The copy center guy authored a children’s book. I just found that out. Alex came over to drop off whatever documents I’d sent along for duplication and saw me working on a poem on my computer screen.
“You’re a poet?” he asked.
“Oh, y’know—I dip and dabble,” I replied. Sometimes it’s best to keep the artistic pursuits and the day job separate, for the sake of sanity, and boundary.
The next day, Alex brought in a copy of his children’s book and gave it to me gratis. It was the story of a boy from Jamaica who moved to New York when he was six years old.
“Write what you know, huh?” I said, stopping by the copy center later in the day to pay my compliments.
“Pretty much,” he laughed.
We’re still simply work colleagues—no real friendship has bloomed, or at least not yet—but there’s something charged to our exchanges now. A solidarity. A comradeship.
I’ll admit I thought this was all going to be a lot different—my life, I mean, in both its shape and focus therein. I studied theater at college, and pursued it for several years after, as both playwright and actor. To make a living in the theater is a grave challenge; even the talented Annie Baker keeps a teaching position to pay the rent. Still, I had hopes: My hero, Spalding Gray, was rumored to be paid up to $15,000 a performance for one of his signature monologues. So I thought I’d try to be just like him. But then he killed himself, which seemed like a terrible omen.
Still, I liked this idea of art and wealth commingling in my life. It’s not something I would have admitted at the time, but I liked believing that I could—would—be the outlier. I’d live in a top-floor high-rise apartment, with a little place in the country as well. My friends would be famous, too: I’d drink absinthe with Johnny Depp, schmooze with Stephen Colbert on set.
So I kept going, kept grinding. But poems—always a mere habit and hobby, started in college—began to take center stage in my creative life. They were pleasurable to write. I didn’t feel pressure to sell them or bend them to an audience’s need. There was no money to be gleaned from them, and so my shallow side, still very much in charge of my life’s choices at this point, had no use for these strange, irregular texts. With poems, I could work in private and play.
Wallace Stevens: insurance executive. William Carlos Williams: doctor. T.S. Eliot: banker. The list goes on and on. No one makes a living as a poet. That’s the genre’s curse…and its gift.
To feed and educate my inner poet, I started reading and studying each year’s issue of The Best American Poetry, which introduced me to Jennifer L. Knox, whose high-octane dramatic monologue poems were the perfect stepping-stone for a theater artist looking to head in a new direction. From Knox, I found my way to David Kirby’s scatological long-lined verses, then double-backed to James Tate’s surreal prose blocks, before segueing over to Tony Hoagland’s accessible narratives, at which point I settled down and let Marie Howe tell me what it’s like to lose a sibling. The further I read into the present-day canon, the more I wanted to read.
How does the poet Danez Smith pay his bills, I found myself wondering the other day. And then I thought, who gives a shit. Did you read his latest crown of sonnets over at Granta? Oh, you really ought to. They’ll knock you out.
A few years later, it wasn’t fun trying to be a (famous) actor or (famous) playwright anymore. I was too worried about making rent.
To squash the nerves, I took a job as a legal secretary at a law firm in midtown Manhattan (Franz Kafka: legal clerk!). It seemed like an all right fit. The colleagues were kind, the work agreeable. Three weeks into the gig, my agent called and asked me to get down to Canal Street during my lunch break for an audition to play Guard Number #2 in Mission Impossible 3. Still programmed to go after the brass ring, I jumped in a cab, which ended up getting stuck in traffic, at which point I freaked out and called my agent.
“I don’t want to do this anymore!” I said. “I don’t want to bend my entire life to put myself in actor-crammed rooms, with miniscule odds, all for the chance to say three lines opposite Tom Cruise! I have a job right now, and they guarantee to pay me—every two weeks—provided that I show up on time and don’t steal too many office supplies! I don’t want this life anymore!”
He listened to me rant, and said “okay.” The next day he called again, asked if I could get to Astoria for a chance to play a five-line, live-action role in the forthcoming computer-animated Smurfs movie, opposite Neal Patrick Harris.
“Did you hear what I said yesterday?” I asked. “I’m done with it. I don’t want it anymore.”
At which point I became sad for a long, long time. I’d always identified as Josh the Actor. What was I supposed to be now? Josh the Legal Secretary? Josh the Aspiring Writer? Just…Josh?
Something was going on, though, during all those many months of identity crisis. It moved too slow and internal to see, but through all the blue, something wonderful was happening too.
I just kept reading poems and then kept writing my own strange wares. They were lousy. But slowly, they began to improve.
This brings us to the present. Nine years later, I have that exact same day job. I still go after the poems every day. They bring in no money, but I love them and want to keep making more of them—stronger/stranger ones too.
You might be waiting for the big turn, in the third act, when the writer finds himself and his signature voice, thereby catapulting to great acclaim.
But that’s not my story.
We’re everywhere. Poets and children’s book writers. Novelists and memoirists. Painters and sculptors, dancers and, yes, even actors, and folks who play upright bass in three-piece jazz band trios at the coffee shop on summer Sunday afternoons. We clean your teeth, snake the clogs in your drain, and drop off color copies to your desk during the week. Hell, some of us are even chief executives! Sure, there are those of us who teach at the high school or collegiate level, anchored into tenure or as frantic adjuncts. We keep an unending variety of other job to support ourselves and our families, so that we might in our free time still do the thing we love most to do. It doesn’t always pay, but we do it anyways.
Why would you do that though, I’m often asked at parties, by those who couldn’t possibly understand, or even by my own nagging voice during necessary moments of doubt, Why poetry?
I still haven’t figured out how to answer that question, succinctly or definitively.
Quite frankly, the question doesn’t need answering.
There I am, back at my desk the next morning. Going after the poem again.
Image Credit: Flickr/Ulrich Peters.