JARED STANLEY mostly writes poetry, walks, cycles and practices plant identification. He has been a teaching faculty at a few universities and colleges over the last decade, and before that, a roofing delivery guy, a roofing salesmen, and a real estate assistant. Ambition! He's written six books and chapbooks, most recently The Weeds (Salt, 2012). He lives in Reno, NV where he's a Research Fellow at the Center for Art + Environment at the Nevada Museum of Art.
Unemployment is an Apocalyptic Word
I am one of those Americans steeped in the apocalyptic Protestant tradition. I come by it honestly: fire and brimstone preachers on my Mother’s side and Brigham Young Trail Mormons on my Father’s. Add to that the sheer good fortune of first coming into attention during the time of Reagan, Andropov, Chernenko, and The Day After. Chernenko – I was sure he was going to cause my death – he didn’t talk to little American girls like Andropov did.
Some people say that the very idea of history is apocalyptic and moves, inexorably, toward the end – and it may well, I mean, long long term – eventually even the moon will break free of the earth: even now it’s leaving our grasp at a rate of 4cm a year! Despite myself, my actual loves, those selves, those rebel angels I’ve learned to inhale through poetry, unemployment has some quality of apocalypse about it, as if all my work, all security was just a prelude to deprivation, which would sooner or later appear, accusingly, to tell me I hadn’t worked hard enough, hadn’t really done anything; was nothing. A strange problem for a poet!
Last year I left my job because I wanted to live with my partner, who got a job in Reno. A choice. I worked at that job longer than I had ever worked anywhere, and it didn’t take long for me to get used to the comforts of the well-employed: benefits, retirement. The job, I loved. The place where the job was, I despised – I saw, every day, the way the advent of factory farming, and the closing of a military base had systematically destroyed a community, had hollowed it out from the inside. Once, at a garage sale, a retired MP had a bunch of his Air Force issue pistols for sale. “Need a gun?” The casual, ‘just-so’ quality of blood in the driveway.
As a university teacher, I was supposed to be part of the solution to these economic challenges – our university was supposed to help, and I think that in many ways it actually did. But as an Apocalyptic non-Christian and a Scorpio, that’s to say, somebody with a low level of optimism, daily life in the place just seemed to be going nowhere fast: nihilism, violence, and the dull, repetitive stupidity that come when the boot of poverty is always stomping on the head.
That job ended in May, and I didn’t have to go back to the sad place. At first I was relieved. Remember the scene in the Six Feet Under episode in which a woman mistakes a flotilla of hovering, helium-filled inflatable sex dolls for raptured Christians? And she has a teary moment of joy and relief? It was like that. I could be with M., and I had come through my attachment to money unscathed. I was one of the elect, the pure! Let my lover work, I shall make art!
Huh. So I started to work on new poetry, but it was strangely bereft of ideas, too tidy, overly interested in subjects. I think it was because I was unemployed. What happened? Where was the force and joy I presumed would come to the work, now that it was my whole commitment? What happened to my sense, following Duncan, that “the law I love is major mover”? To what extent had I become comfortable with myself as a professor, someone who professed, when my real love was the irresolute, the unanswerable, the inscrutable greatness, the un-understandable? And, a more embarrassing question – was I uncomfortable being supported by a woman? Had I absorbed that really annoying element of my Protestant and Mormon forebears’ beliefs, the sense of rugged self-sufficiency, manliness, something that was completely contrary to my sense of what civilized society was built upon? Or worse, was it that my ambivalence about being freed from work was somehow tied to the naïveté of those Ayn Rand-reading students – was I wasting my potential? Good god! But these things got in me, like Bob got in Leland Palmer.
It wasn’t an easy few months. A metaphor might do to describe it: it felt like my head was encased in a beach ball full of snot – my mind and my senses didn’t work right. Because I didn’t have a job, I didn’t move in the world.
I didn’t do too much agonizing, though – in a stroke of great good fortune, I got a new job, one in which I was actually teaching poetry. There was more room, in this new job, for teaching poetry as a question. M. said “I was mad for a minute because I wanted to support you – but then I realized that we’d have more money.” And I was mad at myself, for failing to be able to stay a person without a job, without that part of my existence might be intelligible to my family and my non-poets – an utter failure!
Reading Jarnot’s just-released biography of Robert Duncan, I am so excited. I marvel at the way that both Spicer and Duncan imbued those workshops they held, those meetings, with such drama, such ritual, such commitment to the sense that poetry is “the boat” that connects the most quotidian to the most cosmic. It is my fond wish to emulate them – even, perhaps, the drama, the infighting – Poetry, The Real, is almost the only thing worth fighting for. As Humphrey Cobbler, the disheveled music teacher in Robertson Davies’ Tempest-Tost, put it: “The only thing more important than peace is music.”
Some people call that privilege, and I agree. We are privileged, and it is our luxury to live in poetry. Even unemployed, this faith never, weirdly, seemed to waver, even as the quality of my poems waned. Now, a teacher again, alongside my poet-hood, it is my job to find out whether other people can come over, can luxuriate. In this, if in no other way, I fight the apocalyptic hues which color the identification of my life as “mine”. There is no doubt that this way of life is always under threat, but if it is there to be lived, I’m living it – however soon I might be out on my ass.