Back when I lived in New York and worked at a job I didn’t love I’d get off the train at Bergen and walk home and think about all the things I’d do once I didn’t have to work that stupid job anymore. Usually by the time I got to Berkeley Place I’d have crafted a narrative that included a lovely house, a dog, another lovely house and shelf of books with my name on the spine. I’d turn the corner and look at the red lights on top of the Twin Towers and marvel that I lived in New York. Then I’d make my way to our brownstone apartment and the beginnings of my marriage and sometimes I’d even be grateful for everything I had right at that moment in my life.
This past week I went back to New York. I go back a lot but this time it felt different because I seemed to be bringing all the ghosts out as I walked down the street. I’d come to read at KGB bar with Timothy Donnelly
and then I headed to Albany and then back to New York where I taught a class about haunting and was interviewed about faith. On my last day in New York I sat next to Matthew Dickman
and Cate Marvin
and we talked about regionalism in poetry at this year’s Poets Forum
hosted by the Academy of American Poets
. Then I headed to Hudson to tell ghost stories at a friend’s artist’s salon. All week long I seemed to turn around and see the part of myself that worked that lousy job and would walk to the train in the morning weeping with frustration about having to spend my whole day doing something I didn’t love that made me feel so bad about myself. It wasn’t even a terrible job. I was a secretary at a private school. But it wasn’t me. I wasn’t particularly good at the job and I didn’t look the part. I remember being pulled into my six month evaluation and asked why I wouldn’t wear a skirt and trying to explain that I wasn’t the kind of girl who wore a skirt and weren’t my suits perfectly fine? “No.” No they were not.
I saw the ghost of that young girl on the subway and in the line at Whole Foods, barely looking up at me from the cash register. I saw that girl in the body of a man yelling at a couple of young people at Occupy Wall Street
, telling them he paid his taxes and why didn’t they just shut up and hook him up with some weed. It’s amazing the things we do to each other when we can’t find the right form for ourselves. It eats us alive. I got saved. I saved up my money and during the first summer of my lousy job I went to Provincetown and studied with Marie Howe and then I got the courage to apply to the MFA program at Columbia University
and by some miracle I got in. I worked really hard and for awhile I worked at the private school and went to Columbia at the same time. And then I left the private school and decided working three jobs was better if they related to poems.
And so I ended up at the Academy of American Poets. I was possibly the most enthusiastic and worst qualified intern in the world. Phone calls got misdirected, letters got returned, one time John Ashbery
asked for the restroom and I led him directly to the coat closet. I gave Adrienne Rich
and Lucille Clifton
the wrong directions during a fire drill. And yet. I worked really hard. I spent my afternoons around people who loved poetry and worked for its health. I learned how hard arts administration is and what a wonder the people who work in that world are. Once an older poet got sick and the day was spent figuring out how to help. More times than I can count poets had their lives changed by prizes that the average investment banker wouldn’t consider worthy of a day’s pay. I learned about gratitude and proportion and kindness. I learned that there are investment bankers who love poetry and will also fight to protect it. I learned that I am the one poet who cannot have more than one cocktail and that The Academy of American Poets was there to walk me home.
Which is where I found myself this past week: home in New York. I wasn’t back in Brooklyn, though I spent practically every day with my dear friend who lived round the corner from me before we knew each other. I was in the beautiful apartment of a friend from Columbia who has given me the gift of peace and silence in the midst of a great city. I’m not rich but the gifts I’ve gotten since I made the decision to leave the job that was killing me have afforded me a life of such wealth. I thought about it as I walked to the Poets Forum with Matthew and as I sat on the stage. How do you explain that to a student? That it all comes out okay in the end but not in a way you might ever expect. And that it has to do with talent and writing well but it’s also about enthusiasm and kindness and being a good citizen. I’m really glad I had that lousy job because I know what it is to make someone copies at the last minute and to be told the coffee is too cold. I know what it’s like to be so proud of the suit you bought at J. Crew and then hate it after you’re told you don’t look the part. I know why those folks are occupying Wall Street and streets all over the world. Lewis says, “Yet why not risk joy?” It’s true and it’s such a hard thing to do. How do you tell a student like Mehnaz Turner, who I am advising for PEN, that risking joy is as hard and essential as any linebreak one can wrestle with? That maybe it comes from the same place.
I stood at the train station in Hudson and watched my friend
head back to the city. I felt so sad and empty for a moment, my week’s companion heading back home to hometown that wasn’t really mine anymore. Then my other friend and I walked up the hill. We passed empty shops and we looked in the windows of an office that was for rent. “What could you do here?” one of us asked the other. Finally we made it to a gallery that was showing her work. Like O’Hara my friend
is a painter and I am not. We walked through the rooms and I stared and marveled at all the things I still don’t know. “Are we late? I asked her and she said, “Not yet” but we better get going and head to the plane.