CATHERINE THEIS is a Provost Fellow at USC. She is the author of The Fraud of Good Sleep (Salt Books, 2011). She’s been paid to slice turkey very thinly, take tickets, edit, teach, write, and edit again. When asked about her favorite job, she says, “A ticket taker. Yeah, I’ve been a ticket taker at three different places—the beach, an outdoor music venue, and the movies. My favorite part is letting people in who don’t have tickets.” 

 Labor Is A Fountain I Can’t Follow

I wake up from a 20-minute nap. The metal bench is comfortable. I think this the prettiest courtyard on campus, though there are lots. I peel two Christmas oranges. The sun’s hot. It’s November, and I love southern California. Yeah, I really do like Los Angeles—call me crazy & drape me in flowers. Luckily, the library had the DVD I need to watch for my Moby Dick class: Pola X. I still have a lot of food in my tote bag. I can hang out on campus for the entire day, if I wanted to. I know where the showers are, and where I can find free coffee. All Streams all I can read off the fountain right now.

At the end of last summer, I left my job as a Senior Editor at a major corporation in Chicago. I was happy to go. I worked for 5 years in a department called Brand Compliance. The summer before last, I took an unpaid leave from that job. I didn’t want to work, and I didn’t want to write, I wanted to do nothing. I wanted to go to the beach and read. When I first floated the idea of a sabbatical to my VP, he nearly fell off his chair. “If I give this to you, will you promise to come back?” he asked me.

As a PhD student, I get paid roughly 1/3 of what I used to make as a Senior Editor, but earn more money than your average adjunct instructor, which I’ve never been. I made that choice a long time ago when I graduated MFA school. I desperately wanted to teach, but I couldn’t swallow not getting paid for my work, so I declined those meager jobs. I don’t do things just for love. My fellowship is fantastic, and I thank the universe every day for the chance to be around other talented thinkers and writers. I’m in heaven. I often wonder if my gratefulness today is because of the incredible wear & tear my 9 to 5 job inflicted on my body, and on my psyche. (The first 3 years were fine.) I still spend the same amount of time writing, but my voice has changed, along with the form. I’m writing an infinitely long serial poem. Now I clock my leisure like I used to clock my corporate editing. It’s on the same timekeeping system, just the column opposite. Everyone should know how to use both columns.

“It’s a curse!” I told this woman at a party once in Venice when I explained I was a poet. “I’m a poet, too. I’m a poet on the inside,” she explained to me. “So, what are you on the outside?” I asked. We didn’t talk much after that. It didn’t really bother me that much.

My family will tell you I’m contrary. Being a poet is the closest thing I can think of to feeling free. I like moving to new places. I’m in need of constant calibration. I’ll do anything to an extreme. And then do the reverse. I don’t mind working in corporate America if I know I can leave. I don’t mind misunderstanding my academic colleagues as a motion of mind. I don’t mind living out of a suitcase. I don’t mind changing the shares of my 401k portfolio. I’m private and I’m public, but I’m always on the outside. Everything is labored. I want to be paid! I want money! I dream infinity signs, but live awake in poems. My invisible second job? I smile at people. I compliment people, I offer them a drink. I try not to complain. Sometimes I cry, so you know I’m human. I’m in a trance, so let me be in it.

My ideal working life? Wouldn’t it be great if all us poets could share jobs on a rotating basis, within and outside of the Academy/Corporate America? (This would cut down on corruption on both sides.) The market will never go away, so can’t we just work it? Wouldn’t it be nice to spend three consecutive years teaching literature, then transfer to a company on the stock exchange in need of a poet’s vision, then spend a year helping to raise a baby, then transfer back to the same university at the sixth year only to teach philosophy or book arts or poetry? Like Camus’ Sisyphus, I’m smiling.

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