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Why I Chose a Poetry Career Over Death


Americans have a funny relationship to money. We think that money will buy happiness, and unhappiness will bring us money.

From a young age, I knew I wanted to spend my life making art (poetry hadn’t yet entered my existence), but I also really, really wanted to have money. I worried that if I did something that made me happy, like futzing with poetry and making a mess with finger paints, I would have no cash. So, I compromised and became an English teacher, which sometimes made me happy, sometimes made me very depressed, often made me tired, and absolutely did not make me rich.

Then, one fine spring morning when I was moving from one shitty, non-rich person studio apartment into a slightly larger studio apartment, my best friend called to tell me her other best friend’s mom had died.

I was not there. I didn’t know her that well, but it haunted me still. Death was no longer an abstract concept, but now had an actual due date like a slip from the meter maid. I could feel death’s ticket in my pocket, whispering to me, and with it the voice of my own neglected talent. I felt the need to take sudden, rash, unreasonable action, and rid myself of that annoying paycheck in favor of a more glamorous career following my bliss.

Taking the Leap

I didn’t quit my job right away of course. I had just moved to a larger studio apartment after all, and teaching was still fun in those days. Occasionally I would make a kid laugh or someone would draw a three-dimensional picture of a squid eating all the vocabulary words I had written on the board. Once, two middle school students made me an entire book of new and naughty terms, entirely misspelled, with the wrong definitions, and inappropriate drawings underneath. The book was dedicated to me because I was their “bestest” teacher and taught them such “good speaking English.”

I knew at once this was blackmail to bump them up a letter grade, so I promptly hid the book in my bottom desk drawer so the administration wouldn’t have those grounds for dismissal they constantly dropped into casual conversation every Thursday staff meeting.

No. I wanted to go on teaching for a while, and I wanted to go on writing on my own, with my own time frame and my own agenda. I wanted my coffee shop mornings and I wanted my afternoon lunches with the kids, and mostly, I wanted my bi-weekly checks, with their adorable little FICA deductions stamped predictably at the bottom.

That Miserable Bastard Time

But the specter of death did start to creep into my imagination. Each day the clock ticking down. My youth fading. Like millions of poets before me, I imagined myself on my death bed, My limbs snugly bundled under the weight of a hospital sheet, my head too feeble to lift off the pillow, my friends and several good-speaking students huddled around my decomposing frame. My morbidity finally pushed me past the point of reason and into a writing career.

I gave notice at my job. I packed up my red Hyundai Elantra, and drove to Los Angeles where my grandmother had a condo with a spare bedroom. I had a handful of friends and cousins in the fair city who would invite me to lunch, and tell me where the hot open mics were happening.

I risked pretty much everything I had, which, as a private school teacher, wasn’t much. I’ve gotten into debt and out of it again. I sold the Elantra and bought a used Prius (It’s a city ordinance in LA). I’ve had a string of part-time jobs and one full-time job that drove me to the brink of distraction. I’ve drunk a lot of expensive coffee and even more cheap wine. There are days when I am still not happy. There are days when the clock propels me forward, and days when it holds me back.

Sometimes I miss those miscreants who used to draw me with the head of a giant squid, swallowing vocabulary words (did I leave out the part about how the squid always looked like me?). Sometimes I miss the security. The most important thing that has changed is this: I don’t wake up in the middle of the night with death sitting on my chest like a black-winged gargoyle. I don’t hear that little voice telling me time is running out. Even on my worst days when the money is scarce and the day is long as a hot blade moving over the long stretch of sand, diminishing eastward toward the horizon like a sad angel from a new wave German cinema, I walk with the certainty of someone who has taken the right path.

From my experience, I say take the leap. I wouldn’t change what I did if my life depended on it.

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Comments (1)

That leap, that decision to go for it, is something a lot of people need to

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