Often at parties as I simultaneously try to balance a plate of food, a drink, and hold a conversation with a stranger, the conversation turns from weather and news items to the dreaded phrase, “So, what do you do?” I hesitate, do I name my day job or do I tell them that I am a poet. After all this stranger is trying to judge what type of person I am, what we may or may not have in common, and whether he or she could get away with telling me that dead baby joke.
I know that I’m not alone in this hesitation, we are defined by how our jobs are grossly miss-portrayed in the media. If you are lawyer people will suspect that you have no soul and are just out to make a buck, or if you are a security guard people will imagine you falling asleep in front of camera monitors. We all want this stranger to respect us, even if we never meet him or her again.
So I could say that I’m a poet, but doesn’t that sound pretentious? When people learn that I seriously, not just as hobby, write poetry they say something along the lines of “Wow. I don’t really know anything about poetry” or “I never really understood it.” All of which means “I really hated that part of English class.” I usually respond with some clever remark about how no one likes the poetry taught in high school English, even poets, and suddenly we are on common ground—high school sucks.
But it is the pretension that causes me to hesitate. I’ve seen others demur when they are called poets. After all Homer and Shakespeare are Poets, so only a complete narcissus would compare him or herself to them. The problem is when someone thinks of Poetry they think of writing that is lofty, that transcends our mundane world, that tell Truths, that is pure emotion, or that is a bunch of other vague abstractions no one can agree on. To say that one is a Poet is on par with saying one is a genius. Of course that is Poetry with a capital “P”. No one can say they are a Poet, while they are alive.
If you were presenting yourself in writing—as I am doing here—you would call yourself poet with lower case “p”, but unfortunately the difference between lowercase and uppercase is not apparent in speech. So how do I tell this stranger, who I’m sure is judging me for the cheese on my plate, that I spend hours with words. That when I get home from my day job I ignore my husband, because the line-breaks sound off in a page-long poem.
Of course after the too long pause where I try to figure out how to convey this information—I realize that they will see my vocation as silly, if not downright crazy. So I smile and tell them “I’m currently working as a temp.”