A Good Job for a Poet
When an assessment test in high school suggested that I might pursue the field of psychology, I decided to write my career paper on becoming a parapsychologist. My presentation included showing a clip from David Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone (man awakens from coma with psychic powers he must contend with). I could add this moment to my Bildungsroman How I Became a Poet and Not a Psychologist. A career? I once told my mom that it was really sad that I didn’t believe in God because I wanted to become a nun. I did believe in God, kinda, but didn’t know how to express that my devotion was going to be distinguished, unindoctrinated. I could have been the best nun. When I tried to imagine a future for myself, a way out of madness, these were my best ideas—talking to the dead. It makes me weary to recount the details of growing up in a repressive, perverse, middle class suburb where I was a queer gender queer with no language to communicate about it. So I’ll just leave it at that. But they had eyes, and they saw me, and threw the first egg. Repression was even mandated in the community design—homes were clustered in sections that followed the alphabet. My family lived in the “G – Section,” a random designation meant to suggest divine order. In 1985, at the age of 16, I knew a dead zone when I felt one. Even to have a condition where I saw a surplus of future, an unsettling amount of future, seemed preferable. I didn’t really want to be a parapsychologist. I wanted to be the person beset with visions. Which is to say, a person who would necessarily have to create a way of being and a mode of communicating that could not only tolerate but find joy in what everyone around me was trying to defeat.
“Career” is a word that makes me squirm, even after being the Executive Director for the Poetry Project for 11 years. That sounds like a career, but I’d scoff talking about it at a party. Having one is often so antagonistic to circadian rhythms. I decided that whatever I did for money, my work ethic (and I do have a legendary “Midwestern” one) would be 1) never set an alarm to wake up in the morning, 2) never let anything become more important than reading and writing poems, and 3) live as frugally as possible to have this life. I left college a math class short of graduating, did a residency on Kate Millett’s farm in Poughkeepsie, moved to Philadelphia for a love that lasted a New York Minute, applied to MFA programs and didn’t get in over and over again, till one day Temple University called me to say that they were interested in my work—except you didn’t actually graduate from college. My response was, so? Sometimes youth isn’t wasted on the young. I took a math class at Temple and went to the tutoring center after each class. I got a B+. Then, for reasons I cannot now fathom, I said no thanks to Temple. What is my story here? Was it defiant, lazy, self-defeating? I can’t surmise. I worked at a video store, watched movies every day, wrote poems, and had romances. I had already attained two of my highest ambitions.
I lived in other cities. I worked in bookstores, cafes, and kitchens. I read books and kept notes about them. I wrote poems. I sent them to literary journals and they never got accepted anywhere, for close to 10 years. It was easier to find a community of queer people than it was to find a community of poets. When I was a teenager I tried to talk to a teacher who was an obvious lesbian and felt like I was slamming into a wall of shame and prohibition. I remember trying to drop hints to other girls who “seemed gay”—like I was exposing an emotional rainbow hanky to them and receiving the same kind of response. Was it gaslighting? What if everyone was queer and pretending not to be? I wished poets had a hanky code. I had to accept that it was not for me to find others who shared this strange sense of duty and calling prowling my life.
Let us, then, be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still perceiving, still pursuing,
Learn to labor and to wait.
—Longfellow, “A Psalm of Life”
I got a job at the Milwaukee nonprofit Woodland Pattern Book Center in 1999, after a friend got a job there. I was 30, and for the first time I had administrative duties. Woodland Pattern had kind of a sleepy feel in 1999, which lent itself to my voracious reading of hundreds of books of poetry. The poet Roberto Harrison told me that he walked in one day and saw a very particular display of poetry books I had made, which included Larry Eigner and Hannah Weiner, and then everything was different, for him, me, and Woodland Pattern. I was sending out a signal and he was the first to receive it. Eventually, I started to plan and host readings, and proposed a new position and title: Literary Program Manager. I’ve written more about my time at Woodland Pattern for Harriet here. I learned how to write introductions for readings, make travel arrangements for poets, and help entertain them when they were in town. I learned how to be a good correspondent and found that I was naturally diplomatic and tolerant. I edited a magazine, I taught workshops, and I wrote poems that started to get published. I didn’t have to set an alarm to wake up in the morning. I wanted whatever I was doing to be my career.
I have been the Director of the Poetry Project for 11 years, and have worked there for 13. In a move that feels related to applying to an MFA program without a BA, I applied to be Director of the Project when Ed Friedman stepped down in 2004. I was not qualified on paper, but the board thought my application was promising. When Director Anselm Berrigan needed a Program Coordinator to start in summer 2005, he called me and offered me the job. I’m a pretty reasonable, pragmatic person, in addition to being able to access my own lunacy to make my work. It was a beautiful marriage of these qualities that led me to sell my house and my paid-off car to move my dog and I to a badly lit, small South Williamsburg apartment that I shared with a stranger, to work for a very low salary in NYC. Within 48 hours of arriving I gave myself an embarrassing haircut to proclaim a new era. I had my own desk at the Project, and my own corkboard. I wrote and faxed press releases to media outlets, I attended admin meetings with the church and other arts projects, and was a quick study for how the place worked. I started curating the Monday Night Reading Series and found my stride as a host. Anselm told me “be interested in more than what you like.” I learned what it meant to meet work on its own terms, to know if it had integrity. That’s what mattered. My colleague Simone White marveled after a recent Bob Glück and Luc Sante reading at the Project, “You really love poetry readings, they enliven you!” There hasn’t been a day since I was 30 where I haven’t thought about how I could more robustly use my skills in support of infrastructures/places for poets to gather and share their work. My time at the Project has been a major redemption for too many years of being lonely. People often ask me, “Don’t you get sick of poets?” The answer is no. Poets, give me your best griping, your deepest neediness, project your fantasies of poet power upon my blank slate, ask me for one-hundred readings, and this is the place I take it to: Gratitude. And sure, I might complain at a party.
I’ve been making a go of it with all of the blessings and constraints of being both a poet and an administrator. My first book came out in 2005, a few months before I moved to NYC, and the attention it received defied my expectations. When my second book came out in 2009, I naively thought that it would do even better than my first book because I was the leader of the Project! And the work was better. It, and my third book, felt like I had released lead balloons. I got it into my head that people couldn’t hold both of my functions in their minds at once, that I was seen as someone whose most imperative role was to give poets opportunities to share their work, and that I was a poet too was incidental. Fortunately, I have always been clear that I am fully and equally both, and that I am good at being both. And that if I wasn’t a poet I wouldn’t have gotten the job, which is a good job for a poet. The more my books became about this (labor as matter), the less I cared about how people may perceive me as primarily an administrator.
I like being a minor public figure. It suits me. I like showing up in magazines, going to parties, being interviewed on the radio, and doing all the figurehead stuff. I also like paperwork and pencils, efficient online grant application systems, making budgets when other people set up the Excel sheet, and attending to the details that go into making poetry readings and writing workshops happen. I wonder what I would have made of the words “infrastructure poet” when I was a teen, if Anne Waldman had been my career counselor? Through our informal mentorship, I’ve come to understand this title as a call to strengthen the sites and discourse and etiquettes that are important for poets to thrive. Anne and I had a conversation about our work in the Brooklyn Rail in 2016. Like her, I have been inspired to make sure the Project represented a larger voice than my own so that its usefulness to the community would outlive my tenure. Sometime people have rightfully said that I have been selfless, the job thankless, that I have been a caretaker; however, it is also important to note that the Project has given me a surplus of self (future?), and I can now envision anything—even writing books that have nothing to do with my life as a nonprofit arts administrator. In June, I will leave the Poetry Project, and I will feel the best kind of lost.
Born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Stacy Szymaszek is the author of five books: Emptied of All Ships (2005), Hyperglossia (2009), hart island (2015), Journal of Ugly Sites and Other Journals (2016), which was the winner of the Ottoline Prize from Fence Books, and A Year From Today (2018). She has also...