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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Cross-Pollination is Key: An Interview with Morgan Parker

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

I was in college taking my second ever-poetry class with Josh Bell, during my sophomore year. I didn’t know what I was doing at all. When, in his office hours, he told me my poems were good, I was totally shocked. I had never heard of an MFA when he told me I should consider getting one. At the time I was just writing funny poems or depressed poems and reading them to my friends at parties. So the world has J. Bell to thank (or blame) for steering me in this direction and, basically, helping me to take myself seriously as a poet. I went into my MFA program straight from undergrad, wide-eyed about the possibility of nerding-out with other poets and becoming a more confident, focused writer.

What were you initially expecting to do after the degree? How did this expectation change (or not)?

Immediate worldwide fame. Just kidding. I really wasn’t sure. I was very focused on completing a manuscript by the time I finished school, and I didn’t see much past polishing and submitting it. While I was in grad school, I worked four days a week in the Visitor Services department at MoMA PS1. I’ve worked in the visual arts since college, so I was hoping to find a full-time job in the arts that wouldn’t distract me from writing. What I didn’t anticipate was the amount of work that goes into being a professional writer. It’s more than writing– it’s editing, it’s submitting, it’s ordering manuscripts, phone calls with publishers, giving readings, marketing, applying for fellowships and residencies– and it’s a lot of work. The balance between “work” and “other work” shifts all the time, and it’s taken me a while to get used to that fluidity and the fact that as a writer, you’re always working.

Were you ever interested in staying in academia? Why or why not? 

I’m definitely interested in it to some degree. Maybe one day there will be a Dr. in front of my name, maybe not. I know that the adjunct hustle is not for me. I have a lot of other hustles that keep me occupied and oppressed. I do love teaching, and I look forward to pursuing that more, maybe in academia, or maybe in a more nontraditional setting. In the meantime, museum education plays that role for me.

Your undergraduate degree is in Creative Writing and Anthropology. To what extent do the concerns of the social sciences influence your poems? Do you ever find yourself using ethnography or other parts of an anthropology framework in your work?

Yes– my majors always sounded like a weird combination to other people, but it made total sense to me to study people and how and why we act the way we do, particularly in relation to other people. Anthropology, for me, is about curiosity, observation, analysis, sensitivity, history, “culture,” rituals, all that good stuff. All of that fuels my work, or rather, the way my poet’s mind works. My anthropology studies were very interdisciplinary– I took English classes, African-American studies classes, a jazz studies class, even a class on “posthumanism.” I think of my writing in the same way. I draw on everything that surrounds me and interests me: race politics, feminist theory, pop culture, advertising, music, history. My work is about what it feel like to be this particular human, and I definitely think the anthropological side of my brain is very interested in that.

You’re now the Education Director at MoCADA – were you involved in the museum education/ visual arts world before starting to work there? How did you acquire the background and skills the job required?

MoCADA is my my first job in museum education, though I have worked in arts education/administration at previous gigs. I’ve been working in the arts for about six years now. I didn’t study art history but it’s a personal interest and passion. Since I took my first college job in arts administration, I’ve always loved the idea of being surrounded by artists and visual art. I was at PS1 part-time for almost four years, during which I became really connected to the art world and very in tune with how arts organizations run. I was able to talk and work with almost all of the departments, and tried my hand at everything from bartending for the rich and famous to climbing a ladder in heels to help out with installation. After teaching during my MFA, I was hungry for more opportunities to share my excitement about art, which is essentially at the heart of museum education. Working at MoCADA blends so many aspects of what I love: working with and within the Black community, teaching and spreading excitement about the arts, communications, and curating programs.

Many of your poems deal with contemporary American issues that impact the Black community (such as police violence). Does working at MoCADA give you opportunities to blur the line between what you think/ talk about in poems and what you think/ talk about at work? If the line is blurry, do you like having that cross-pollination, or would you rather keep your day job and poetry lives separate?

The cross-pollination is really, really key for me. The work I do and experience at MoCADA, in particular the conversations and debates I’m able to have with both coworkers and museum visitors, has totally transformed my writing. These are issues that color my life– not just work issues or themes I explore in writing. Art, Black communities, racism, intersectional feminism, activism– these are my concerns all the time, and I love being able to address them with my personal art and in a different way at work. Different strategies, same essential goal.

Do your colleagues know about and support your writing? 

I’m really the luckiest girl when it comes to this. My co-workers are incredible fans of mine. They come to readings, I send them poems, and they’re genuinely interested in my work and my success as a poet. Once, I hadn’t written a poem in months, and I took a day off to write. I signed onto my email in the middle of the day and was promptly accosted by g-chats telling me to go write poems! That kind of support is invaluable to me. But it’s also in the culture of working in the arts, particularly at such a small, inclusive institution. All of my coworkers are wildly talented artists of some kind, and we push and encourage each other.

How do you create time for writing around your other work obligations? 

The real secret is that I can work in front of the TV. While I’m sippling wine and catching up on Top Chef or whatever I’m usually drafting or editing something. Also, I’m single. So, like, what else am I doing? But honestly, and most importantly, I have a really great community of writers who push me. I’m really into meeting friends to write at a café or bar or hosting “writing days” at my apartment where we just listen to records and drink spiked coffee and write for hours. At this point, I’m proud to say I don’t even usually think about it, I just do it. I have to.

The artist collective BFAMFAPhD recently released a census report noting that in New York City, only 15% of artists make a living from their creative work alone, and that those who do earn a median of 25K/ year. (And of those, 74% are white, non-Hispanic). The collective’s response to this data is that artists should attend/ support alternative arts education institutions rather than go into debt. Do you agree? What other ramifications do you think this data has for the future of the arts in NYC?

I definitely agree. I’ve seen this report floating around on social media (confession: my newsfeeds are mostly made up of non-white, non-male artists) and in terms of ramifications, I think that awareness is the first step. And our response should be anger. We should demand more. We should agree to change the system. Because I surround myself with visual artists and musicians as well as poets, I wasn’t even the least bit surprised by this data. The art world is a dark, rich place. In some ways, I think that when one decides to become an artist, there’s a bit of giving into that super-capitalist system and almost agreeing to its rigidity and exclusion. So I’m excited by this information being fuel for revolution, for refusing to put up with these traditions. I think part of what drew me to museum education was an interest in alternative education, community-led education, and artist-as-educator models. And when I say we should demand more, I don’t just mean money. I mean worth. I mean investment in ourselves and the power of art. Alternative education can absolutely help this, as can community organizing around how to expand one’s art practice to allow for more optimal living.

What advice would you give to young writers just starting an MFA? To those doing a degree in New York? To writers of color specifically?

Try not to get distracted, but let yourself get distracted. Write what you care about, not what other people care about or want to hear. If you don’t care about anything at the moment, don’t write about anything at the moment. Go to readings. Give readings. Go to office hours. Be hard on yourself but forgive yourself. Write shitty, terrible drafts of things. Get super used to rejection. Do like Jay Z says and brush the dirt off your shoulders. Find community. And I don’t just mean friends (though those are great, too), I mean people you can trust and who understand not only your work but you as a person. In the NYC MFA community, you probably won’t naturally find a community of writers of color waiting for you in the classroom, but they exist, so don’t be afraid to seek them out. Don’t think you don’t need them. Say you’re gonna go to law school, but don’t. Say you’re gonna go into I-Banking, but don’t. Submit everywhere. Ask for favors. Do people favors. Read everything.

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Morgan Parker is the author of Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up At Night (Switchback Books 2015), selected by Eileen Myles for the 2013 Gatewood Prize, and There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé (Coconut Books 2016). Her work has been featured or is forthcoming in numerous publications, including the anthology Why I Am Not A Painter, published by Argos Books. She works as education director at the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (MoCADA) and  a poetry editor of Coconut Magazine

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I Never Want to Go Back to Academia: An Interview with Sean Patrick Hill

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You got an MFA at Warren Wilson after moving to Louisville, where you currently live. What made you decide to do so, and how do you think doing a low-residency program impacted your MFA experience and the writing you produced during those years?

At the time I decided to apply to Warren Wilson, I was actually in residence at the Vermont Studio Center. It was July 2010, and I had just completed a very difficult year teaching high school. My tenure there had drained most of my creative energy, and my time in Vermont, doing nothing but writing and the occasional hike, made me realize that this was the life I wanted to lead.

At the time, I was reading Heather McHugh’s poems, and also Joe Wenderoth who had studied at Warren Wilson. I wrote Joe to ask him what he had thought of the program, and he was nothing but positive. I also wrote Heather, and she asked me to send her some poems. Once she read them, she told me to apply, and that she’d help by writing a letter to put in my file. Before I left Vermont, I resigned from my public school job. Continue reading

What Matters Is a Job You Can Leave at Work: An Interview with Gina Myers

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You got an MFA at the New School. What were you doing before the degree, and how did you expect the MFA would change your life?

I went directly from undergrad into my MFA program, and really I had given little or no thought to how an MFA would change my life beyond the fact that it meant moving from Michigan to New York. As a first generation college student, I came from a family that ultimately believed just going to college and getting a degree (no matter in what) would be advantageous. I saw the MFA as an opportunity to develop more as a reader and writer. I did not think about it leading to any specific type of job after graduation.

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Something that Unites the Two Modes: Kristen Gunther on Science, Poetry, Writing and Research

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Which came first for you, poetry or science? Or did you have to choose between the two at some point?

It was always both. When I was a kid, I tromped through the woods all day, which led to a curiosity about the natural world – but also, as soon as I could read, I was memorizing poems. In my senior year of college, I used to leave a class on Shakespeare’s histories, pull rubber boots out of my backpack, and go out to net fish in a tidal bay as part of an ecology course. The strange thing is that nobody ever asked me to choose – it was always completely acceptable that I was studying wildlife management but also constantly reading and writing poetry. Continue reading

Poetry and PowerPoint: An Interview With Katherine Bode-Lang

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Let’s start with chronology. You’re now an IT trainer at the Office of Research Protections at Penn State, and have a longer history of nonprofit administration. At what point in your career did you decide to get an MFA?

Poetry has always been a part of my life, if not my pay-the-bills career—I actually earned a small creative writing scholarship to attend college, where I majored in English and Women’s Studies. I’d been active in women’s philanthropy and nonprofit work throughout high school and college as a volunteer, intern, and eventually as a Program Officer for The Michigan Women’s Foundation, but I was always writing. The semester I worked full-time as an intern at the United Way, I also took an independent study for poetry. Continue reading

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.