A Poet's Double Life

For poets working outside the literary world.


NC Literary Hall of Fame

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On Sunday, one of my favorite poets was inducted into the NC Literary Hall of Fame–Jaki Shelton Green. I first met Jaki when she was Poet Local for Living Poetry. Back then, she was the first ever Piedmont Laureate, so it was a coup to get her to drive from Mebane to chat with relatively unknown poets on a Sunday afternoon. From that point on, Jaki and I forged a friendship, which I value immensely. Although she has faced the adversity of losing a child to a tragic accident and suffered from an illness that affected the use of her hands, Jaki remains committed to sharing her worldview through poetry. Her poems are a mix of Negro spiritual, ancestral incantation, conscientious objector, and mother wit. Here’s an excerpt of her poem, “i know the grandmother one had hands” that appears in her 2005 collection of new and selected poems, Breath of the Song.

i know the grandmother one had hands
but they were always inside
the hair
twisting it into rainbows
i know the grandmother one had hands
but they were always inside
holding the knots
counting the twisted veins
holding onto herself
lest her hands disappear
into sky
i know the grandmother one had hands
but they were always inside the clouds
poking holes for the
rain to fall.

This year’s other inductees included Betty Adcock, Ronald Bayes, and Shelby Stephenson. Congratulations to NCLHOF Class of 2014!

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Inaugural Poem: “One Today” by Richard Blanco

"Of, By, For" ~ Photo by Jean Christian

“Of, By, For” ~ Photo by Jean Christian Rostagni

Richard Blanco’s inaugural poem, “One Today,” chronicled a day in the life of average Americans, which for many of us center around our jobs. The poem heralds those who “clean tables, read ledgers, or save lives,” as well as people like Blanco’s Cuban immigrant father who hands were worn from “cutting sugarcane so my brother and I could have books and shoes.” The poem intermingled Blanco’s personal experience with the typical American experience, subtly making the point that the demographics of our nation have become more diverse. The last stanza of “One Today” carried the theme of Obama’s inaugural address that “Now, more than ever, we must do these things together, as one nation, and one people.”

We head home: through the gloss of rain or weight
of snow, or the plum blush of dusk, but always—home,
always under one sky, our sky. And always one moon
like a silent drum tapping on every rooftop
and every window, of one country—all of us—
facing the stars
hope—a new constellation
waiting for us to map it,
waiting for us to name it—together.

Bravo, Poet Blanco!

The full text of the poem can be found here.


Inaugural Poet: Richard Blanco

Richard Blanco, 2013 Inaugural PoetEarlier this week, Richard Blanco was announced as the 2013 Inaugural Poet. Blanco is only the 5th poet handpicked to compose an original poem for the presidential inauguration (he is preceded by Robert Frost, Maya Angelou, Miller Williams, and Elizabeth Alexander). His selection is unprecedented on many levels—Richard Blanco is the youngest (he turns 45 on February 15th), the first Latino, and the first openly gay Inaugural Poet.

For me, the selection of Richard Blanco is even more exciting because he is a double-life poet, holding bachelors of science degree in Civil Engineering and a Master in Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Florida International University. He has also taught at various universities while maintaining his career as a consultant engineer in Miami. In the New York Times article about the announcement, Blanco is described as having a “facility with numbers and structural design that shines through in his writing.”

Here’s an excerpt from the poem, Burning in the Rain,” which appeared in The New Republic:

Instead of burning, my pages turned

into water lilies floating over puddles,

then tiny white cliffs as the sun set,

finally drying all night under the moon

into papier-mâché souvenirs. Today

the rain would not let their lives burn. 

Congratulations, Richard Blanco!


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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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.

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Chair Emeritus: Wendell Berry

I couldn’t let the month go by without saying something about Wendell Berry, who turned 78 on August 5th. When I first got the idea to do my graduating lecture on poets with double lives, my adviser suggested that I ask around for recommendations of poets who have non-literary careers. Wendell Berry was the first name mentioned. And although he never responded to my kind letter asking him for an interview, I have the utmost respect for this farmer-activist-teacher-poet-essayist-novelist with over 40 works in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry.

Wendell Berry is truly his own man, living in Port Royal, Kentucky on land his family has farmed since the early 1800s. Berry is well-known for poems and stories featuring the Kentucky landscape as well as for shunning the Internet and email. His essay, “Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer,” is as much a protest against computers as it is a reminder that technology should make our lives better and not “replace or disrupt anything good that already exists, and this includes family and community relationships.” Even in his late 70s, Wendell Berry has been engaged in civil disobedience for causes important to him. He’s an old-school poet––not because he’s still writing long hand––but because he stands up for what he believes in and asks us to do the same:

When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.

~from “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

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

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Chair Emeritus: Pablo Neruda

Pablo Neruda (July 12, 1904 – September 23, 1973) is the most widely read of the Spanish American poets. But did you know this Nobel Prize-winning poet worked for the Chilean government for much of his poetry career?  Neruda decided to apply for consular jobs after trying his hand at living on writing alone. Between 1927 and 1935, the government put him in charge of a number of honorary consular positions, which took him to Burma, Ceylon, Java, Singapore, Buenos Aires, Barcelona, and Madrid. As World War II threatened in 1939, Neruda was appointed to a special post in Paris for the immigration of Spanish refugees and secured the exodus of about 2,000 people to Chile.

Neruda’s poetic and professional accomplishments seemed to come in pairs. He was elected to the Chilean Senate in March 1945 and received Chile’s National Prize for Literature two months later. The very next year, Neruda served as the National Chief of Propaganda for Gabriel González Videl’s successful presidential campaign and legally changed his name from Ricardo Eliecer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto to his pen name. Neruda’s writing also created the conflict with the president that resulted in his impeachment from the senate and his eventual exile. Out of the political scene in Chile, he enjoyed recognition as a poet throughout the world. However, he continued to participate in the struggles of the Communist Party in Chile. Once the government was overthrown, Salvador Allende–the first democratically elected socialist head of state in Chile–appointed Neruda as Chile’s ambassador to France from 1970-1972, where he helped to renegotiate the billions of Chilean debt owed to European and American banks. He received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971.

It was a treat to discover that Pablo Neruda was a poet with a double life. We all know Neruda from his poetry. Who among us doesn’t have one of his love poems tucked away in the nightstand next to the bed. But throughout his life Pablo Neruda wrote and published his work, which just proves that all of us can find a way to walk down two different paths simultaneously.

For more information about Neruda’s life, please visit Fundación Neruda. To read a few of his poems, visit the Poetry Foundation.

Chair Emeritus is a monthly feature highlighting poets who have lived the double life.