A Poet's Double Life

For poets working outside the literary world.


A Few of My Favorite Work Poems

My last post featured a recently published poem about real-life work experience. As a double-life poet I often am influenced by what I hear, see, and feel during the work day. At times I am able to lend a poetic voice to the white collar bureaucratic office environment that occupies 8+ hour chunks of my weekdays. However, there are times when what I write about work just sounds like I’m  venting without really elevating  the topic to the universal. When I have trouble finding the poetic in the mundane, I turn to some of my favorite work poems to inspire me.

Philip Levine “What Work Is“: Levine’s award-winning collection of the same name pays homage to factory workers. The title poem is the quintessential work poem about the loneliness and powerlessness felt by a day laborer that just expands to include the unspoken love for his brother.

“How long has it been since you told him
you loved him, held his wide shoulders,
opened your eyes wide and said those words,
and maybe kissed his cheek?”

Where much of Levine’s work poems focus on blue collar stiffs, poems in the collection, For a Living: Poetry of Work, features poems about white collar jobs. Two of my favorite poems in this anthology are Denis Johnson’s sonnet “White, White Collars

“We work in this building and we are hideous
in the fluorescent light, you know our clothes
woke up this morning and swallowed us like jewels,
and ride up and down the elevators, filled with us”

and Wanda Coleman’s lament about life as a medical billing clerk, “Drone

“i am a clerk
i am a medical billing clerk
i sit her all day and type
the same type of things all day long
insurance claim forms
for people who suffer chronic renal failure”

Lastly, Jan Beatty’s “My Father Teaches Me to Dream.” The final lines say it all.

“There’s no handouts in this life.
All this other stuff you’re looking for—
it ain’t there.
Work is work”

Ok I realize most of these poems don’t portray work in the best light, so I promise I’ll post some feel good work poems soon. If you know of any, feel free to leave a comment!


Publication Update

Good news!  All that effort to submit to literary magazines has yielded one acceptance, Mused: BellaOnline Literary Review. A few of my poet-friends in the Triangle have published there, so I thought I would give this mag a try.

The poem, “Professional Disagreement,” is one of my work-related poems and is based on a heated exchange I witnessed during a public meeting. The real argument was not pretty to watch and my boss’ description of what we saw and heard became the last two lines:

 “it´s just two country gals / throwing rocks with their tongues”

I wrote this poem during the April 2012 Poem-A-Day Challenge in response to the prompt, “communication.” You can read the poem here: http://www.bellaonline.com/review/issues/fall2012/p033.html

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Chair Emeritus: William Carlos Williams

William Carlos Williams (September 17, 1883 – March 4, 1963) was a pediatrician and general practitioner who worked out of his home on 9 Ridge Road in Rutherford, New Jersey. Williams knew from very early on that he would have to support his love for writing with another career. In his autobiography he writes:

“First, no one was ever going to be in a position to tell me what to write, and you can say that again. No one, and I meant no one (for money) was ever (never) going to tell me how or what I was going to write. That was number one. Therefore I wasn’t going to make any money by writing. Therefore I had to have a means to support myself while I was learning.”

Williams pursued medicine and poetry with equal dedication and commitment and often times simultaneously, for example stopping by his poet friends’ apartments in New York City after long days of advanced graduate training at pediatric clinics. Known for writing poems on the back of prescription pads, Williams felt being a doctor and a poet were “two parts of a whole, that is not two jobs at all, that one rests the man when the other fatigues him.”

Happy 129th Birthday, WCW!

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


poetrySpark Weekend

After two months of planning, poetrySpark weekend is finally here! Here’s the run down of the schedule:

Thursday, September 13th

Living Poetry Organizers get their 17 minutes of fame during the Opening Ceremony @ Raleigh Amphitheater (7ish PM)

Spark After Dark hosts Erotic Poetry with burlesque dancers @ Kings Barcade (11 PM – 1 AM)

Friday, September 14th

Best of the Open Mic @ White Collar Crime (8PM – 10:30 PM) – Winner gets a Kindle Fire!

Saturday, September 15th

Poetry on Demand @ bazaar Spark in City Plaza (12 PM – 7 PM)

Youth Poets @ Morning Times Café (2PM – 4 PM)

Featured Readers Night has the six winners of the poetry contest + Sacrificial Poets, Terri Kirby Erickson, & Jaki Shelton Green @ The Union/Junction Salon (7:30 PM – 10 PM)

Sunday, September 16th

Poetry on Demand @ bazaar Spark in City Plaza (12 PM – 4PM)

Storytellers @ the Poetry on Demand Booth (3PM – 4 PM)

Hope to see you there!


The Poems I Need to Write

Lately, I haven’t been writing much because the double life is working overtime. My daytime career is chock full of project meetings and deadlines. My evening career is tying up loose ends with preparations for poetrySpark next weekend. Most nights, I collapse on the couch and veg out in front of the TV, often falling asleep before I realize it. And I feel guilty about it. Don’t real poets write at every possible moment? If Mary Oliver could get up at 5 and write for a couple of hours, isn’t that what I should be doing?

Instead of being so hard on myself, I am trying a different tactic—writing poem ideas down. Often the topics come in the form of working titles and a line or two that might be in the poem. Here’s my list so far:

Suiting Up: “If I don’t belong, at least I can dress the part”
Natural Hair: “Yes, natural hair is making a comeback everywhere—except my mother’s house”
Cleaning up the Break Room: “She wipes away the crumbs so they won’t think we’ve left a mess behind”

Then there are the planetary poems about I need to write to go along with the “Transit of Venus” poem I wrote during Cave Canem:

Mercury in Retrograde
Curiosity of Mars
House of Saturn

And the science-based poems that with any luck will turn into extended metaphors about race:

Dark energy/dark matter inspired by Adler Planetarium in Chicago.
Dark spot corrector inspired by a casual conversation with one of the inventors

I might have a trio of “Stuff White People Like” poems if I can ever finish that poem about yoga (#15) and start that poem on grammar (#99)

And just yesterday, I got the idea to write persona poems about famous women in technology

Lady Ada Lovelace – 1st programmer and daughter of Lord Byron
Grace Murray Hopper – found the first “bug”
Patricia Selinger – creator of stored procedures

Whenever I do get time to write, this list will keep me plenty busy!


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.