ON THE CAREER: Mentoring by Example

On the matter of career — Sina Queyras
this post originally appeared on the Poetry Foundation website,
March 16, 2010 at 12:15pm

Poetry as career is always a contentious subject. My rather lighthearted attempts to open up the discussion this week make it seem as though I have a lighthearted approach, which couldn’t be farther from the truth. It’s an important question. As important as the poet-critic question. And as someone who comes into contact with young would-be poets it’s a question I take very, very seriously. Perhaps too seriously in fact, because you know, there is a lot of joy in poetry and these discussions make it seem more fraught than fun.

But I do feel a sense of responsibility to discuss the realities of the writing world as a career choice. When I decided, way back when, to apply to do a BFA in Creative Writing, the chair of the department advised me strongly against it. I can’t recall what he said exactly, but it made my blood boil, and I said something like, “I’m going to write with or without your program.” Which is to say, I make my own decisions thank you very much, and to which he responded something like, “Good, because that’s what it will take.”

It’s a cliché by now to quote Rilke on the matter, and I wonder if it’s still relevant. On the one hand, yes, write only if you must. If you can’t do anything else. But that’s not quite it, is it? I believe everyone can and should write in some way. The problem is the ever-shrinking space between writing and publication. The one doesn’t necessarily lead to the other does it? Should it?

To write, we seem to believe, is to publish. Okay, fair enough, particularly in our age when to publish is to click, but then to write, is to publish, is to have a career. Was it always the case? What happens to the way one approaches apprenticeship if one is not expected to have an apprenticeship? Worse, what happens to the writing when what is on one’s mind is a certain trajectory?

Maybe I’m just reacting to the overwhelming sense of frustration I hear from so many writers who don’t feel they have achieved enough, or need some external marker of having arrived some place else. What is it that creates such a sense of unease? Of not having achieved enough? Or the right markers? Maybe it’s more a matter of simply shutting out the noise, but many of us, particularly those of us who do teach, who are in contact with many poets all the time, must engage with these questions, and these desires.

The reality of the writing world is few writers—even those who write more popular forms such as fiction—actually make a living from writing let alone find readers. So the question is how can one find a way to sustain oneself as a writer. It’s a big question, and it doesn’t only include financial concerns. The reality of time to write is a big, important reality, and the matter of how one uses one’s time, and one’s brain, impacts the quality of thought and the level of resources one brings to poetry. I’m not really arguing for much more than a little space around some of these formulas and assumptions. There is no perfect poet’s life. There’s no perfect trajectory. Why all this anxiety in search of it? And what does it look like? A major prize, a plush teaching job, perfectly intelligent students, half the year off?

What about the ability to live as a poet? That is one thing that makes me shake my head every time I say it. Who knew? One can be a poet. I have never come down from the high of that simple fact. The technician who came to give an estimate yesterday was fascinated too. I was the first live poet he had ever met. What is it like? What does the life of a poet consist of?

It’s easy to forget what a privilege being a poet is. We get to organize our lives around poetry. For real? To partake in readings, conferences, have publications, reading groups? For real? We share a network of colleagues having read similarly. Now if we could just loosen up our thinking about the ways in which we can build our lives around that, about what constitutes “success.”


Success might be finding balance. So, what configuration best suit the poet? The academy is one track, and an overused one at that. Surely there are other workable trajectories that might excite young poets? In an ongoing thread on Facebook I have heard from poet-librarians, poet-editors, a poet who is also the head of an NGO, poet college teachers, poet high school teachers, poet-arts administrators, poet-techies. Here are a few in more detail.

RON SILLIMAN says for the past decade he has “been a market analyst specializing on the hardware support marketplace in North America. The decade before that I worked in various organizations that sold & delivered PC support services in a variety of marketing positions. The decade before that I was the executive editor of The Socialist Review, a college administrator & briefly taught literature at the college level. The decade before that I worked in the prison and inner-city tenant movements as an organizer. The decade before that I was a kid.”

It was practical concerns that made him “shift from non-profit to for-profit labor.” He “needed to pay for the mortgage on my house & my wife & I were trying to have children. The computer industry was (a) local & (b) growing rapidly, absorbing the over-educated under-employed very rapidly.” Does his work feed his writing? “I enjoy the analytical side of my work, the writing, the cross-sections of the world I get insight into. My work has brought me into contact with everyone from Charles Manson to the solicitor general of the United States. From my perspective, one real advantage of working in the technology sector has been that it changes quite rapidly. It’s hard to get stale in an industry that is completely different every four years.”

A role model? “Walter Benjamin without the whining, perhaps. I feel like I’m just getting started.”

Silliman studied creative writing at SF State in the late 1960s “because it put me in touch with other writers–it was never about a job.” He learned his craft “by reading voluminously & writing every day” and he means voluminously:

My first year at SF State, I was unable to get all the courses I wanted, so I used the extra time to read the entire library collection of American poetry, A through Z. Robin Blaser had just left his position as the poetry buyer for the library, so it was a terrific collection at that point. When I finished the collection, I started in on the hard-to-get magazines in the rare book room. SF State did not have the Black Mountain Review, but it did have the early series’ of Origin.

Is an MFA useful? “About as useful as polio, and about as crippling. Other than access to other writers at roughly the same level of development, it is mostly something that has to be overcome if one is to write seriously. I’m always impressed at how many do seem able to set that aside & become real writers.

The idea that the MFA will lead to a job is mostly a fraud.”

On the matter of being satisfied? “I don’t think I’m ever satisfied, and I think that’s inherently harder the older one gets. I do have a daily writing practice, but it evolves over time and turns out to be very different from one year to the next. I don’t have book currently scheduled, but am working on several projects. Right now the conclusion of the tenth & final volume of The Grand Piano, the collective autobiography I’ve been working on for over a decade with several other poets, is my darling.”

What is satisfying though, is community. On that score he is “absolutely” satisfied. “I have felt that way since I was 18 years old in 1964.” What makes for a vital life as a poet? “Pay attention. All the time.” Is all of this simply biding time until that teaching job comes along? “It would be interesting to teach again just for the students–they have so much to teach us.”

DON SHARE edits, but notes that in “ the past, that is to say, as an adult, I have worked as a van driver, busboy, library worker, and Internet trainer for people from third-world countries.” He has a PhD, but not an MFA:

You’re gonna thank I’m nuts, but until I saw it at first hand, I simply had no idea that people got MFAs in order to teach. I learned my craft (if that’s the right word for it) from books, two mentors, shooting the shit with other people, and sorry-assed soul searching. I don’t think that poets in academia are more ‘professional’ than those who aren’t, but that’s only because I don’t look at poetry as a profession.

Share does not have a “daily writing practice,” per se: “I write whilst taking public transportation to work and back; and I have a manuscript that I doubt anybody will undertake to publish. It’s called In a Station of the Metro because Ray DiPalma convinced me not to use the more accurate title, In a Station of the Metra – a rail service I spend many hours of my life using when I’m not on Chicago’s famous El.”

Does he feel part of a community? “I do. I feel that I ‘know’ lots of people I’ve never even met in person – you, for instance, and that’s a kind of community.”

What makes for a vital life as a poet? “I’m not sure that vitality has a lot to do with it. I’m pretty enervated myself.”

Is he waiting for that perfect teaching job to come along? “What’s a perfect teaching job?!? Look, teaching is an honorable thing to do; and you can’t blame anyone who’d dream of having the perks of a tenured position. Maybe this is too Platonic a view (literally), but if people are good at teaching, then they should teach. If they are not, on the other hand, then they shouldn’t. Some of the smartest people I’ve known, and some of the best poets, too, have no business teaching; and some of the best teacherly types I know can’t get a teaching job for anything in the world.

The key thing is: what are the credentials for being a poet? There aren’t any.”

VANESSA PLACE represents indigent sex offenders and sexually violent predators on appeal. Does she find it feeds her? “Yes, incessantly.” Why did she become a lawyer? “I was good at it.” Were there poet role models? “I don’t think there really are role models for me, save Pound’s radio broadcasts.” She did an MFA program to “meet other writers” and notes “a level of professionalism with poets as ballplayers.” She is “reasonably satisfied; writes daily, if not more” and publishes regularly.

In response to the question of what makes for a vital life as a poet in your mind, Place said, “yes.”

JACOB McARTHUR MOONEY is a client-support manager for an online adult entertainment firm. “If that sounds sexy and/or devious, it’s really neither. Basically, I do math all day. In the service of things that may be sexy or devious.” His employment definitely feeds his poetic practice, though not in any direct way. “I like working with people who don’t know I’m a poet, and wouldn’t care if I told them. That knowledge shrinks you, in a really positive way. It gives context.”

Mooney did an MFA at the University of Guelph so he would “have an excuse to centre my life around poetry for a couple years, and as a means of working with people who cared about it as much as I did.” He says he didn’t consider teaching at the time, though “most people who did that program with me are now teachers.”

He would “argue that non-MFAers, if they are serious enough about their work, possess a greater professionalism than us coddled factory-produced poets. They’ve done the DIY thing, through self-made chapbooks and shows and whatever. Happily, my program had something of that spirit, perhaps because I came in with the first cohort and it was sort of developing around me as I progressed.”

On the other hand, he “fell into” his “first book deal by accident. A teacher told an editor who told a publisher, who called me to ask if I had a manuscript. Lucky boy.” His second collection is coming out in Spring 2011, from McClelland & Stewart. “It’ll be called Folk. It’s a book about communities and airplanes.”

Is he content? “I live in Parkdale, Toronto, which is one of the great writer-infested neighbourhoods in North America. I have a blog that keeps me in dialogue with poets from other cities. Basically, I want for nothing, I’m happy.”

Is he waiting for that teaching job?

Well….maybe. Though it’d have to be perfect. I’d take 60k a year to teach eager, well-read youngsters about writing poetry, sure. But I wouldn’t take 30k a year to teach their uninspired siblings about the basics of grammar, or how to write a paragraph. And there’s a lot more positions available for the latter than the former. I’d much rather stay where I am, for now, thanks.