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The Poet at Work: Turning Your Day Job Into Poetry

by Shanna Germain

Poetry doesn't pay. Or it doesn't pay enough, anyway. So, unless you're independently wealthy or you've found a way to marry into money, chances are you do something besides write poetry to put food on the table. Maybe you stand in a checkout line all day. Maybe you file people's tax returns. Maybe you spend your days teaching children their ABC's. It doesn't matter; whatever your day job is, no matter how grandiose or mundane, it can be turned into poetry.

Over the years, many well-known poets have written about their work. Robert Frost's experiences of mending walls and picking apples were the catalyst for his classic poems. John Updike wrote of the disconcerting feeling of returning to work after time off in his poem Back from Vacation. Oregon poet Clemens Starck creates moving poetry out of his days of commuting and pouring concrete. And Philip Levine, author of What Work Is has practically made a career out of writing career poetry.

Why would you want to spend your time off writing about your job, especially if it's one that you'd much rather forget about? A number of reasons.

First, people love to read about other people's jobs; work poetry offers an opportunity to slip into someone else's office for a few moments, to lift the hammer or plant a tree, to live vicariously through someone else's words.

Second, it's yours to write. No one else knows your job like you do, the day-to-day details of laying flooring or cutting hair -- the snik-snik of scissors across a strand of hair, the way Mrs. Smith always falls asleep under the hair dryer. Those details are what give poetry its power, and allow the poet -- and the reader -- to reap the larger truths of the world.

Lastly, you're doing something good for yourself. Not only will you be writing poetry on a regular basis, you will also be rewriting your job and hopefully making it easier to cope with until you hit it big and can write all day long.

Here are a few tips to get you started on writing work poetry:

Keep a job journal. This always sounds so easy, but keeping a journal is a job in itself. Try to take a few minutes each day to scribble something - anything - down about your day. Did you miss your bus? Did you have to hear another tale of woe from your coworker? Often, writing about something that happened at work will open the floodgates; you never know when something as simple as a copy machine mishap could connect you with other important memories and events in your life.

Keeping a journal also means you won't forget. Although right now it probably seems like every detail of every working day will be stuck in your mind forever, it doesn't work that way. Over time, those sharp details become softer and fainter, until they finally disappear altogether. Nearly ten years ago, I worked on an ambulance crew, and every time I sit down to write a poem about it, I kick myself for not keeping a better journal. At the time, those experiences were so vibrant, so alive, but they will never be shared because they've been lost in the forest of my memory.

Listen to the language. Every job has a unique vernacular. Some of the obvious ones are the medical field and the new 'computer language.' But every job has terms that are all its own. It's not a bad idea to keep a running list of words (and sounds) that catch your writer's ear. In his poem, Hay for Horses, Gary Snyder uses the language of the farm to create a clear picture in the reader's mind:

We stacked the bales up clean
To splintery redwood rafters
High in the dark, flecks of alfalfa
Whirling through shingle-cracks of light,
Itch of haydust in the
sweaty shirt and shoes.

Find the humor in your workday. Although it sometimes doesn't seem possible, every job does have funny moments. (Or ironic, at the very least). Use these humorous moments to add a moment of comic relief to your poems, or try writing a funny poem, such as John Betjeman did in The Executive. Betjeman used a glib tone and modern buzzwords such as a Slimline Briefcase and an Aston-Marton to create a caricature of the modern day businessman. (It's hard to believe the poem was actually written in 1974):

You ask me what it is I do. Well, actually, you know,
I'm partly a liaison man, and partly P.R.O.
Essentially, I integrate the current export drive
And basically I'm viable from ten o'clock till five.

Write outside your current job. Talk about the transition between your last job and the one you have now. Were you unprepared for some of the tasks of your new job? Were there unexpected consequences from the transition? Mark Defoe explores this concept in his poem The Former Miner Returns from His First Day as a Service Worker (at a McDonald's somewhere in Appalachia). Defoe describes the miner's difficulty in making the transition to his new job, and creates a clear picture in the poems first few lines:

All day he crushed the spongy buns, pawed at
The lids of burger boxes and kiddie pacs
As if they were chinese puzzles.
All day long his hands ticked, ready to latch on
Or heave or curl around a tool
Heavier than a spatula

A job can also be the work you do which doesn't earn you a paycheck, the hard labor that goes into keeping up a home, or building a bookshelf, or pulling weeds. Again, Frost is a good example of this, with this poems After Apple-picking and Mending Wall. In your poems, describe how it feels to use your hands, your muscles, and your mind simultaneously. Beyond the nine-to-five, it is your job as a poet to bring your life to the page, so that it may become part of the reader's life too. As the Chinese Poet Lu-Yiu once wrote to his son:

Poetry is not child's play,
but one of the noble arts.
If you would be a poet, know
that the real work is done outside poetry.

For More Information:

The Academy of American Poets -- Overhand the Hammers Swing: Poems of Work
http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/17150

Youngstown State University Center for Working Class Studies:
Songs and Poems of the Working Class Culture
http://workingclassstudies.wordpress.com/category/issues/working-class-culture-issues/

Anthologies and Collections:
For a Living: The Poetry of Work, ed. Nicholas Coles & Peter Oresick
Paperwork: An Anthology, ed. Tom Wayman
Going for Coffee: Poetry on the Job, ed. Tom Wayman
Shop Talk: An Anthology of Poetry, ed. Zoe Landale
This is Women's Work: An Anthology of Prose and Poetry, ed. Susan Elfros
A Working Girl Can't Win and other poems, by Deborah Garrison

Copyright © 2001 Shanna Germain
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.


Shanna Germain is a Portland writer and photographer. Over the years, she has held--and written poems about -- a myriad of jobs, including bartender, paramedic, firefighter, and grocery store clerk. Her work poetry has been published in a variety of publications, including The Adirondack Review, Mediphors and Pre-Hospital Emergency Care. Visit her website at http://www.shannagermain.com/.

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