Diane and John outdid themselves yesterday with an incredible dinner for 12 lucky people. I have to get those recipes for brined turkey and cornbread/wild rice stuffing, plus 19 or 20 delicious side dishes, appetizers, and desserts. The conversation was great, although I did feel a bit out of it when it turned to the pros and cons of the Nintendo Wii (thumbs up) versus the PlayStation 3 (thumbs down).
Meanwhile, I got a message taking a survey on two questions: “Why, after all, do you write poems, and how do you make a living while you’re doing it?” This was my response:
I’ll start with the “easy” question of how I make a living. I work four days a week as a legal secretary. I’ve found it a pretty good way to make a decent living while still leaving time and energy to write, if you don’t mind not having anything very cool to tell people when you introduce yourself and they ask you what you do. I’ve found there’s a big difference between working four days a week and five days a week, and I also think it’s crucial to find a position (no matter what you do) that doesn’t drain you emotionally. I suspect the particulars of individual jobs are more important than the line of work. I’ve had horrendous jobs as a legal secretary that left me too exhausted to write. The job I’ve had for the past few years, however, has been great, even though the job descriptions for both jobs said pretty much the same thing. I suspect the same may be true of teaching and everything else. Teaching composition and literature at one community college may be a nightmare, but doing more or less the same thing at another school may turn out to be invigorating and inspiring. Most ways of making a living don’t seem to work very well for most poets I know, and they keep looking and experimenting until they find a small niche that does work for them. I taught high school for a year many years ago, but found it impossible to write while teaching. Maybe it would be different now.
Now for your harder question . . . I think of Kafka’s statement that “A book must be an ice axe to break the sea frozen inside us.” Books have certainly had that effect on me. Strangely enough, the book I think of first is Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea
. My older sister gave it to me when I was 12, and I read it over and over until I almost knew it by heart. I think it let me know that there were people out there somewhere who had thoughts and feelings like mine even though I didn’t seem to find them in my home or my school or my neighborhood. I think that, like a lot of people, there were strange thoughts and intense emotions and bizarre imaginings inside of me that I didn’t find echoed in any of the conversations my family had at the dinner table or my teachers and friends had at school or on the playground or the families on TV had at their
dinner tables, but I discovered they were echoed in books, whether Crime and Punishment
or Catcher in the Rye
or the little poem by Emily Dickinson I remember an otherwise utterly uninspiring teacher reciting:
I never lost as much but twice,
And that was in the sod.
Twice have I stood a beggar
Before the door of God!
Reimbursed my store—
I am poor once more!
I remember hearing that and the emotional force and complexity of it just hit me like Kafka’s axe, the extreme imagination of God as burglar and banker at the same time, the emotional intensity of that paradox, how taboo it was to talk about feelings like that and how true. It made me want to create something like that, something where “thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears” would find a place where they could not be denied. And oh yeah, I also wanted to be Bob Dylan singing “Like a Rolling Stone.”