, in form, and in collaboration any less valuable. Think of Miranda Priestly’s speech in The Devil Wears Prada to a humbled Anne Hathaway–the art that everyone pretends not to care about, and that no one can afford to buy makes its way eventually into the clothes on your back. So, I hope, it is for America’s best poetry.

Some of these writers-with-day-jobs have MFAs, and some do not. Writers who manage to survive outside of both the New York-driven publishing world and the academic world are a special breed, and their work often—not always—reflects it. These are writers who may be more likely to work with artists from other disciplines, and to research and write on subjects that are new to them. They are documentary theater artists and documentary poets; they don’t shy away from performance; they write hybrid texts and libretti. They read everything they can get their hands on. They listen and watch. (Of course, I hasten to add, there are writers in both the NYC and MFA orbits who do these things too—that is the point, that a strong will and an imagination can always do something surprising to an institution.)

It’s possible that of this type of writer-with-day-job, many or most will remain unknown all their lives; some will eventually bemoan the loss of their chance to be the next Jonathan Safran Foer or to judge a contest or to have a stool named after them in Iowa City. But underneath their creative struggles and juggling of professional goals, these writers—those featured on this blog, and others—also comprise something surprising, something that in America we thought we had lost: a group of people who don’t just go to work every day, but who intentionally move in multiple spheres; who think, read, write, and live the liberal arts.