We're so pleased to announce that responses from Kit Robinson, Brian Kim Stefans, and M.C. Adams with Camille Roy are now posted on the blog. To download a pdf of all three, please click here.  If you'd like to join our email list, please write to labday2010@gmail.com to receive a monthly notice when new content is posted to the blog. Finally, if you've got a more extended set of thoughts than fits in a comment box, please feel free to send those along any time.

Thanks to our amazing respondents this month, and as always to you for your solidarity!


M.C. Adams has worked in the software industry since 1985. Her employers have included Hewlett-Packard, Oracle, and a number of start ups. She has extensive background in languages, compilers, grammars, translators and other software development tools. She is the founder of Beelucid Software.

Camille Roy is a writer and performer of fiction, poetry, and plays. Her latest book is a collection of poems and prose called Sherwood Forest. It is published by Futurepoem.

Landslide Brought It Down
A ground level view of the American economy

by M.C. Adams     with Camille Roy

I'll start by going back to the spring of 2003. I was walking down an apartment building hallway towards the door of a technology startup called Friendware. I had a feeling of assurance. Behind that door I believed lay my next job. Despite the fact that none of 35 mid-career professionals in my recently completed Advanced Java class had gotten a job, I believed I would get this one.

I was right. The glib follow up would be, It went downhill from there. But getting the job was a little bump on a downhill slide which was already in progress. Just days before, another member of my class had taken me aside and whispered that at the thriving small company where she had worked for 15 years, business had just evaporated. Gone. She was laid off and her prospects were dismal.

So I opened the door to Jack Porterfield's apartment for the interview knowing that some sort of economic turn had started. I was unsettled, but more curious than afraid. I had no clue that the way events would ultimately shake out would shock me to my shoes.

Jack had a recently issued patent and high hopes for a new product based on it. My assignment for him was a side project which was supposed to earn operating income as he crafted the first release of a technology that he had been working on (with breaks) for probably seven years.

At first there was just one other employee (a secretary, whom I'll call Stephanie) and we worked in his apartment which was high on the northern side of a building on Broadway. It was furnished in basic startup style: Office Depot tables, a dirty wall to wall carpet, workstations. But it had a view that swept from the Golden Gate to the East Bay hills. Given that it was a job, I had some perfect hours there. Sea breezes flowed through the room and I could look up from my desk and watch sail boats leaning with the wind. The air over the Golden Gate held an intense yellow sparkle of sunlight reflected from the water. One day a window in the adjoining elegant art deco building was open and for hours a large filmy curtain undulated in the wind.

As it was Jack's apartment and he was the boss, we settled into his rhythm – insights and plans, laced with jokes. “Excuse me if I'm yanking your chain...” he'd begin. One day I was working on an awkward technical corner case when a chat from a sex worker popped up on my screen. 'Hey Jack sweetie call me...' etc. Jack saw this and told me flatly that he loved prostitutes. I felt apprehensive. Was this the sort of boss confession that would lead to unwelcome asides or even advances on female staff? No - Jack was too cool for that. He just liked prostitutes. He had a little engine of liking that filled the office. He loved his ex-girlfriends (who called frequently) and his many friends and talked story about all of them.

Do you want to picture Jack? He was rotund. Fleshy and pale, with dark hair, thinning on top. About my height and age. His grin was easy and made his lower lip stick out. He was from New York. Strong accent. In his younger skinnier days, he went to the same dance club I did, back in the 80's (the I-Beam).

Some interesting things about Jack: he had written a couple of novels. He was one of the first 20 hires at a major tech corporation (Sun Microsystems) and he walked out of that job with stock options that at their maximum were worth 100 million dollars. (Sob story: he didn't cash in anywhere near that.) He was also part of another company that had gone public. As these things are scored in Silicon Valley, this was an excellent show. To start off his career he had gotten the highest score in the country on the computer science GRE. And he'd earned a Ph.D when he was only 21.

For most tech entrepreneurs, there are at least a few bright flashing indicators of techno genius. Jack was only unusual in that he told us about them. How gabby he was!

But a boss is not a friend. He paid me a third of what I'd made only a year before. A third! When I argued with him, it seemed there just wasn't any more money. It was that or no job.

And, along the way, there were more signs of economic disintegration.


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.


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.