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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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.

 

 

 

How Will You Keep Yourself?

I’ve spent the past week immersed in Prizes, the selected short stories of Janet Frame. I was introduced to Frame, one of New Zealand’s most celebrated writers, through Jane Campion’s adaptation of Frame’s autobiography, An Angel At My Table. I watched this film in a deep, lightless Michigan winter, during a time when I lived alone; huddled on a loveseat with sinking cushions, I let the washed blue light of Campion’s filming and the harsh, scrubbed look of the rural New Zealand landscape open up before me.

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Frame’s stories, like some of my favorite poems, are invested in occupying a slightly absurd space between reality and fantasy (“’The Sun,’ they said, ‘is unmentionable. You must never refer to it.” But that ruse did not work. People referred to the sun…” begins one story.) When she was in her early twenties, Frame had a breakdown and was committed to a mental hospital, where she narrowly escaped a lobotomy operation because her first book of stories won a major prize. (Literary prizes appear in Prizes, but like most triumphs in Frame’s work, they are double-edged.)

As someone who tried and gave up on teaching when she was young, Frame must have thought once in a while about how to contend with those who believed writing, particularly poetry and fiction writing, was not work, and how others holding this view could corner a writer into becoming something else, while believing he was doing so in the service of writing. In “The Triumph of Poetry,” a young man named Alan (“…meaning that in the future the area of himself would be known as Alan”) wishes to become a poet. The expected tension surfaces: not a suitable career. Other people tell him this. “But how will you keep yourself?” they say. Frame offers commentary:

One must be kept, swept, turned inside out, shaken free of insects, polished, pleated, trimmed, preserved in brine which is collected in opaque green bottles from the sea or from tears which fall in the intervals between each death.

The self, in the hands of Frame-impersonating-Alan’s-elders, is a household object, subject to entropy: to dust, to wrinkling, to overgrowth. The self is also a liquid that takes the shape of its container. There are all sorts of containers. The question “what do you want to be?” (or “what will you do with that degree?” or “but how do you make your money?” or, as I heard this weekend, “Creative writing. So, do you work for a newspaper?”), reflects a fear about what that shape will turn out to be. A lawyer is a familiar shape, as is a nurse. A poet – what shape is that? Alan’s nameless, faceless elders seem to say to him: we’ve done you the favor of giving the amorphous blob of you a name; now what will you do with it, where will you put it?

But if Frame had kept on in the “squares go home” mode, her story might have turned out much more adolescent. Alan doesn’t quite rage against the machine. He tries on a few shapes: he writes poems, does it well enough, earns praise for it. He goes to university, and to the beach, and to meet girls. He takes pride in his success at school. It’s important to feel you do well at something. But Alan’s time for writing seems scarce, and that’s when the story begins to hinge on the idea of a day job. Alan “found a job as porter in a hospital morgue, attaching tickets and tying toes together, and looking for vacant spaces on the shelves of the refrigerator in order to keep a state of efficiency. He found that the atmosphere stimulated his thinking, but only while he was among the corpses, for as soon as he went to his digs to carry out his plan of writing at night, his thoughts seemed to vanish.”

Among the corpses! As I type this, I am carrying out my plan of writing at night, and I can second Alan (can you?) in the sentiment that as long as you are somewhere you’d rather not be, the ideas come easily. At my first job out of college, indignant at being bored in the office when I would have rather gone home and written, I drew elaborate cartoons that I hung on my cubicle walls. I know a poet who wrote her first book while in law school. Legend has it that at least one well-known novelist has finished a draft while locked in his white-collar office.

“It’s the revenge of the dead,” Alan hypothesizes, but at that point he is beginning to be fatigued. The world’s reluctance to let him be a poet – without thought to how he will ‘keep himself’ – is becoming evident. “But he knew it was not the revenge of the dead. Their toes were tied with pink tape, in bows, as for a festive occasion. Their faces were in unsealed envelopes, forwarded at half-rates with five conventional words of greeting. All was in order. The dead did not need revenge.” The dead, too, have their shape; in their way, are kept.

I won’t give away the end of the story, but you’ve probably guessed it: poetry does not quite triumph. (“The Triumph of Poetry,” as it turns out, is the name of a little magazine that heralds Alan’s early work long after he can reasonably be called “a promising young poet.”) In the end, what we all fear happens to Alan: a youthful attempt to build room for poetry into one’s life is overtaken by the act of building a room (from bricks of employment, family, trappings of middle-class life).

This is something I wrestle with, when I sit through a long staff meeting and can’t quite focus my eyes; when I come home and open up a Word document and can’t make any image come clear; when I sit across a bar from a friend and explain to her that my 9-5 job is, actually, the best way I can “make room” in my life for writing. Day job, sometimes I have my doubts. Not because I want to be a destitute elderly person one day, or because I still think wistfully about academia (although I sometimes do), but because I wonder if trying to give our writing a room of its own sometimes means that we’re cordoning it off, organizing it out of the rest of our lives.

I’d like to end on a more hopeful note, so I’ll make a recommendation, for myself, and for anyone who feels like taking it. I prescribe letting the work – the real work, the honest work, work that you would not disown even if fifty magazines rejected it – spill over once in a while. Let the liquid get out of its container. Write at your day job: a few sentences at lunch, a line scribbled on the last page of your legal pad at an endless meeting. Take notes when you’re on the phone or when your students are working quietly, on how people interrupt or repeat themselves when they talk, how the fluorescent light looks on everyone’s skin. Once in a while, for the sake of the work you love, let everything in your life run together, and wrinkle, and rust.

 

Time Carved and Stolen: Curtis Smith on Writing and Work

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For the past thirty-one years, I’ve worked with special learning students in a public high school in Pennsylvania. My day job precedes my first short story by six years and my MFA by over a dozen. My job has its rewards—and its frustrations and heartbreaks. Still, I don’t mind getting up every day and going to work, and in the end, I understand I can’t ask for much more. Writing has been the complement to my work, a place all my own, time carved and stolen from each day’s beginning and end, bookends of quiet and reflection in an otherwise hectic ride. Writing has given me the gift of engagement and creation—and sometimes, of sanity.

My late twenties found me in a good place. I’d landed my teaching job a month before my graduation, and after six years, I felt established, no longer the new guy. I was in love and recently married. Yet part of me was restless. Many of my friends were artists and musicians, and I yearned to be creative. I’d made a few 8mm films, and I’d refinished some old furniture procured from basements and auctions. I’d enjoyed these ventures, their hands-on processes, their tangible results. Yet I wanted something more. Or something different.

So I started writing. I had no English background; in fact, I’d always been more of a science-and-math person. In college, I’d struggled with my comp and lit classes. Why, I wondered, did Madame Bovary’s bouquet have to be anything more than a bunch of flowers? Part of my attraction to writing was due to stubbornness, one of my less admirable traits. Not being good—or at least passable—at something bothers me. Vain, I know, but I accept it as part of my makeup—and sometimes, the results of this shortcoming have left me a better person. Finishing in the stragglers’ pack of a seventh-grade race has led me to be a life-long runner. Madame Bovary’s wilted flowers goaded me to a second career of trying to explain my heart with pen and paper.

So I wrote. Every day, every evening. I read voraciously. I began submitting, and within a few years, I started to publish, not much but enough to earn my entry into Vermont College’s low-residency MFA program. I was fortunate—in Pennsylvania, school teachers needed at least 24 graduate credits to attain their permanent certification, and many districts, including mine, offered tuition reimbursements. Vermont was my first choice—I was already familiar with the work of a few of their teachers. I couldn’t attend the winter residencies, so it took me twice as long as most to graduate, but this turned into a blessing that allowed me to stretch my legs, to digest what I’d learned and use it to develop new material.

In the past few years, I’ve been invited to talk to students at different MFA programs. I tell them that my MFA studies were a valuable part of my maturation as an artist. I learned and read things I wouldn’t have discovered on my own. I developed friendships and connections I still cherish almost twenty years later. Most importantly, I came to understand that the people I met, all smart and motivated and creative, were also my competitors—and if I my work was going to find a place in the tight market of lit journals and small presses, then I needed to hold my writing to a higher standard. This scrutiny has become the most integral part of my writing routine, the continual asking if this story, this paragraph, this sentence is the best I can do.

Next year I’ll retire. I’ve had a good run with my crew, 33 years, and I’ve no doubt learned as much from them as they have from me. I’m already testing the waters of my next phase—I’ve been fortunate to have landed a number of visiting writer gigs at local colleges, and I’ve started some adjunct work, my MFA finally of use in an official manner to justify my employment. I don’t know what awaits—but I’m curious. And curious, I believe, is good.

Curtis Smith’s most recent books are Beasts and Men (stories, Press 53) and Witness (essays, Sunnyoutside). His next book will be a novel, Lovepain, from Aqueous Books

What a Difference a Day [Job] Makes: Some Notes and Reflections

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Cary Grant, ladies and gentlemen.

It’s been a little quiet around here lately. There’s a good reason for that, and no, it’s not because I poisoned some old gentlemen and hid them in the windowseat. Lo and behold,after a few months of asking people about their day jobs, I have one too.

Going forward, I’ll keep most of the details of my work life, like who I work for, names and projects, private. But I’d like to take a moment to think about how, in just a month of working a job—and yep, outside academe—my ideals and daily practices have changed.

1. Part-time is a state of mind.

My job, for the time being, is only two days a week. My twenty-two year-old self might have resented a less than full-time gig and clocked in and out accordingly. But I like this job, and eventually I’d like it to be possible for someone to consider hiring me full-time, or even just for more weekly hours. So the time and energy I put in tend to expand—as they do when I sit down to play with a manuscript, or as they did when I dreamed up lesson plans. I have to hold little tribunals with myself about how often it’s okay to check work email on my days off. But I’m certainly not all virtue. The tribunals (made up of my regular self, a version of me with sunglasses and no pants, and a medieval rabbi version of me—what would Freud say) extend to whether it’s really okay to wait until Tuesday to start thinking about that urgent thing that’s due the week after. Does this eat into my writing time? Maybe. Does it also make me feel pretty useful and stave off depression? Probably.

2. Good ideas and smart people are everywhere.

I’ve been lucky enough in my life to have experienced several situations where I felt almost spoiled by the talent, goodness, and passion of the people around me. I felt this way as a high school student spending a summer at the Pennsylvania Governor’s School for the Arts (now on long hiatus), a number of times in college, and in graduate school. In these situations, brilliantly engineered by admissions counselors and teachers, people spontaneously created theater projects together, had three-hour dinner conversations with folks they had met that afternoon, and traded work they’d never shown to anyone else.

I don’t think it’s an accident that I got to experience this kind of atmosphere multiple times—in fact, I know that I sought to reproduce it in my life again and again. So why should I—why should anyone—expect that just because they’ve left “the bubble” of a great MFA program or community of writers, they can’t find another place where people care about ideas, good conversation, and working on projects whose outcomes they wholly support? My workplace now, I’m happy to say, is full of people who would happily interrupt their data-entry to discuss the work of a 20th century Lithuanian poet, and who listen carefully when someone else has an idea. There’s some luck involved in finding that kind of place, I admit; but it can also be something you actively seek out or even carry around with you.

3.  Dust and ashes.

Let me get a little existential here. Like many people I’ve interviewed on this site, I do a lot of writing, editing, and submitting when I can. Nothing much about the way I do that has changed, except that there’s a sense of both urgency and ordinariness to it now—I don’t feel lifted up, promised, the way I did as an MFA student and post-MFA fellow. Writing is something I wake up and do, like going for a run or making coffee or getting on the train to go to work. But where as a student—and even as a younger person with other day jobs—I felt like I had all the time in the world, I usually feel that writing must be done now. There might not be time later, and later my head might be full of something else. I move through the usual good and bad writing feelings (usually: somebody likes me/ nobody likes me/ I am created in the image of the Lord/ I am but dust and ashes), and I try to recognize that whole range of feelings as a possible daily range. Anger is not just for special occasions, and neither is pride.

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As I continue to “live” this blog–as an MFA with a day job–on a daily basis, I’d also like to hear from you guys: have you taken a job (or two or three) recently, and have you witnessed a shift in your priorities or practices? Positive, negative, or in between, write about it and send it this way, sil vous plait.

 

Enormous Changes at the Last Minute

Ann Arbor, August. I am packing my “relo-cube” with the contents of my one-bedroom apartment. Proust had madeleines, I have a scratched dining table my father owned in his grad school days; boxes of poetry books signed by their authors; end-tables my mother painted and decoupaged with pressed flowers; a red Schwinn road bike gifted to me by a friend; photos of my mother and father and grandmother, each at twenty; a print of Klee’s “Angelus Novus” my brother bought for me in Jerusalem; and, toward the end, lone shampoo bottles and boxes with labels like “printer/ pizza peel/ scraps of fabric.”

Despite a year-old agreement with my partner that we’d move together “wherever I got a job,” I am done with my M.F.A. and jobless and moving to live with him in Brooklyn, where I never wished to move. “Leah Falk lives in Brooklyn” is a sentence I did not want ever to have to put in a contributor’s bio – it felt like a cliché, a naïvely conceived dreamscape for hundreds of artists who didn’t realize that New York had become too recognizable, too expensive for them to live out their dreams. But as a fiction writer friend reminded me before she made the same Michigan-Brooklyn move a year earlier (in the words of The Goon Show’s Spike Milligan): “Everybody’s got to be somewhere!”

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Two roads diverged in a yellow wood? Autumn in Schenley Park, Pittsburgh.

And so I am stuffing toiletries into bags that once contained sheet sets. I am renting Zipcars to take paper bags of dishes to Goodwill. I am eating tuna sandwiches from the deli down the block standing up at my kitchen counter. I am taking walk after walk to say goodbye to Ann Arbor’s bulk food stores, its running trails along the Huron River, its chicken coops, its starry night sky. Days before the cube is due to be picked up, I receive an email from the English department at my university. They offer me the opportunity to teach three courses in the coming semester—a semester that begins in two weeks.

As in many humanities departments across the country, in ours graduate students teach an average of a course per semester while they complete their degrees. When we finish, many of us apply to work as adjunct instructors, or lecturers. Michigan treats its non-tenure-track faculty better than many places I can think of: despite anti-union sentiment in Lansing, the state’s capital, both graduate student instructors and lecturers are unionized; they receive excellent health benefits, help with childcare, and most enjoy a strong sense of community within their departments. Historically, many finishing M.F.A. students there have applied for, and gotten, work as lecturers after their degrees for at least a semester.

This past year, due to a quagmire of right-to-work legislation and games of chicken between the state government and its flagship university, a hiring freeze was in effect when most brand-new hires might have expected an offer letter in their mailboxes, back in May or June. Most of us did what any job candidate is advised to do when his prospects look less than hopeful with an employer: we moved on. In August, I didn’t know what I was moving on to, but I had, weeks earlier, decided not to wait around for the email that popped into my inbox just as I slid the lock closed on my moving cube.

Nevertheless, it took me two days to write an email declining the offer. Why? I had already begun this blog, and had had countless conversations with other writers whose view I shared that adjunct work was not the means to the life we wanted: creative, professional, economic, or otherwise. But I couldn’t shake the feeling, as I pressed “send,” that I was leaving something important behind, making, in the words of G.O.B. Bluth, “a huge mistake.” Lately, I’ve been considering where exactly that feeling comes from.

In two important stages of my life, childhood and college, my models of working people were all professors. All of them. My father was a professor, and his best friends were, too. They taught subjects ranging from chemistry to law to history to engineering, but dinner party conversations clustered around higher education, student performance, and administrative issues. These were men and women whose daily habit was knowledge for its own sake – even those whose academic research often had direct bearing on the private sector.

Besides being my parents’ friends, these people were in effect my second extended family: we were at their Passover and Thanksgiving tables, they babysat us, we attended each other’s families’ weddings, bar mitzvahs, and funerals. On Saturdays, my father and his friends, sometimes accompanied by my brother and me, followed a run in the city parks with coffee and bagels, as they had for almost thirty years.

I didn’t follow any of these people into their fields, but in a sense I did follow them into higher education: I wanted to reproduce a working atmosphere where being surrounded by challenging ideas was normal, where creating new knowledge was the source of workplace collaboration and celebration. And I followed my teachers, too – the next adults with whom I had thought-provoking conversations about learning and writing and art were my college professors.

But many of these adults worked in fields where, if they hadn’t worked in academia, they could have turned to industry. Others, like my English professors in college, entered the academy at a time when adjuncts didn’t make up nearly two-thirds of the workforce. If they taught in creative writing programs, they had often earned Ph.D.’s in English, before the M.F.A. became first the standard terminal degree in the field and then, like a wartime currency, slowly dwindled in value.

So when I declined my university’s offer, as I had to, because there was a cube full of my stuff and a person I loved and a city I hadn’t ever meant to live in awaiting me, I wasn’t just declining a one-semester position (although it was possible that was all it would be) and the opportunity to teach a course I had designed. I was acknowledging that in order to find the things I cared about – people who valued ideas, people who wanted to continue learning their whole lives, work that used my skills in the service of values I held dear – I might have to look elsewhere. That universities – institutions that surrounded me as a child, that helped build my conversations, my education, and my family – might, for my generation, might not be the only place, or even the best place, to look for those things.

(I stole the title of this post from Grace Paley.)

Another Side of Higher Ed: Chris L. Terry

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I am the Coordinator of Student Engagement and Culture at Columbia College Chicago. It’s a broad title because I do a variety of things, and love it. Last week, I saw scholarship students’ faces as they read about Fred Hampton’s murder for the first time in my Chicago African-American History discussion group; trained a group of peer mentors; and was in Grant Park at 4 a.m. on Friday, supervising the set up of tents and stages for the New Student Convocation.

There’s something different to do every day and it keeps me from being bored. The more that I see and do, the more that I can write about.

This position is the culmination of four years of work. I entered Columbia’s Fiction Writing MFA program in 2008, wanting to become a better writer and to find work that was more fulfilling than my old career editing make-up catalogues. I wasn’t sure what that work would be, but I wanted to use grad school to make my world bigger, to say “yes” to everything. I figured that the answers would present themselves. They did.

I posted a resume to Columbia’s campus job site, hoping to get work in the Fiction Writing office. Instead, Student Engagement contacted me about working as an assistant to the Director of African-American Cultural Affairs. It was perfect. I’d been writing a lot about my black/white mixed race identity and wanted to get to know myself better as a black man. Surely, this job would enrich me far more than checking the spelling of lipstick shades ever did.

Immediately, working in Student Engagement made me feel tapped into the world. I met a variety of students and participated in a million discussions about race, masculinity and relationships – all topics that helped my writing as I sorted out my own identity through stories.

At first I was scared. I’m pale, and was worried that people wondered why a white guy worked in the black office. My first week, my boss’s boss asked me if I was Greek, and I said, “No. I’m black and Irish.” Imagine my embarrassment when she said, “Chris, we know that. I meant, like, are you in a fraternity?”

That was my welcome. I was there. I was accepted.

I graduated in 2012, after spreading my thesis hours out over an extra year to keep my campus job. Shortly after, I was hired as staff. My first full-time job with benefits.

This job is in conversation with my writing, instead of making it feel like an after-hours secret life. That first year in Student Engagement quieted the internal voices that tell me I’m not black enough. It shook loose the thirty years of significant moments where I had to consider my identity, that became turning points in the stories that I write before work, after work, and that I can mull over out loud while on the clock.

Chris L. Terry has a Fiction Writing MFA from Columbia College Chicago. His debut novel Zero Fade will be released by Curbside Splendor on September 16, 2013. Visit www.chrislterry.com for more of his writing.

Here, I’ve Been Named the Head of a Student Dope Ring: Richard Hugo on Day Jobs

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If you are a poet (or a fiction writer) with a day job, rush right out and read Richard Hugo’s essay “How Poets Make a Living,” in his celebrated collection The Triggering Town. The question of how it feels for a poet to work outside academia was one that Hugo, who worked for thirteen years at Boeing, dreaded. Did it matter what one did between the hours of 9 and 5? In “the real world”? “I hate that phrase ‘the real world,'” Hugo wrote. “Why is an aircraft factory more real than a university? Is it?”

Gems from “How Poets Make a Living” include Hugo’s discovery of a 1949 volume titled Advice to a Young Poet. Poets, according to one Llewelyn Powys, should “wash your underclothes with your own hand as though this extra persona fastidiousness were part of a religious rite…Aim at getting up half an hour earlier than other people and walking if possible to catch a glimpse of the sea every morning.” If Powys lived today, it sounds like he might join forces with Gwyneth Paltrow.

Hugo finds all these romantic prescriptions absurd. His own comparisons between the business and academic worlds are level-headed, selfless and hilarious:

“There [business]: 62,000 employees and no one cares that I write poems.

Here [academia]: When I first start, twenty-six employees in the department and three of them hate me because I write poems.

There: Those who know I write poems don’t seem to assume anything is special about me.

Here: I’ve been named the head of a student dope ring. A student informant tells the administration I’ve advised students to print and distribute copies of a ‘dirty poem’ about the campus. I am a homosexual. I am a merciless womanizer. I throw wild parties. I write my poems in Italian and then translate them into English. I come to class dressed in dirty, torn T-shirts. I am a liberal, a reactionary, a communist, a Nazi.”

Hugo gives the caveat: “I’m apt to sound too self-assured about the unimportance of a poet’s job because no matter what I’ve done for a living I’ve gone on writing, and because with one exception I’ve never found the initiating subject of a poem where I worked.”

 

 

Rattle’s Tribute Calls for Poets Who Also ________

I’m a big fan of Rattle, a journal that keeps poetry populist by inviting readers to vote on who should receive their annual poetry prize. One of my favorite things about this magazine, though, is their frequent “tributes” to poems of a certain kind, or to poets who have something else going on in their lives, including their day jobs: they’ve had tributes to nurses, lawyers, grade school teachers, soldiers, and editors. Coming up in Fall 2013, they’re running an issue partly devoted to the work of/ about single parents–a day job, of course, all its own.

Alas, the call for the single parents tribute has passed, but if you’re someone who, like good old Lawrence Joseph, wants to remind people that the writer they’re reading has another life that sometimes slips into the work, keep Rattle in mind for your next round of submissions.

The Poetry of Physical Labor

Photo credit: Library and Archives Division, Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh, Pa.

Do you write about your day job? When I consider the kinds of work that seem to crop up most often in fiction and poetry, I see a tendency toward writing about physical work. Construction work or baking bread might seem like a more romantic jumping-off point for our writerly meditations; after all, we live in America, where Whitman wrote [apologies for the wrapping of Whitman’s long lines here]:

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,

Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be     blithe and strong,

The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,

The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,

The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,

The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,

The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,

The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing, […]

In “I Hear America Singing,” Whitman associates physical labor with the strength and sweetness of the workers’ “singing,” which isn’t literal singing so much as the sense of satisfaction in and knowledge of their work. To Whitman, the very essence of their humanity shines through as they do their jobs.

But if we fast-forward a bit in poems of American work, we get to Philip Levine, who probably wrote more about physical work than any other 20th century poet, but who doesn’t see physical labor as quite the seat of contentment that Whitman does. In fact, the mind-numbing nature of the work Levine writes about–assembly-line work at Detroit auto plants–sometimes calls into question the very humanity that Whitman finds so evident in physical labor. Consider the opening of Levine’s “Coming Close“:

Take this quiet woman, she has been

standing before a polishing wheel

for over three hours, and she lacks

twenty minutes before she can take

a lunch break. Is she a woman? 

“You must come closer” to discover the answer to this question, Levine writes, and “you,” it becomes clear by the poem’s end, is a white-collar worker, someone who hasn’t experienced anything like what the woman does.

For both Whitman and Levine, though, physical work was a location of poetry because it can be seen. The body is in motion. Not so much with a lot of day jobs–you may not even be able to tell what a lot of office workers, busy at their computer screens, are doing all day. But I doubt that means that the poetry is missing. Levine, after all, took work that did not particularly show humans “singing” and forced readers to “come closer” until they, like the “you” of Levine’s poem, were marked “now and forever.”