Kit Robinson worked as a cab driver, teacher’s aide, mail clerk, poet-in-the-schools, legal proofreader and jury trial reporter before beginning a three-decade career as a corporate communications professional. He is the author of Determination (Cuneiform, 2010), The Messianic Trees: Selected Poems, 1976-2003 (Adventures in Poetry, 2009) and 18 other books of poetry. He lives in Berkeley, where he works as a freelance writer and plays Cuban tres guitar in the Latin dance band Bahía Son.
Get a Job
The question of the employment of the poet has interested me almost from the beginning. My “Taxicab Diaries,” from the summer of 1971 in Boston, was the first thing I had published in Barrett Watten’s This magazine. My serial poem “The Dolch Stanzas” was written in 1974 while I was working as a paraprofessional teacher’s aide at a San Francisco elementary school. Like work of mine to come, “Dolch” made use of the material of the workplace, in this case the Dolch Basic Sight Word List.
A few years later I wrote “Casual Blues” while working as a seasonal clerk at the Oakland Bulk Mail Center. This longish poem was built from stanzas depicting the production floor, written during breaks or while hiding near a window with views of the container port landscape outside. In my spontaneous recording of sense data in real time I was somewhat influenced by Larry Eigner. But I added a programmatic layering effect. Based on each written stanza, new material was generated using a “diagonal” reading technique – first word first line, second word second line, etc. – to form new second- and third-generation stanzas. From these materials the final poem was constructed.
In the 1980s, when I entered the computer industry, the material of the workplace, its language as well as its (other) social formulations, became regular components of my writing practice.
In some ways all of these uses of jobs in the service of writing were perhaps a way of answering a larger questions: how does a poet deal with having to get a job?
Charles Olson: Poet, get a job!
Ted Berrigan: Good Friday you die on the cross, and Easter Sunday you rise from the dead and everything is glorious and wonderful, and then Easter Monday you have to go out and get this job.
I recently became a practicing musician for the first time since my student and post-grad slacker days when music was a form of daily life. My music community today reminds me of the various groups of guys I knew in the 80s and 90s through basketball. Both groups cut across age, race and class lines, with people from all walks of life, as the saying goes, with the added benefit that many of my new music friends are women. In my band Bahía Son we have a jeweler, a teacher, a scientist, a business person, a lawyer, a psychiatrist, a postal manager, a retired administrator and a freelance writer.
Of course, despite the occasional gig we are not professional musicians. The pros live by gigging, touring and teaching, in various proportion. But even many professional musicians also have day jobs. Hence the expression, “Don’t quit your….”
For my musician friends, a symposium on music and jobs would be inconceivable. The time would be better spent on practice. But for poets it seems an unavoidable question. Why?
I think it is because, deep down, we poets resent having to do anything but write. Isn’t that enough?
I read recently that Bob Dylan’s life was transformed at age 14 when he heard Elvis Presley’s “Mystery Train.” “When I first heard Elvis’s voice I just knew that I wasn’t going to work for anybody, and nobody was going to be my boss,” Dylan is quoted as saying.
Ted Greenwald: I be my own boss
But there is another reason for our fascination with jobs, and it has to do with the teaching profession. The evolution of university creative writing and literature departments has created a poetry industry in which the poet can have a viable career and, assuming obligations to teaching, administrative duties, conference participation and publication, even be financially rewarded for her work. The job also comes with some down sides, not least of which is the current conservative assault on liberal education at every level. But to those of us who toil outside the academy, a profession that valorizes poetry, even with lip service, looks pretty attractive compared to those in which it can only represent a conflict, or at best a colorful sidelight.
At the same time, we are aware of distinct advantages for us as writers to remain outside the academy. Otherwise, how could we accept having to work so hard to avoid it, right?
But what then? Some stick to their guns. These are the pure poets. The more heroic pay the price of poverty to uphold the honor of the poet’s art. More power to them! Others depend on spouses or family money. Nothing wrong with that.
For the rest of us, well, we’re no worse off than the amateur musician. We have our opportunities for la perruque, and then there are the pleasures of labor itself, which are not inconsiderable if you are able to do something well. Most work involves helping others in some way, if only others like oneself who are similarly engaged in the dynamics of the workplace.
Poetry helps no one. Least of all ourselves. We pursue it anyway, and this anyway is our bread and butter. It propels us on our way, forward into the mouth of time and finally down the gorge of history. It’s nice work if you can get it.