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More Lives of Poets

By Sina Queyras

So, the lives of the poets. Or, the non-academic poets. I have known so many variations over the years. The organic farmer poet, the poet who compiles on scraps of paper and carries their poems in plastic bags. The poet who doesn’t work at all, the many versions of the mom poet that include the mom/crossing guard poet and the mom/teacher/organizer/arts promoter poet. There is a couple who alternate working and supporting each other every few years, and the poet who makes films. There are of course, many book store poets, and a few fishermen poets. I have not heard of an opera singing poet, or a surgeon poet, or an architect poet, though I have met doctor poets and lawyer poets. You get the idea. Forgive the inconsistent formatting…and still, there are a few to add. I’ll tack them on the end here when they roll in.

CATHERINE OWEN runs her own tutoring and editing business and writes freelance reviews for Suite 101. She has also “sold advertising for a tattoo magazine and run workshops for at-risk teens on video poetry.” She has no MFA. Only an MA. “I learned my craft by writing everyday. The difference is not professionalism, the distinction is that one comes from a less direct “stream”.

She works on manuscripts every day: “poetry in the morning and prose etc in the afternoon/evening and I have my seventh collection coming out this fall.”

Best parts of her current configuration? “A diversity of projects and collaborations with artists in other disciplines and genres. Book tours. Time to read deeply.”

Is she waiting for that dream job? “Nope. I fear my loss of freedom more than anything.”

MICHAEL KELLEHER works as the Artistic Director for Just Buffalo Literary Center in Buffalo, NY. “It’s a full-time job whose main purpose is to help build and maintain the many diverse literary communities in Buffalo. I cover the gamut in my work from organizing avant-garde literary happenings all the way up to introducing and interviewing some of the bigger names on the global literary scene as part of a quarterly literary lecture series.”

Does his job feed his work? “In two ways. First, it allows me a lot of free, flexible time to do my work. I get a lot of vacation time, which I tend to take in blocks long enough to allow me to get some serious writing done. The other way it feeds the work is by keeping me in touch, in a very literal way, with happenings in the literary world, from the local open reading series to winners of the Nobel Prize and everything in between. I get to meet a lot of amazing writers and I get to talk to them about what they are doing and to see and hear them doing it. It’s hard to believe sometimes that this is actually a job.

I studied for a PhD in the Poetics Program at SUNY Buffalo. My professors were almost all poets—Charles Bernstein, Susan Howe, Robert Creeley. I loved the almost structureless learning environment and I was lucky enough to also go to school at the same time as a lot of really great poets and fellow travelers who were deeply involved in the literary world: Jonathan Skinner, Thom Donovan, Kyle Schlesinger, Barbara Cole, Graham Foust, Roberto Tejada, Linda Russo, Rosa Alcala, Patrick Durgin, Alicia Cohen, Joel Bettridge, Brent Cunningham, Ben Friedlander, Taylor Brady, et al, were all at various points classmates of mine. It was a great place and time to study poetry. On the other hand, I found the atmosphere of academia outside of our little bubble stifling—I found the pettiness of faculty and students alike, the wretchedly hypocritical politics of the department, and the anti-intellectual (not to mention anti-creative) attitude of the university administration to be, shall we say, not to my liking. At a certain point, I began to question whether I wanted to spend my life in this environment. And then I answered, “no.”

If I had role models, they were actually within the academy. I always admired Creeley’s insistence that poetry needed to happen outside of the academy and his tireless efforts to make it happen there, despite his comfortable position as an endowed chair in the university system.

I believe that poetic communities are ultimately more useful and vital to poets than degrees or classrooms and I try to make those communities useful and vital through my work as an arts administrator.

Like many writers, I wish I wrote more. I write SOMETHING every day, but I tend write poetry in bursts. The past couple of years, I have taken a month off here or there in order to put in a lot of concentrated writing time. Since I began the Aimless Reading Project on my blog, I feel like I have created an interesting practice of daily writing that is very much involved with my life and my creative work. I usually write for a half-hour to an hour before I get to work in the morning. I am working on the manuscript for what will be the third book of poems I have published since beginning this job in 2003. I hope to finish it with a burst of creativity this summer.

Does he feel part of a community?

Very much so. Buffalo probably has the largest and most active poetry community outside of New York, San Francisco, and maybe Chicago that I have ever seen. One aspect of my job is to help publicize all of the community based AND academic literary events in Buffalo. There are some weeks (like this one) where there are two, three, even four literary events per day! It boggles the mind, given the relative size and geographic isolation of Buffalo. The poetry community here has a long history that stretches from the university out into the community and back. People like me have come and stayed. There are people that have grown up here and stayed. And then there are the people who come to study for a few years and leave. Some even come just to be a part of things for a few years before moving on. All of them contribute in different and constantly changing ways. I also feel connected through my job and through giving readings in other cities — perhaps most importantly through the internet, where I connect daily to a much larger community of poets that blog and publish and write polemics in the comment boxes of others’ blogs.

What makes for a vital life as a poet in your mind?

Poetry connects me to the world by creating a space in which to give presence to the unformed and often chaotic thoughts and feelings in my head which would otherwise remain unformed and chaotic (and solitary). I love the process of writing as a mode of thinking and being in a world which sometimes feels like a very cold and abstract place.

Is all of this just to bide time for that perfect teaching job to come along?

“Hell no! I would take another job in an arts organization, but it would take a lot to lure me into academia — a lot of money, a lot of guarantees that I would not have to get involved in department politics, and a lot of free time. Maybe I should just leave it at ‘no.’”

BRAD CRAN is a poet, poet laureate of the city of Vancouver and a tax accountant.

Do you find that your day job feeds your work?

“Only in that it is flexible, and I have less financial stress in my life which allows for creative thought.”

What made you decide to take that job, or create that job?
I spent just over a decade working in writing and publishing and in 2004 I received a grant to write Hope in Shadows which is a book of oral histories about financially disadvantaged people who live in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. While working on the book I lost my day job and had to apply for emergency funds from the George Woodcock fund just so that I could pay my rent and feed my family.  The financial realities of the writing life were clear to me through that personal crisis and at the same time I could see myself (and many poets I know) heading into similar situations as pensioners I was interviewing in the DTES–people who simply hadn’t saved for retirement. Around that time I enrolled in the Diploma in Accounting program at the Sauder School of Business, UBC.

Were you tempted by the Academic route?

“I have an MFA and planned to teach. The first tenure track job I applied for after my MFA went to a poet who had a number of books out and a Governor General’s Award. I couldn’t even get an interview. In contrast, during my first week of classes at Sauder accounting firms set up kitchens outside our classrooms and handed students free breakfasts or lunch with fliers asking us to go and work for them when we graduated. If I lost my job as an accountant tomorrow I would have a thousand possible employers in the greater Vancouver area. If I wanted a tenure track teaching job in creative writing then I’d have to wait until someone retired and then apply for that position against the highest profile writers in BC.”

Did you have role models that you wanted to emulate?
Stephen Osborne the publisher at Geist has been an important role model to me both as a creative influence but also as someone with pragmatic business sense. He is one of the finest writers I know and at the same time he is not shy about engaging in the business side of things.

Did you do an MFA? IF you did, did you do it with a teaching job in mind, or to take time to write, or some other reason?
Gillian and I both did our MFA’s in Arizona. We were both on full scholarship so we justified it as time to write but we both really hoped to move into teaching.

If you didn’t, how did you learn your craft?
I did an MFA but I don’t think that is where I learned to write. My first publication was in Geist and it took me a month to write the piece and another year of constant revisions before it was published. The people at Geist worked with me over and over again and until things began to click. That was more important than the classroom.

Do you sense a different level of professionalism with poets who do work in the Academy, or did do an MFA?
In the long term I can’t see the benefit of an MFA on one’s writing. In the beginning stages it is important for a writer to get feedback and be a part of a writing community, and perhaps an MFA is a mainline into that, but it can be found outside the University. Overall the workshop format is a peculiar torture where a new writer is made to read mediocre writing and a writing instructor is given a frame work to teach with little effort. I would highly recommend that MFA programs move away from the workshop model and teach creative reading instead of creative writing.

Are you satisfied by your relationship to your work? Do you have a daily writing practice that works for you? Do you have an upcoming book?
For the last ten years I have been working on a book called Cinéma Vérité and the Collected Works of Ronald Reagan. It’s a non-fiction book on the history of propaganda in motion pictures. I also have a book of poems I’m working on. I’m boom or bust with writing. I try to devote myself entirely to writing or working for income. When I’m writing then I like to work 8 hours a day if possible, half of which I’d spend reading and half of which I’d spend writing. When I’m working I will write poems sporadically but for the most part I wait for larger chunks of dedicated writing time.

Do you feel as though you are part of a community? That you are in dialog with other poets?
It’s easy to generate community around the arts. There are many opportunities to connect with people through readings, Facebook and Twitter. And all of this is happening outside of the university. The key is not finding the community but getting away from it. I’m new to social networking but in the past when I’ve started writing I limit my email use and later this year when I start my writing time I will suspend my Facebook and Twitter accounts. With the exception of a few close editors I don’t find the social side of the writing life to actually help with the act of writing.

What makes for a vital life as a poet in your mind?
I’m happiest when writing connects with the real world. I felt that with Hope in Shadows and I’ve felt it a few times with poems I’ve written. So for me connecting with social issues is vital and poetry is how you get there. If poetry itself is the vital and driving force then I would write for literary prizes and to flourish in Universities. Prizes are nice when they come but they feel secondary if the subject you are working on is truly meaningful.

Is all of this just to bide time for that perfect teaching job to come along?
Thank god no. It took years to get that dream out of my system but it is now gone for good. (See Cran’s poems re: the Olympics in Geist)

GARY SULLIVAN

“I am managing editor of publications for the National MS Society. I took the job nearly 10 years ago; it’s sort of the perfect day job for me, as it involves writing, editing, and dealing with printers, designers, authors, database managers, etc. It doesn’t exactly feed my poetry or cartooning, but has had enormous impact on my publishing my own comics.

I studied music in college, but wound up getting a BA in English/Creative Writing, after abandoning music composition a few credits shy of graduating. I was in school mainly because it was cheap at the time (I paid for it by washing dishes and prepping food in restaurants) and I loved studying (both music and literature). I am not sure who among my peers have MFAs, actually, so I’m not sure I can speak to levels of professionalism and whether or not MFAs are more professional. I have no problem with professionalism, myself, though I’m not altogether sure what is meant by the term. I do think that academics tend to invite other academics to read for their classes much much much more so than they invite people like me, and I wish that would change. (I have been invited to read at universities two times in the nearly 25 years I’ve been active as a poet.) I mean, I don’t mostly book non-academics at Segue and the same is true of curators at Zinc Bar and Po Proj. So, come on, peoples.”

Is he satisfied with his relationship to his work?

“I am definitely satisfied. I have no daily writing practice–I never have. I do what moves me when I’m moved to do it. I am working on the fourth issue of my comic, Elsewhere, and starting to think about putting together a poetry manuscript. I just finished co-editing the flarf anthology.

Do you feel as though you are part of a community? That you are in dialog with other poets?

“Yes, especially through the flarflist and the Segue reading series, but also with a few (mostly older) poets here in NYC.”

Is all of this just to bide time for that perfect teaching job to come along?

“Nope.”

DANI COUTURE

When I go to work each day, it’s to provide support for a half dozen not-for-profits. My job, by virtue that I work closely with several wildly different clients, is an endless source of information I may have never encountered otherwise. I know more about fall arrest systems than any lay person should.

I took the job because I knew it would mean working with good people who care about something. It’s far too easy not to care about anything, but the people I work for volunteer their time–their free hours– to bettering the corners of their lives. I don’t mind spending my day supporting that kind of passion.

I’ve never been enrolled in an MFA program. How did I learn my craft? I read, I write. I read and write some more. I ask what others are reading. I learn by doing the work. It’s a simple lesson plan. I suspect it’s not unique.

Like most, I would like to deepen my relationship with my work. I would like more time with it; however, as it stands, I make the time. When I lived in Vancouver, I had a friend who always said, “If I didn’t bike when it rained, I’d never bike at all.” I’m not waiting for more time to write. I’m just writing.

I have an upcoming book with Pedlar Press. Sweet is due out in May or June of this year.

On good days, I feel connected to community. On bad days, I feel alone and adrift with the last sentence I wrote.

On the good days, I feel a part of several micro-communities. One community that’s been particularly important to me is The Scream Literary Festival. I’ve been involved with The Scream in some capacity or another for the past five years. That I keep going back makes it feel like family. Tough and worth it. The Scream feels like one of the longest conversations I’ve ever had.

What makes for a vital life as a poet in your mind?

It must include risk, the willingness to see if the ice is solid yet.

Is all of this just to bide time for that perfect teaching job to come along?

No.

derek beaulieu
What do you do for a day job, or, other than poetry, do you devote your life to? Do you find that your other employment feeds your work? What made you decide to take that job, or create that job? Did you have role models that you wanted to emulate?
when i’m not writing i split into two jobs: dad and high school teacher. At the moment i teach grade 12 English; grade 10,11 and 12 remedial math and science and high school journalism. I do think that my teaching feeds my writing, in a lot of ways it keeps it grounded and challenges me to try and look at how the theory has to stay discussable — part of a dialogue. i don’t like to lecture when i teach, i would rather have a dialogue with my students, which means bringing work into class which has room for the reader.
If you did an MFA, did you do it with a teaching job in mind, or to take time to write, or some other reason? If you didn’t, how did you learn your craft? Do you sense a different level of professionalism with poets who do work in the Academy, or did do an MFA?
I don’t have an MFA; i have a BA, an MA and a BEd.
I didn’t take the MA with teaching in mind; i took the degree to prove to myself that i could. That said, when i decided that i DID want to teach (and high school at that) i went back to do my BEd, which is required in Alberta. I don know if there is an increased sense of professionalism, but i think there are more professional opportunities for poets in the academy — as an example, some universities will not only reimburse travel for conference presentations, readings etc but they will also credit those performanes towards career advancement, tenure, etc. In the Calgary Board of Education there is no such reimbursement, nor are teachers appraised by or rewarded for their work outside the classroom (which also means no “publish or perish”)
Are you satisfied by your relationship to your work? Do you have a daily writing practice that works for you? Do you have an upcoming book?
I love teaching and the way that my work is challenged by my students. I do have a routine for writing — which sadly entails a great deal of time in front of the computer, but i attempt to have my inbox empty every day – several hours of dedicated work every night focussed on writing, publishing and promotions. Being that my new volume HOW TO WRITE is coming out in 6 weeks from talonbooks, there are nights where im up a bit later than usual focussing on all the various arrangements…
Do you feel as though you are part of a community? That you are in dialog with other poets?
without question — i do miss several of my colleagues who were once in Calgary, but email, FB and twitter means a pretty constant stream of dialogue. But every few weeks im sitting and chatting with other poets in the city. Writing is very much a social act for me.
What makes for a vital life as a poet in your mind?
well – writing, publishing and discussing this work — thru letters, conversation, performance and social interaction. a good life with family, good food; reading and worthwhile bookstores, travel. I think writers — as part of their process – must contribute and dialogue with community thru small presses, reading series and magazines; i get very hesitant about purchasing work by writers who do not support small magazines and presses.
Is all of this just to bide time for that perfect teaching job to come along?
nope – i think i have that (or: nope, there’s no such thing.) poets love to complain – to them there is no “perfect teaching job”; there’s just the time they are writing and the time they aren’t writing — its a matter of balance.

Comments (13)

  • On March 20, 2010 at 8:17 pm Colin Ward wrote:

    @Sina:

    I have not heard of an opera singing poet,

    Australian poet Janet Kenny is well-known among online workshoppers, at least.

    or a surgeon poet,

    Well, they aren’t our contemporaries but there’s Princess Vera Gedroits and I’m sure you’ve heard of the Canadian surgeon who wrote the most famous English language poem of the 20th century.

    or an architect poet,

    Throw in inventor and mathematician as well and you have the late Piet Hein.

    HTH,

    Colin

    • On March 20, 2010 at 11:15 pm Mary Meriam wrote:

      Yay, Janet!

  • On March 20, 2010 at 8:23 pm Ernie Wise wrote:

    Yes, I have long been an admirer of Janet Kenny. A true original.

  • On March 21, 2010 at 1:48 pm LH wrote:

    Very cool. I had not heard of Piet Hein, and will look him up. A poet thinking about civic planning and actual shaping of objet = a poet after my heart. The superellipse: who knew.

    • On March 22, 2010 at 2:54 pm ryki zuckerman wrote:

      piet hein wrote what he called “grooks.” simple illustrations accompanied them. hein also used his grooks to elude the nazi censors during the occupation of denmark. i have a ceramic tile with this grook of his printed on it. (they were available decades ago.)

      CONSOLATION GROOK

      Losing one glove
      is certainly painful,
      but nothing
      compared to the pain,
      of losing one,
      throwing away the other,
      and finding
      the first one again.

      ***

      kudos to mike kelleher for the amazing job he has done at “just buffalo.”

      • On March 22, 2010 at 3:36 pm Sina Queyras wrote:

        Thanks for sharing that grook. I’m so intrigued. I ordered a few books yesterday and await there arrival.

  • On March 21, 2010 at 1:55 pm Sina wrote:

    Yes, that would be me. SQ and LH are one and not the same.

  • On March 22, 2010 at 1:27 pm Henry Gould wrote:

    Mikhail Aizenberg – very good Russian poet who is an architect. He has a book trans. into English (Zephyr Press) – “Say Thank You” – which I like a lot.

    http://jacketmagazine.com/36/rus-aizenberg-ivb-golub.shtml

  • On March 22, 2010 at 3:38 pm Sina Queyras wrote:

    And this one as well, Henry. Learning about all these amazing poet lives one knows nothing about is a great way to keep one humble.

  • On March 22, 2010 at 6:40 pm Arthur Durkee wrote:

    Certainly there have been surgeon poets, and I think of several musician-poets, which is a category completely overlooked here, apparently. Which doesn’t surprise. I’ve often noted that poets have blind spots about music. And there have certainly been priest-poets; there’s a whole tradition of that in Zen, of course.

    Of course there are lots of Poets who deny that anyone can be a poet, or write good poems, who isn’t dedicated first and foremost to Poetry. That too is a blind spot. Shouldn’t even have to mention it; but the prejudice is still there.

  • On March 22, 2010 at 7:59 pm Diane Dehler wrote:

    Francis Thompson’s first submitted poems were written on butcher’s paper and wrapped with a crude string. Not sure what crude string means.

    “Who knows not love from amity,
    Nor my reported self from me;
    A fair fit gift is this, meseems,
    You give–this withering flower of dreams.

    You cannot always judge a poem by its wrapper…

  • On March 27, 2010 at 9:52 am Rachel Levitsky wrote:

    Hello Sina,
    I’ve been wanting to post appreciation for this thread, the attention to issues and conditions of pecuniary work lives. When one reads the biographies of poets (just about done reading beckett’s) of yore, the issue is always time. I’m slow. I have a hard time doing anything fast, even reading, or especially reading. I want things deep and ponderous. This makes it very difficult for me to be economically viable in these times. (Health insurance dropped again.) Not to mention to write and to work and to also be an activist, community contributor, and to also have actual conviviality, and love, and walking, and art.
    Miss you,
    Rachel

    • On March 31, 2010 at 7:05 pm Sina Queyras wrote:

      Rachel,
      Yes, time it is, and the luxury of not worrying about putting bread on the table, or in our era, what kind of bread, and what’s in the bread and who made it and how it got to the table, and so on…miss you too, and belladonna, and the discussions, which if I recall, were not so much about the career, but about the work, the fabulousness of the work, and of welcoming it, and the how to support it.

      Great line up, as Mr. Donovan posts. There in spirit.


Posted in Uncategorized on Saturday, March 20th, 2010 by Sina Queyras.