A Poet's Double Life

For poets working outside the literary world.


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Poet Heal Thyself


Wounded-heart-with-bandage

A research study of older adults in New Zealand demonstrated the power of writing in the healing process. The study assigned two groups to write about their lives. The first group was asked to write about a traumatic event, how they felt about it at the time, and to share thoughts and emotions they had never expressed. The second group wrote about their plans for the next day with no mentions of their feelings. The researchers took small biopsies of their skin and photographed the wounds to see how they were healing. After 11 days, the 76% of the people that hard written about their feelings had fully healed compared to only 42% in the other group.

This study completely fascinated me because it provided credible evidence of writing as a way to heal physical wounds. I know from personal experience that writing can heal emotional wounds. I started writing in late 2004, about a year after my father’s death in a car accident and the end of a 10-year relationship. Reading a book of poetry by Edna St Vincent Millay triggered the outpouring of emotions that I had kept to myself. Many studies have shown the benefits of writing for physical and emotional well-being. In fact, a recent article reported that Pierce Brosnan–Remington Steele and James Bond–is writing poetry to cope with the grief of his daughter’s death. However, writing about pain and grief doesn’t make you a poet; only when you aim to share that experience with others can your writing benefit the greater good. As James Baldwin once said, “your suffering means something only to the extent that people can attach their suffering to yours.”

In his craft talk at Cave Canem, Chris Abani posited, “all writing comes from an existential wound.” In his mind, wounds are not to be confused with suffering—to have a wound is not the same as being wounded. Abani believes that recognizing a wound is the key to opening up everything. The narrative of the wound becomes the story we’re telling—it is the driving force behind why we write. As poets, writing from a wounded place can bring more than self-healing. When our writing speaks from that existential wound, we can connect to others in a deeper way and be the catalyst for healing ourselves as well as our readers.


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Writing on the Road


I’m in week 2 of a 3-week vacation. The first week I had access to Wi-fi and blocks of time to pen this blog. Since then, I’ve been without immediate and instant Internet access. There’s a shared mobile Internet card and not enough time in the day to collect my thoughts. This morning, I’m headed to a elyunqueeco-hotel in the middle of a rain forest. From past experience I know that the wireless is spotty at best when it is available, but often shrouded by clouds that perch themselves on the top of the mountain, blocking out the satellite connection.

Whereas blogging has been challenging on vacation, writing has not. Puerto Rican journalist, Hector Feliciano advises us to treat writing as a form of exercise. If you do it every day, it is easy; the longer you go without writing, the harder your muscles have to work to get back into shape.

I have been building to a daily writing practice–jotting down ideas in the Notes on my iPhone, carving out three-minute poems, and using larger blocks of time to scribble in my notebook. Of course, writing on the road must be fed by reading. I’ve brought along the Kindle with several fiction and non-fiction books and 3-4 poems arrive every morning in my inbox. And the ideas keep flowing!


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Chair Emeritus: Wallace Stevens


Wallace Stevens (October 2, 1879 – August 2, 1955) failed at his attempts to become a writer, and then a lawyer, and ended up working for an insurance company in New York. In 1916, he relocated to Hartford, Connecticut and joined the Hartford Accident and Life Indemnity Company where he stayed until the end of his career. Throughout those 39 years at The Hartford, Stevens published nine poetry collections, including Collected Poems, which won the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry in 1955.

Wallace Stevens tried to maintain a definite line between poetry and business. He composed many poems on long walks, and then, arriving at the office at 8:15 AM, gave them to his secretary, Miss Flynn, to type. Other than Miss Flynn, very few of his colleagues at The Hartford knew of his poetic endeavors and his success outside of surety bonds claims. Stevens equally protective his non-literary career, turning down Harvard’s invitation to serve as the Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry, partly because he feared it would force his retirement from Hartford. Although he liked to keep his lives separate, Stevens felt:

“It gives a man character as a poet to have a daily contact with a job. I doubt whether I’ve lost a thing by leading an exceedingly regular and disciplined life.”

Of all the double life poets I’ve discovered, I’ve always felt my life most resembles Wallace Stevens. He achieved great success and respect in his non-literary career as an expert in surety bonds. Although Stevens did not write about work, his poems were influenced by his business trips to Key West:

She sang beyond the genius of the sea

The water never formed to mind or voice,

Like a body wholly body, fluttering

Its empty sleeves

The demands of a full-time job no doubt diminished the amount of poetry he produced, and his comfortable lifestyle probably put less pressure on him to continuously publish—and yet, he didn’t let work get in the way of pursuing his passion for poetry. If Wally managed to live the double life, then so can I.

Chair Emeritus is a monthly feature highlighting famous poets who have lived or are living the double life.


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Living the Double Life


“One of the saddest things is that the only thing that a man can do for eight hours a day, day after day, is work. You can’t eat eight hours a day, nor drink for eight hours a day nor make love for eight hours — all you can do for eight hours is work. Which is the reason why man makes himself and everybody else so miserable and unhappy.” ~ William Faulkner

Often I feel disconnected from other poets who teach for a living, are freelance writers, or who have a job where they work with words, language, books, or images all day. My job taxes my analytical mind. I spend a lot of time in meetings, in the field gathering evidence, or in front of my computer processing information and data to identify problems and generate ways to solve them. My colleagues know that I am a poet, and send me links to poetry contests and articles about poets they happen to come across. They are used to it, having spent two years creating workarounds for my two-week stints in Vermont in January and July. They know I am “poeting” when they see my closed office door during the lunch hour. But I don’t expect them to understand anything about sonnets and I don’t try to steer the break room conversation away from “So You Think You Can Dance.”

Most poets I meet are full-time poets. They recognize what I do as important, but clearly unrelated to anything literary. Some can recount the litany of odd jobs they’ve had while they were finding their way to their first book or teaching position. But most let their eyes glaze over; they don’t understand how I can do something other than poetry all day and call myself a poet. Unfortunately, these are the same people who are editing literary journal and magazines, and don’t seem to relate to the poems I write about life at the office. Thankfully, my poet-friends are sympathetic to the double life because many of them have to carve out time from work and family to continue to do what they love to do.

I started this blog to be a place for poets with non-literary careers. The people, who like me, have both feet firmly planted in their careers and the poetry world. We have to work hard to succeed on both fronts and don’t want to have to choose between them. As much as I would love to live on poetry alone, I truly appreciate having a job that gives me the freedom and flexibility to pursue poetry. I don’t have summers off and my job wouldn’t pay to send me to the AWP Conference as part of my professional development, but I can afford to pay for plane tickets to writer’s weekends. And the 9.16667 hours in vacation time I earn each month can be used however I want, even for another trip to Puerto Rico.

So on this Labor Day, I wanted to express my gratitude for my other career, the one that allows me to live the double life.

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