Jairo van Lunteren of The Splendors did a little interview with me for this week's Ithaca Times article on local artists and their day jobs. For those who might be interested, here's the complete interview that he conducted with me via e-mail:
What is your motivation behind being an artist if it doesn’t make good enough money to make a living off of?
There are other kinds of economies and other sorts of goods. I write to make contact with a larger world, or larger worlds: of readers, of other poets, of people thinking hard about language, and not least the parts of myself that would otherwise go unexpressed. The rewards don’t often take monetary form, but they do add up to a life.
How many hours a week do you spend on your art?
This is hard to figure, because I’m a grad student at Cornell as well as a bookstore clerk, and yet I feel the work I do in those places is strongly connected to my work as a poet. At Cornell I teach (Shakespeare this semester, which is a thrill) and I’m finishing a dissertation on modernist pastoral poetry; these things keep me in constant contact with poetry because I’m always thinking about it, talking about it, or writing about it. At Bookery II I have the privilege of being the poetry book buyer, which along with my work with SOON Productions helps me to feel like I’m contributing to the community’s poetry needs. Then there’s my weblog, Cahiers de Corey (it’s a dorky name but I’m stuck with it), to which I post at least two or three times a week with my thoughts on poetry and poetics. It all adds up to a more than full-time job.
What does it take to become a professional in your field?
There’s a kind of creaky medieval model right now: first you apprentice yourself to a mentor or, more often these days, to a university MFA program; then you do your journeyman work, publishing in magazines; then you publish your first book, at which point they start calling you an “emerging” poet. But many of the most interesting poets reject this model and find their own idiosyncratic paths. Really there’s no such thing as a professional poet: there are only professional teachers of poetry and then the vast array of people who write poetry and publish it but whose livelihoods depend on something else.
Do you look at yourself as an artist with a day job or as a hobbyist?
Are these my only choices? Because I see poetry as a form of intellectual labor, I get for the most part to experience my life as more integrated than your question implies: teaching, critical writing, writing poems, selling books, and hosting readings all feel like part of the same life. I’m a working poet.
What is your day job?
I have two: as a grad student, I teach first-year writing seminars at Cornell, and as a clerk at Bookery II I stock and maintain the poetry section and also do the usual customer service tasks.
How many hours a week do you work?
Right now I only put in one day, or eight hours, a week at Bookery II. Teaching is harder to pin down: class only meets for 150 minutes a week, but when you factor in preparation time and the grading of papers, it probably amounts to at least 20 hours per week. So let’s call it 30 hours total, with the remaining time devoted to finishing my dissertation, blogging and writing poems, and otherwise having a life.
What is your art about?
Scratching an itch. Ever since I was small I’ve been fascinated by the music and strangeness and multiplicity of words: I loved that game where you’d repeat a word like "tomato" over and over again until it lost all meaning and became this uncanny object in your mouth. Most people think of language as a tool, something you use to attain ends outside of language: give me this, help me with that, I feel x about y. I’m generally convinced that words are smarter than I am, and if I let them have their way, they’ll discover and interrogate and express things that my ordinary instrumental mind just doesn’t have access to. Some of what gets uncovered seems profound; some of it is silly or obscene; some of it approximates the complexity of what I feel and think about politics and love and literature and death. I try to be a good listener.
What will have to have happened in your life as an artist in order for you to look back at it with satisfaction?
To have always kept growing; to never have repeated myself or been seduced by a single style. To have collaborated with other artists in other media. To have contributed something indelible to the conversation.
Please name one or more of your artistic achievements.
The obvious thing is to point to my published books. But last Friday I did a reading at Bookery II with the other SOON folks and I read a new poem that’s a kind of elliptical elegy for my little dog Bogie, who died suddenly this July. It’s not so much about him as it’s about how the loss of anything that we care for shakes our foundation, and the struggle back toward uprightness. People seemed moved by it and that’s really satisfying.
Why are some artists famous and others not?
Some of it is luck, and of course an artist with socioeconomic advantages like enough to eat and a good education is more likely to succeed than an artist who receives no support from her society or community. But a lot of it comes down to self-promotion. Many artists, especially writers, are basically shy people with little appetite for sending their work to strangers or schmoozing at poetry readings. Skill at self-promotion is probably more important than artistic talent when it comes to making a name for yourself. The good news for shy but talented artists is that the habits of self-promotion can be learned, provided you believe in yourself and your art. The bad news is that there will always be a surplus of mediocre artists with sharp elbows.
How can people get to know more about your art?
Everyone starts out loving poetry and then most have that love beaten out of them by bad teachers who’ve had their love for poetry beaten out of them by other teachers, and so on. But everyone’s instinctively delighted by clever. rhythmic, and surprising language. I would just advise people to head on down to Bookery II’s poetry section and browse around: look at some anthologies or try out a literary magazine like The Canary or jubilat. You’ll find stuff that surprises you and that doesn’t feel at all like homework or a chore.
What project(s) are you currently involved with?
Finishing the dissertation is my number one task right now. But I’ve recently collected about ten years of poems into a new manuscript that I’m going to try to publish, and I’m also shopping around a book of sonnets, Severance Songs, that I finished last year.
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