December 5, 2016 § 21 Comments
By Paige Sullivan
A newly-enrolled MFA student, my job as an assistant editor at my program’s top-tier, in-house literary journal was what you’d expect: reading the slush pile. The journal accepted both paper and online submissions, meaning each week I’d work through a stack of submission packets colorfully paper clipped together in addition to sifting through the online queue.
While the work was sometimes dull, it was crucial to sharpening my reading skills, and it afforded me an invaluable understanding of the spectrum of talent and skill that exists out there. Truly, we got it all: exceptional work, promising work, and strange poems that tried to compare love to meatball marinara.
My favorite part of reading the paper submissions were the more personal touches of the printed and hand-signed cover letters, which were sometimes accompanied by a business card. For me, these submissions became fascinating character studies. Yes, there were writers like me: MFA students or graduates who neatly listed 3-4 italicized publications, any accolades, and where they lived and worked. Others were less conventional and thus more interesting.
One woman included a business card that read, “Poet….Hairdresser.” There was more than one letter from an attorney who wrote poems when they weren’t practicing law. One writer mentioned that in addition to their day job and their writing, they were active in the competitive breeding and show rabbit circuit. Incredible.
As I soon came to the conclusion that the academic career path was not the career path for me, I became more and more fascinated with these kinds of writers: the ones who had other interests and obligations outside the typical gamut of writing/literature/ composition/teaching/adjuncting. The lawyers and hairdressers and rabbit enthusiasts who found room in their lives to make art, too.
While I was not discouraged from pursuing a non-academic career path, I can’t say there was a wealth of structured support within my department. I thus figured out a great deal on my own, cobbling together myriad experiences in freelance writing and editing, writing random articles on ethical travel habits and Best Vegetarian Restaurants in Atlanta between grading papers and preparing poems for workshop.
There are ways in which writers self-soothe:
Well, Robert Frost didn’t publish his first book until late in life, so I’m doing pretty ok.
Well, Wallace Stevens wasn’t an academic. He worked in insurance and turned out pretty ok.
Hey, William Carlos Williams was a doctor! Surely if I don’t become a professor I’m not dooming myself.
I’m sure I’m not the only poet who read O.T. Marod’s essay “Poet at Work” in a recent issue of The Point and felt both the rush and deflation of recognition. Writers are no strangers to the complex paradoxes of their identities–the delicious, almost flippant valor that comes with simply responding, “I’m a writer” when someone asks what you do, tethered to the falter in your confidence when the person lobs back an “Oh, huh.” or “Really?”
Then again, maybe more confident writers don’t feel the need to qualify their pronouncements. On good days, I don’t. Other days, it feels almost blase to flash my poet moniker without the self-conscious need to defend and protect it.
Perhaps we can agree with Marod’s essential points: that poets and writers commonly struggle with a profound crises of role and identity, and that many of us live a dashed or hyphenated identity, as his allegorical poet/tutor does, to make both art and a living.
But is that really so bad?
Yes, in a perfect world, poets would have a salary commensurate with experience and a nice benefits package. But our art isn’t (always) for hire, and I can’t say that that really bothers me.
On the contrary, I think the hybridity of identities and skills working writers claim can be mutually fruitful. I think good writers should likely be passionate about the world around them to remain passionate about art.
And while there’s comfort and prestige and familiar structures that come with academia, preaching the gospel of the tenure-track faculty position isn’t sustainable or realistic–but that doesn’t have to mean something dire.
I am hungry for an expanded conversation of hybrid writers, MFAs With Day Jobs–whatever you want to call them–beyond the perfunctory Well, Philip Larkin was a librarian, so…. exception to the rule anecdote. I want to talk more about people who have a life on the other side of the dash that is just as interesting and enriching and challenging as the life of a poet….and of a rabbit breeder.