[If you are a poet and would like to participate in this "Poetry and Money" Series, go HERE for information. Previous Respondents: John Bloomberg-Rissman and Erin Virgil.]
A 3-Question Interview, A Sample Poem, and Book List Featuring
1) You are a poet. How do you make money to survive?
I've been writing poetry since the early 1980s. At the time, I was working as a secretary in a college. I worked lots of clerical jobs all through the 70s and 80s, mostly for educational or government institutions, and some corporate7. One job, working for City Parks & Rec, gave me the chance to curate a poetry reading series, as part of my administrative assistant duties. That really opened my eyes and ears, and I was able to meet and talk to some wonderful poets in the process, who I otherwise would never have met.
For the last decade I have worked as either a university or college instructor (adjunct lecturer, mostly -- teaching writing and comp. or Asian American studies), or as a freelance or contract writer and editor. I've lived off my savings, too. And for the first time in my life, last year, I applied for unemployment benefits. But shortly after, I got a job. Right now I'm working nearly full-time as a contract editor for an educational publisher. "Contract" means, of course, that I don't have job security.
2) How does your choice affect your process of making your poems?
Teaching in academia has been bad for my poem writing process on a lot of levels. Teaching duties and concerns seep into your personal life and tend to dominate everything. You end up working into the wee hours, and on weekends, when you know damn well you're not getting paid for it. Also, academic discourse filters into your vocabulary; your language for poetry, and writing in general, gets colonized. I know that some of my academic friends can be very productive and churn out great poems and manuscripts even while teaching multiple courses each semester. I'm not one of those people. Nevertheless, I have to thank my college education at UC Santa Cruz and UC Berkeley for both widening and deepening my knowledge of literature and history, and turning me into a research geek.
I also have myself to thank for being curious enough to peruse the poetry stacks in the Santa Cruz public library in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and the librarians to thank for placing the poems of Federico Garcia Lorca in those stacks, along with Keats, Wordsworth, Adrienne Rich, Sylvia Plath, Langston Hughes, Robert Creeley, Charles Olsen, Jose Garcia Villa, and other fantastic writers. I have my college poetry teacher, Joseph Stroud, to thank for showing me that writing poems can be a lifelong vocation.
Working a day job as an editor seems to be, strangely, better for my writing process than NOT working, with all the "time to write" that not working seems to imply. I need the structure. I need the paycheck. I get home, and realize I have exactly this amount of time in which to write, and I know I'd better do it. I'm forced to parse out my time. Whereas, when I'm not working, I spend my time eating, sleeping, socializing, volunteering, hanging out with friends and loved ones, generally enjoying life---although when one is jobless, or even when freelancing, there's always that nagging anxiety about money and survival. Maybe this contributes to the malaise that can keep me from finishing writing projects that I start. Since being employed for the last 4 months, I've already finished one book-length manuscript that I've been working on for years, and just finishing a second. So perhaps knowing that a paycheck is coming in frees me up (frees me from anxiety), allowing me to finish projects.
3) What would you consider to be the pros and cons of how you have earned your income?
It's no secret that academia is in trouble, that adjunct instructors are shamelessly exploited, that there are not enough teaching jobs to go around, etc., etc. I won't go on about it, except to say that that was the college lesson that was hardest for me to learn, because like so many grad students, I had been brainwashed by the culture, and had to do some deprogramming after I got my Ph.D. But also, I have realized that, at my age, and in this economy, trying get on the tenure track treadmill would be insane. And I do think that there are corporate jobs, jobs in the government, and in non-profits, that can be challenging and interesting; of course, they can also be hellishly boring and uninspiring, or worse---detrimental to the public good. Editing jobs are not known for being fun and exciting, although they can be pretty fast-paced and stressful. So it depends on who you work for, and it depends on whether or not you have a choice. Many people nowadays have to accept jobs that they are not necessarily in alignment with, philosophically or ethically. There's a lot of desperation out there...
I've been giving some of my off-work time to volunteering for a challenging community project in Salinas, and it's given me a lot of satisfaction and enjoyment---in a way that academic work just can't touch. Doing public history and community work does it for me. Give me a day job where I can feel like I'm doing something that can have a positive impact for the community, where I can feel challenged, and I don't have to sit on my ass all day, AND I can come home and write poems and make art (rather than, say, grade papers until 3 a.m.), and I'll be pretty happy.
A SAMPLE POEM:
Thursday 1/24/2013a dream about choice when there is no choiceor either choicegets you troublelike opening the car dooras you sink into a lakeyet there are consolationsin the waking worldadobo, crispy tofua loved one, a poem's linein mid winterand all that impliesi pretend it's spring cleaningrid myself of posts/pastskeep what i wantlisten to susie ibarra's "Dialects"edit the theme fora journal (end of empire?how does that sound;repetition, variation)why tryto get the verb tense rightcorrect correct correctThe shape is not unlikea long "kunnngg" of the kulintangfollowed by a short kungrepeated two, three timesin a line...kunnnngggkung kun kungkung kun kungkung kun kungelaboration, talk-talking, think-thinking, wandering woodmallet-muted, thokk and kungTHOK and kung
SOME BOOKS BY JEAN VENGUA:
Prau (Meritage Press, 2007)
The Aching Vicinities (A mini-chapbook. Otoliths Press, 2006)
As co-editor (with Mark Young), The First Hay(na)ku Anthology (Meritage Press and xPressed, 2005)
As co-editor (with Mark Young), The Hay(na)ku Anthology, Vol. II (Meritage Press and xPressed, 2008)