Brian Kim Stefans worked as a pizza maker and line chef in college, in the warehouse at the Strand Bookstore, as an administrative assistant at the Hair Club for Men, in telecommunications at MoMA, and from then on (after a stint as a graduate student), at a hodgepodge of administrative and temp jobs until landing at Fodor's Travel, where he worked as a database administrator on what would have become (if we knew what we were doing) the predecessor to Google Maps (ha!). He then became the web editor/programmer at the CUNY Graduate School, a part-time job with benefits, where he worked for seven years. After receiving his MFA in digital literature at Brown, he worked as an assistant professor of English/New Media at Stockton College, a state liberal arts college in south Jersey. Presently he is an assistant professor of English at UCLA. Information about his books, videos, programs, graphic design and whatnot can be found at www.arras.net.
My attitudes toward work are probably most shaped by my diabetes, which has not enabled me to live without healthcare. I’ve never been an adjunct teacher, a freelance web designer (at least full-time), etc., and have generally relied, prior to my job as a professor, on a regular daily schedule to help me keep my health in order. On a more philosophical level, I’ve never wanted to be dependent, or beholden to, anything like a grants or awards system, largely because it seemed to me, after the controversies of the 80s around such artists as Robert Mapplethorpe and Karen Finley, that it made much sense to rely on the opinions of judges, especially those associated with the government, to finance your work. Of course, there isn’t much of a grant system for poets anyway, but I tend not to apply for grants for any of the other artistic activities I engaged in.
My first job out of college was at the Strand bookstore. I then became part of the illustrious generation of Bard graduates to get a salaried job at the Hair Club for Men. It was there that I learned word processing, how to create spreadsheets (in something called Lotus 1-2-3) and work with a database. These skills gave me some mobility; I eventually got a job at the MoMA working in the telecommunications department in the basement, which was a great thrill for this O’Hara nut. I then attended a Ph.D. program in English at the CUNY Grad Center and moved back to New Jersey, but left it when I realized that it was largely training for professorships (and not a revolutionary intellectual hotbed which I guess I was seeking). In the late 90s, the internet was just rising – I was meeting folks with liberal arts degrees like my own who were earning what seemed like lots of money programming HTML. Since I had programmed computers since I was 10, I tried to learn C++ and Java and whatever else was out there with the hope of making some money, and also exploiting these new technologies for art.
My general advice for poets in New York is to get some desk job that you can learn very quickly so that, after a few months, you are able to do your own thing on the boss’s time. The other bit of advice is to keep learning new things, especially technological, as the skills are very general but applicable in many places. Maybe it’s my diabetes, or a conservative strand in my sense of the “daily,” but I don’t think a 9-5 job, with its melancholy pedestrian rituals, is that bad, especially in a great place like New York. It seems to me a little dangerous to have a truly fulfilling job, or even “career,” while you are trying to develop as a poet. I was never very creative or ambitious in my job choices when I was younger, and I think that kept me quite free to exercise my creativity elsewhere. As you get older, of course, things change: your youthful excitement at finally being out of school, finally being a practicing artist, meeting tons of new people and generally dreaming about your great literary future gives way to the reality of friends moving away, other friends moving up the economic scale, family dying, the economics of your city pricing you out, your own work getting lost amidst the constant influx of younger, more ambitious and more hip, artists, the possibility of getting too old to learn new skills, etc. What you do for work then acquires some greater spiritual importance.
I’m in the position right now of having a job that is really great. I’m teaching digital literature, new media theory and poetry at UCLA. I don’t think of my teaching as a “vocation” in the way one who had trained to be a professor might, so I didn’t go into it with any more desire than not to screw up, and to make it as interesting for myself and students as possible. Now that I’ve been at UCLA for two and half years, I’m quite eager to make the intellectual and artistic community there, and in Los Angeles at large, a place that continues to attract outside writers and artists. I’m still trying to teach myself new tricks, often in the service of my teaching and art, but also simply to have a back-up plan. I always had a lingering fear that the bottom could drop out at any second. Many in my family are presently unemployed, including siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles, and I’m in the rare position of being the guy with the steady job after so many years of waywardness. I’m a little embarrassed that I’ve not, this far along, ever really been able to help out except to offer a spare bedroom on occasion.
I don’t have any terribly philosophical insights into what it means to be a poet in the academy, or what it means to be a poet who works or doesn’t work. I’m from a pretty working class background, not to mention an immigrant background, so whether or not to put in your hours was not something you had the luxury to think about (and culturally, it was considered noxious). I spent a lot of time at a very crappy job in New York because I was too depressed and uninspired to send out resumes – depression is a greater enemy to me than work! – so I don’t recommend that, but having the basic stabilities, along with good friendships, should be quite amendable to writing poetry. I felt quite claustrophobic in suburban New Jersey when I was a lad, so have made it a habit to disappear into imaginative enterprises which, if anything, were intended to take me elsewhere; I supposed preparing for this sudden leap into a transformed future has also kept me on the look-out for something new to learn in case the present just collapses. That’s about it.