When I started ‘work thoughts’ in 2015, I included a poem each Friday to allow the reader to step away from their daily workplace and gain a perspective of work through the words of various artists. To my surprise, looking back, the most searched topic on this site has been the poetry.
Sales for books of poetry have been increasing since 2019, with the majority of purchases in the ‘under-34’ demographic. “Poetry experts say that the pandemic, along with the social unrest the country has been experiencing, could have something to do with it..”
“We’ve been reminded during this time that poetry is an art form that people turn to in times of crisis for comfort and courage… “
Jennifer Benka, president and executive director of the Academy of American Poets
The selection this week is a reflection on work and recognition. Poet Marge Piercy (the first ‘Friday Poet’ considers her own profession as a writer, while offering advice ‘For the young who want to’. Her thoughts are equally relevant to each of us following our own unique calling.
For the young who want to
Talent is what they say you have after the novel is published and favorably reviewed. Beforehand what you have is a tedious delusion, a hobby like knitting.
Work is what you have done after the play is produced and the audience claps. Before that friends keep asking when you are planning to go out and get a job.
Genius is what they know you had after the third volume of remarkable poems. Earlier they accuse you of withdrawing, ask why you don’t have a baby, call you a bum.
The reason why people want M.F.A.’s, take workshops with fancy names when all you can really learn is a few techniques, typing instructions and some- body else’s mannerisms
is that every artist lacks a license to hang on the wall like your optician, your vet proving you may be a clumsy sadist whose fillings fall into the stew but you’re certified a dentist.
The real writer is one who really writes. Talent is an invention like phlogiston after the fact of fire. Work is its own cure. You have to like it better than being loved.
“I was never prepared to settle for less than I desired.”
I sometimes think our investment in professional development is better made on novels and memoirs vs. management guides. If you agree, head to your local independent bookstore for a copy of author Bernardine Evaristo’s ‘Manifesto’. (You may add an underlining marker to your purchase as well – take notes!) This memoir by the Booker Prize winning author follows her life and career trajectory and in doing so, describes influences, struggles, priorities, commitment, and the value of life-long learning.
She begins with a question: “Most people in the arts have role models –writers, artists, creatives – who have inspired them, but what are the other elements that lay the foundation for our creativity and steer the direction of our careers?”
How do you find a path to success when you don’t have access to the resources of the elite? How do you move beyond “My school didn’t inspire me to greatness… Nobody encouraged us to think big and make our dreams come true.”?
In seven chapters, Ms. Evaristo details the evolution of her work ethic, commitment to craft and determination to mentor those who follow. Her story is a lived example of the value and responsibility of experience. Her narrative is relevant because each reader will find a point of connection in following the writer’s journey.
“… we all learn, eventually that life demands a lot more from us than the ability to get good grades. Combating struggle and disappointment early on in life can instill a strength and determination we would not otherwise possess… Life presents us with obstacles. It’s never a completely smooth ride for anyone, and while nobody wants to struggle, it’s the only way to build resilience.”
And we don’t stop learning. “My goal, as always, is to continue to write stories and to develop my skills. There is no point of arrival whereby one stops growing as a creative person; to think otherwise will lead to creative repetition and stagnation.”
We read memoirs because we are curious. At the center, who is this person?
“I am first and foremost a writer; the written word is how I process everything – myself, life, society, history, politics. It’s not just a job or a passion, but it is at the very heart of how I exist in the world, and I am addicted to the adventure of storytelling as my most powerful means of communication.”
But that’s only part of the story. In her book review for NPR, writer Hope Wabuke described the ‘real world’ impact of Ms. Evaristo’s commitment and influence. “Evaristo’s work in supporting inclusivity in the literary arts is legend. It includes the commission of a Free Verse report, which found that less than 1% of poetry books in the United Kingdom were published by poets of color, and then creating a mentorship program, The Complete Works, to do something about it; this program mentored 30 poets over two years. Evaristo’s advocacy work also created the Brunel Poetry Prize for African writers, the first and largest award of its kind, and led her to work alongside Kwame Dawes in situating the African Poetry Book Fund as a force that has changed the shape of contemporary publishing. Most recently, as the curator of Black Britain: Writing Black, Evaristo is republishing overlooked books by Black authors such as Minty Alley, by C.L.R James originally published in 1936.”
‘Manifesto’ is one more creative endeavor for Ms. Evaristo to share her wisdom. Not all influences are one-on-one connections. Sometimes we find direction in a book.
“We must pass on what we know to the next generation, & express gratitude to those who help us – nobody gets anywhere on their own.”
An aside: I picked up two new applicable concepts: “period of self-calibration” (which we can all use about now) and “to bounce back in the act of falling.” (advice to her students to continue to be positive)
“I write poetry, prose, and everything I do, I do on the principle of Russian borscht. You can throw everything into it — beets, carrots, cabbage, onions, everything you want. What’s important is the result, the taste of the borscht.”
‘There are no boring people in this world.’
There are no boring people in this world. Each fate is like the history of a planet. And no two planets are alike at all. Each is distinct – you simply can’t compare it.
If someone lived without attracting notice and made a friend of their obscurity – then their uniqueness was precisely this. Their very plainness made them interesting.
Each person has a world that’s all their own. Each of those worlds must have its finest moment and each must have its hour of bitter torment – and yet, to us, both hours remain unknown.
When people die, they do not die alone. They die along with their first kiss, first combat. They take away their first day in the snow … All gone, all gone – there’s just no way to stop it.
There may be much that’s fated to remain, but something – something leaves us all the same. The rules are cruel, the game nightmarish – it isn’t people but whole worlds that perish.
The Guardian 5/6/17
And the final stanza, omitted in The Guardian, translated by Jennifer Croft and Boris Dralyuk.
People die. Their deaths can’t be reversed. Their secret worlds won’t be traversed again. And all that’s ever left for me to do is cry, How can we lose you, too?
That is our question to answer. How can we lose another whole world without notice?
The Friday Poem selection for this week is Julia Alvarez’s ‘How Will This Pandemic Affect Poetry?’ As we reimagine our priorities ‘after’, framed by our experience in the ‘before times’ and pandemic isolation, where will art reside?
It’s August, an intermission before the commotion of fall. Except this has been an August, a summer, like no other. There is no certainty, other than the world at a distance of six feet.
In this time, ‘The Friday Poem’ returns after a few ‘fits and starts’, with ‘August’ by Mary Oliver.
We have lost spring, snug in our ‘stay at home’ place or serving on the front lines as essential workers. Summer is passing, offering the gift of a journey outside – breathing fresh air, splashing in a brook, climbing a tree, standing in the rain – away from our workplace for a moment.
Poetry and art will sustain us.
When the blackberries hang
swollen in the woods, in the brambles
nobody owns, I spend
all day among the high
my ripped arms, thinking
of nothing, cramming
the black honey of summer
into my mouth; all day my body
accepts what it is. In the dark
creeks that run by there is
the thick paw of my life darting among
the black bells, the leaves; there is
the happy tongue.
So, the virus went viral, and nothing may ever be the same – job offers on hold, online classes the new norm, home the new workplace.
You may hear comparisons to 2008 or the dot com bubble of 2001 – 2002. There’s no comparison. We’re all pioneers in this new reality of social/physical distancing.
What to do?
First, reach out to the resources available to you through your network. There are a lot of unknowns. But you can only plan around the things you can control.
Second, go for a walk. We can still do that – at a six-foot distance.
Third, add something new to your day that connects you to others (with six-foot spacing). For me, that means joining a virtual book discussion of War and Peace: #TolstoyTogether. Writer Yiyun Li in partnership with @APublicSpace is reading 12 pages a day. (Just started – anyone can join). Robert Macfarlane (Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge) is also leading a global Twitter Reading Group, #CoReadingVirus, discussing ‘The Living Mountain’.
Fourth, contingency plan. #1 plan – the ideal job, #2 plan – other ways to gain experience in the same field, from a different angle, #3 plan – ways to have income, while seeking a permanent position.
It’s ok to be a bit scared. But to quote Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, “The demons hate it when you get out of bed. Demons hate fresh air.”
What if a hundred rose-breasted grosbeaks flew in circles around your head? What if the mockingbird came into the house with you and became your advisor? What if the bees filled your walls with honey and all you needed to do was ask them and they would fill the bowl? What if the brook slid downhill just past your bedroom window so you could listen to its slow prayers as you fell asleep? What if the stars began to shout their names, or to run this way and that way above the clouds? What if you painted a picture of a tree, and the leaves began to rustle, and a bird cheerfully sang from its painted branches? What if you suddenly saw that the silver of water was brighter than the silver of money? What if you finally saw that the sunflowers, turning toward the sun all day and every day – who knows how, but they do it – were more precious, more meaningful than gold?
While you were away, the U.S. commemorated the 50th anniversary of the moon landing and the effort to rebuild Notre Dame began in Paris. In New York, members of the Business Roundtable considered a new definition of the purpose of a corporation and Ava Duvernay continued to challenge conventional wisdom. It was a summer of cathedral thinking, blue oceans and questioning expertise.
These are the stories of folks who went to work every day, extending the definition of work and workplace beyond traditional boundaries to solve problems and create a vision of the future.
Here’s a sampling of articles from the Summer of 2019:
“In this moment when government is viewed by so many Americans as being unable to dream as big as it did in the 1960s, whether the dream is traveling the solar system or forestalling the calamitous effects of climate change, understanding how NASA got us to the Moon the first time is both important and inspirational. The Apollo Moon landings were an extraordinary undertaking, but they were the work of ordinary people back on Earth. We need exactly that kind of effort to tackle some of the problems we face today, from economic inequality to climate change. The Moon can show us the way.“
“The two key pieces that were the astronauts’ home during their lunar trips were built on opposite sides of the country. The Apollo capsules rolled off the assembly line in Downey, Calif., a small city 15 miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles. Fifty years ago, NASA owned a 160-acre swath of Downey — the size of two Disneylands — that was home to factories, offices and test facilities.
The story was almost the same in Bethpage, N.Y., on Long Island. That was the headquarters of Grumman Aircraft, which won the contract to build the spindly spacecraft that took Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the surface of the moon.“
In April, Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris came close to being destroyed by fire. This summer The New York Times created an interactive site to document the event and the story of those who saved the cathedral.
“That Notre-Dame still stands is due solely to the enormous risks taken by firefighters in those third and fourth hours. Disadvantaged by their late start, firefighters would rush up the 300 steps to the burning attic and then be forced to retreat. Finally, a small group of firefighters was sent directly into the flames, as a last, desperate effort to save the cathedral. “There was a feeling that there was something bigger than life at stake,” said Ariel Weil, the mayor of the city’s Fourth Arrondissement, home to the cathedral, “and that Notre-Dame could be lost.”
On August 19, the Business Roundtable issued a new statement on the purpose of the corporation.
“While each of our individual companies serves its own corporate purpose, we share a fundamental commitment to all of our stakeholders. We commit to: – Delivering value to our customers. We will further the tradition of American companies leading the way in meeting or exceeding customer expectations. – Investing in our employees. This starts with compensating them fairly and providing important benefits. It also includes supporting them through training and education that help develop new skills for a rapidly changing world. We foster diversity and inclusion, dignity and respect. – Dealing fairly and ethically with our suppliers. We are dedicated to serving as good partners to the other companies, large and small, that help us meet our missions. – Supporting the communities in which we work. We respect the people in our communities and protect the environment by embracing sustainable practices across our businesses. – Generating long-term value for shareholders, who provide the capital that allows companies to invest, grow and innovate. We are committed to transparency and effective engagement with shareholders.“
We learn from the wisdom of others and this summer, writer, producer and director Ava DuVernay leads on innovation.
“Conventional thinking in red oceans is why blue oceans go undiscovered.
New markets are found when someone stands in a spot that gives them a point of view distinctly their own.
DuVernay has shown us what the work of discovering blue oceans looks like: It is claiming that spot in the world where only you stand, even if that means leaving rooms where you’re being dismissed and marginalized. It is gathering your crew, those who share your commitment and purpose and will work to create new truths. It is finding the communities that can share your vision and scale it. These are unconventional ways to lead. Leaving. Social. Sharing. They seem counterintuitive and even wrong to those who lead red oceans. But they are how growth and progress and innovation happen. It’s what explorers do to chart new territory.”
The last article from the summer continues the conversation on expertise and how we are all being asked to ‘do more with less.”
“By 2020, a 2016 World Economic Forum report predicted, “more than one-third of the desired core skill sets of most occupations” will not have been seen as crucial to the job when the report was published. If that’s the case, I asked John Sullivan, a prominent Silicon Valley talent adviser, why should anyone take the time to master anything at all? “You shouldn’t!” he replied. As a rule of thumb, statements out of Silicon Valley should be deflated by half to control for hyperbole. Still, the ramifications of Sullivan’s comment unfurl quickly. Minimal manning—and the evolution of the economy more generally—requires a different kind of worker, with not only different acquired skills but different inherent abilities. It has implications for the nature and utility of a college education, for the path of careers, for inequality and employability—even for the generational divide. And that’s to say nothing of its potential impact on product quality and worker safety, or on the nature of the satisfactions one might derive from work. Or, for that matter, on the relevance of the question What do you want to be when you grow up?“
Summing up the summer recap: ordinary people are capable of extraordinary things. You just need to find your unique scenic view of the world, an employer who values your contribution, and an ability to adapt.
Photo credits: Moon Landing – NASA, Notre Dame worker – Patrick Zachmann for Magnum Arts
For the first ‘Friday Poem’ of 2019, I’ve gone back into the Workthoughts archives to reprise Miller Williams‘ poem ‘Of History and Hope’ delivered at the Inauguration of William Jefferson Clinton in 1997.
The Washington Post obituary for professor Williams, who died on New Years Day in 2015, included an excerpt of an interview with the Oxford American magazine. In the interview the poet shared the intent behind the words.
“…he wanted the poem to be a “consideration of how a look at a nation’s past might help determine where it could be led in the future.
“I knew that the poem would be listened to by a great many people, reprinted around the country, and discussed in a lot of classrooms, so I wanted it to be true, understandable, and agreeable…”
The words of the poet, recited from the steps of the U.S. Capitol building, 22 years ago, speak to us in this current place that is American, 2019.
“We mean to be the people we meant to be, to keep on going where we meant to go.”
Of History and Hope
We have memorized America, how it was born and who we have been and where. In ceremonies and silence we say the words, telling the stories, singing the old songs. We like the places they take us. Mostly we do. The great and all the anonymous dead are there. We know the sound of all the sounds we brought. The rich taste of it is on our tongues. But where are we going to be, and why, and who? The disenfranchised dead want to know. We mean to be the people we meant to be, to keep on going where we meant to go.
But how do we fashion the future? Who can say how except in the minds of those who will call it Now? The children. The children. And how does our garden grow? With waving hands—oh, rarely in a row— and flowering faces. And brambles, that we can no longer allow.
Who were many people coming together cannot become one people falling apart. Who dreamed for every child an even chance cannot let luck alone turn doorknobs or not. Whose law was never so much of the hand as the head cannot let chaos make its way to the heart. Who have seen learning struggle from teacher to child cannot let ignorance spread itself like rot. We know what we have done and what we have said, and how we have grown, degree by slow degree, believing ourselves toward all we have tried to become— just and compassionate, equal, able, and free.
All this in the hands of children, eyes already set on a land we never can visit—it isn’t there yet— but looking through their eyes, we can see what our long gift to them may come to be. If we can truly remember, they will not forget.
It’s a popular talking point among pundits to observe we live in a ‘post-truth’ age: an era defined by the Oxford Dictionary as one “in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”
Pulitzer prize winning poet, Gwendolyn Brooks described this place we now find ourselves in her poem ‘truth’.
“And if the sun comes
How shall we greet him? Shall we not dread him, Shall we not fear him After so lengthy a
Session with shade?”
And if sun comes
How shall we greet him?
Shall we not dread him,
Shall we not fear him
After so lengthy a
Session with shade?
Though we have wept for him,
Though we have prayed
All through the night-years—
What if we wake one shimmering morning to
Hear the fierce hammering
Of his firm knuckles
Hard on the door?
Shall we not shudder?—
Shall we not flee
Into the shelter, the dear thick shelter
Of the familiar
Sweet is it, sweet is it
To sleep in the coolness
Of snug unawareness.
The dark hangs heavily
Over the eyes.
Gwendolyn Brooks, ‘Blacks’ Third World Press, 1987