February 25, 2012 § 2 Comments

‘Real poets’.  A term used by, among many others, my old friend Joan Firth.  Despite publishing work in magazines and so forth, Joan never thought of herself in this way.  This is probably to do with the way society likes to label people in a way which privileges things like income; or, perhaps more subtly, by what they produce.  If it’s getting people from A to B, they might be a bus driver; if it’s a pile of poetry books (perfect bound and available from good bookshops), they are ‘real poets’.  Despite the complexities of our lives, then, the question ‘What do you do?’ still seems to be reducable to this idea of production.

If we were to ask instead, ‘What do you spend your time doing?’ I wonder whether we might describe ourselves in a different way.  Joan was many things: woman, mother, wife, grandmother, retired teacher, citizen, painter, storyteller, student, embroiderer, volunteer, poet, cook… and on.  Certainly, a great deal of her time was spent on poetry: reading and thinking about it as well as producing it.

Both of these approaches brings me to the subject of what we might call the ‘day job’.  As the vast majority of poets don’t earn anything like a living from the poetry they produce, they have to do something else.  Discussion of what poets do to earn a crust and the ways in which this affects the writing process isn’t new: there’s something on the Poetry Society website at the moment (to which I can add that aside from working in a bank, TS Eliot also did some teaching for my organisation, the WEA, at one time).  However, as opportunities to earn money out of producing poetry (or encouraging others to do so) have become possible – whether as teachers, or poets-in-residence – it might be worth revisiting the idea.

Among poets I know, a number do teach, and some have done residencies; others have day jobs which have nothing to do with writing.  They work for the council, sell insurance, manage or work on projects, bake bread.  I know a novelist who makes guitars out of petrol cans.  A lot of this might be pretty soul-destroying stuff (I like making bread, but I don’t do it on the night-shift): but is it better to have a job which involves writing, or one which doesn’t?  Does supporting others’ writing development stifle (or at least get in the way) of our own writing?  Or does it inspire us, or offer new ways into our work?  And on the other hand, does the monotony, or stress, of spreadsheets / timesheets / deadlines / e-mails from HR / motorway journeys make our creative time all the more crucial?


§ 2 Responses to Slog

  • Brian Lewis says:

    As someone who is about to leave their ‘day job’ to become a full-time poetry publisher, I’ve had ample opportunity to reflect on the pros and cons of attempting to reconcile sustained creative activity with a 9 to 5. Firstly, the time constraits impose a useful pressure: the few hours before and after (paid) work are often charged with energy and purpose and impose their own deadline. Monotony and stress (of the day job) are (in my experience) conducive to making something out of the remaining hours. Secondly, the shift in perspective (in one’s environment and one’s tasks) is welcome; I’ve often valued my job for the simple reason that it’s a world not of my making (and, furthermore, not one that I would choose). Thirdly, the people that I’ve worked with have provided support, balance and argument (among other things), and have given me the opportunity to support them in turn.

    Will I be able to challenge, surprise and motivate myself working alone and to my own timetable? I guess I’ll find out…

  • Rob Hindle says:

    I tend to agree that the motivation can derive in this resistant way – and also (presuming that when you say ‘worked with’ you mean on poetry projects) from opportunities to work creatively with others. I’m currently collaborating on a project with a visual artist and both of us are inspired by the others’ responses to what is becoming quite an extensive project.

    I’m sure that this collective element – particularly in that, working as a publisher, you will work with a number of poets and possibly other artists – will provide the stimulus to keep you motivated.

    (Now I’m sounding like an advice column!)

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