Neon red lettering reflects hard against my face, spelling out “LIQUOR” on the walls. My boyfriend, a computer scientist, is in the bathroom. His co-worker, John, who I’ve just met, sits next to me at the bar, nursing his third beer.
“Do I intimidate you?” John asks.
“No,” I answer.
He tells me I give off “defensive vibes,” and I think about all of the other instances that someone has told me I was being defensive, as if my life choices have ever been conducive to being otherwise. As a full-time poet, part-time social media manager at a local nonprofit, most jobs are first asked of me to do for free—in which, I must defend my worth in order to get paid. I have yet to be paid for anything poetry related, but my work with social media puts gas in my car and buys the groceries once a month.
“Defense,” at its most basic level, seems like a privilege. I feel privileged to have something about myself worth defending, though “defending,” at its most basic level, gets exhausting after a while.
When my boyfriend returns, John is beginning to try to guess what I do for a living. Definitely some kind of an artist, he guesses. My boyfriend affirms this guess.
“I get it. I used to paint,” John says.
I tell him I’m not a visual artist.
My boyfriend sees I am growing impatient. He clarifies that I’m a poet. I brace myself.
John studies the word “poet” hard. I see him rolling the idea around in his head. There are people who still consider themselves poets? What could a poet and a computer scientist possibly have in common? It is written all over his face—these questions, the bewilderment. He gets it together as my boyfriend and I both wait for his response.
“So, you two are like the Marxist and the working man.”
I tense at the term, “the working man,” whose opposite is, what? The idle woman?
It reminds me of another time a friend from out of town met me for dinner and asked what I’m actually doing when I’m “working.” He put air quotes around the term “working,” caught himself, and apologized.
The bartender overhears that I’m a poet and asks me if I’ve published anything yet. I tell her yes, but I don’t want her to think that means I’m actually succeeding. “Success” implies accomplishment, and my inbox is filled to the brim with rejections. Not to say that the occasional online lit mag that picks up my work isn’t immensely appreciated. I have not gotten to the point yet where I don’t celebrate even the mildest of validations. Still, my poems exist in this world only to the extent that this world will have them—in small, discrete doses.
I tell her it’s not as cool as it sounds. I mention my nonprofit job, and she laughs.
“Well, I’m a bartender. You’ve got me beat.”
I don’t, though. At my nonprofit job, I get paid based off a stipend—like a Teaching Assistant but without the free education. My yearly income will be significantly below what the average low-income student makes, and I’m not even a student. I’m a Creative Writing graduate, and completely useless to this capitalist society. Even my boyfriend, the most supportive person I have in pursuing this poetry “career,” is impatient with my earnings as he takes the entire brunt of rent on his own. I couldn’t do it without him, and that terrifies me.
Speaking of my boyfriend, he insists that computer scientists have it hard too—John, of course, agrees. They both discuss how often they’re asked by their grandparents, great aunts and uncles, if they just sit at a computer all day. I guess I can see how that’s annoying, but they each have a near six figure salary to come home to at the end of each day to validate their labor.
“Labor”—so many people from older generations think that this word requires sweat and callouses. They value the work so long as the work takes a bodily toll on its workers, something they can see and label “hard.” In some cases, yes. I can see why coal miners and construction workers would want a word to call their own. Their labor, on the surface level, does look more intense than an office job, though I guess the argument there is that a body can do almost anything you ask of it—and we all, unfortunately, are plagued with bodies. Regardless, I don’t think these older generations consider the problem-solving skills that are required from people like my boyfriend and John, who often leave their jobs both physically and mentally stiffened.
The diminishment of worth goes both ways, though. People like my boyfriend and John value the thought that instructs the action over the muscle required to get the action done in the first place. The profitability of their labor is based on the ability of their minds. This is often the secret edge that they hold over everyone else, though the mind, too, can do almost anything you ask of it if given the resources it needs to learn from. With the Internet, anyone can learn how to do almost anything—hack a computer, etc.—it’s the “wanting to” part that gets us others in trouble.
Physical labor, intellectual labor, emotional labor–people who are not actively called to it forget about that last one, but that’s where I reside. I believe any form of labor, as long as an effort is being made to get something done, should hold the same value as the others, though that doesn’t always happen. After spending a great deal of my time reading other people’s traumas and translating my own into palpable content, I believe I have mental callouses. I write a lot about generational trauma, so most of my thinking space is occupied by how the abuse that my grandmother withstood trickled down and manifested into my mother’s mental illnesses, and then became my own. I feel that my withstanding for emotional hardship is above average. But I cannot lift most heavy things, and I don’t know how to hack into computers.
“I almost dropped out of college to join a band,” John says, trying to pull me back into the conversation.
I pretend to be surprised, interested.
Just as we all have bodies and minds, we also all have traumas and feelings. It is us artists who are charged with translating these traumas and feelings into lasting, impactful, or universal ideas that are so often looked over, lumped in with those who “almost” do the same. The goal is to help others who have had similar traumatic experiences get through them, label them, and file them away with more ease by creating art that shows them they are not alone—though the cost is that I myself have to constantly live in reflection of what has torn me down and why. It’s worth it, but it’s hard.
I don’t consider poetry to be my hobby—it is not something I do for fun. In fact, writing poems taxes me in so many ways, I am often left feeling very empty from all that I must pull out of myself to produce a poem.
Not to say that those of us who enjoy what we do are doing any less labor—we should be allowed to enjoy what we do without that being a reduction of what is required of us to create. However, even if my art was fun for me, any joy is ripped away by crippling self-doubt that what I have stolen out of me and plastered on the page is not “enough” and by “enough”—I’m not sure what that means.
“Enough” seems like a feeling, like completeness. Self-satisfaction. I have never met a self-satisfied artist, but I have met several self-satisfied computer scientists. I guess you have to like your work enough to send it out, show it to others—but I feel that artists, over mostly anyone else, are constantly reminded of how much space they’re demanding when doing so, how much further they have to go.
When we get home, I tell my boyfriend I wrote a poem that day. I ask him if I can read it to him before we go to bed—it’s funny! I promise! I try to sell it to him. He tells me that I can read it aloud if I want to as he continues to get ready for bed.
I read the poem—it is littered with explanation points and obsession. I wrote it from the perspective of someone who is madly in love, literally mad. They are so obsessed with the other person that sense goes out the window. I compare the lover to a grocery store full of tastykakes. It is the first happy poem I’ve written in months, and I only wrote it because my mother accused me of only writing sad poems. A lot of my poems have similar motivations, to prove someone else wrong.
I finish, and look at him, shamefully expectant. He is quiet until he is not.
“What about that was supposed to be funny?” he asks.
The question stings but is immediately forgiven. I recognize “forgiveness” is necessary to be an artist. To survive, we must constantly forgive everyone for not understanding us in the ways that we understand them. Even those that we love will never quite get it. I think about his question, let it roll around in the inside of my head, before apologizing for wasting his time and not my own.
Micaela Walley is a recent graduate from the University of South Alabama where she majored in Creative Writing. Her work can be found in Oracle Fine Arts Review, Occulum, and Straight Forward Poetry. She currently lives in Hanover, Maryland. You can follow her on Twitter @micaela_poetry.
If writing defies “common sense,” if it seems to go against traditional modes of thought, norms, and histories, the idea of that common sense no longer makes sense, or might make sense if we’re allowed to reinvent ourselves. That’s what I’m looking at with the literacy narrative. I want to hear yours: when you first “clicked” with a language, whatever it is; why you questioned the modes of your Englishes; how you wrote “poetry,” but looked at it again and called it “lyric essay.” I want to see your literacy narrative in its scholarly, creative, and hybrid forms. Send your literacy narratives to Sylvia Chan at firstname.lastname@example.org. Stay tuned for more literacy narratives from yours truly and others.