Thursday, 2 May 2013

Poets' second jobs

I encountered an excellent article the other day (on the NPR website) on poets' second jobs. Its focus is the U.S., but many of its remarks are also salient in the case of the U.K.. You can read the whole thing here, but I'd like to highlight a number of key points.

The feature mentions the huge growth in the last few years in poets who make a living from teaching poetry, stating that almost all the 75 contributors to the 2012 edition of "The Best American Poetry" "have taught poetry in universities or earned an advanced degree in poetry, or (more frequently) both."

As mentioned previously on Rogue Strands, I'm very much in favour of the positive effect a non-poetic job can have on the writing of verse. As this article explains, there's a long tradition of scientists, bankers, lawyers, etc, etc, being published poets: "One of the most obvious benefits of a day job is that it offers another lens through which the outlines of poems can emerge."

Once more, this argument leads us on to the role of poetry in wider society, to the value that we apply to the genre:  "the ways in which we value poetry can be very different from the ways in which we value poets themselves."

The article might go over old ground, but it does so in fresh ways. It certainly got me thinking again about how my job interacts with my verse, not just in overt content such as Tasting Notes, but implicitly in all the rest of my poems. Apart from the roles I play in my personal life (father, son, partner, etc), I'm also an export manager, and have a very specific and consequent type of interaction with people on a daily basis. Those experiences contribute to everything I write.


  1. Agreed, it's a trend that's bound to have consequences (if you don't like "poetry about poetry", beware - nowadays there's "poetry about teaching poetry"). It seems to have happened quite suddenly in the UK - the Bios in mags are less interesting that they used to be. I keep a list of Math/Science-trained writers. There was one in the list of Granta Young novelists so there's hope yet.

  2. Thank you Matthew. May you and your writing be blessed: you are too polite to say, of course, that having a day job also obviates the "need" to write drivel at all costs, simply because it occurs to one; that the fact that you are not financially dependent on your writing is actually an advantage; and that the whole concept of being seen to be a writer (or, to quote The Wonder Boys, a "wri-tah") is, as CS Lewis put it, "a dream of youth, vain and dull." I would go much further - not only should poets have day jobs, they must have them. Read Pasternak on this: "a life spent among poets and poetry is like a life spent eating pickled gherkins: all very well, but one wants to eat something else now and again."

  3. I read the following today. If publishers/agents are going to look at end-of-year student anthologies instead of slush-piles, the vicious circle will be complete - "Of course, there are still writers who make their way without ever having gone on a creative writing course. But whereas once they were the majority, now they're becoming the exception. That's in part because literary agents and publishers have begun looking to creative writing programmes to find new talent", Blake Morrison, in "Changing English", V.20.1, 2013.