To say that it is complicated to talk about work in America is an understatement. Work is an outsized religion, with equal numbers zealots and agnostics shouting about its ability to build character -or to ruin it.
That complication has been in my own life many times, when I took a particular (down?) turn in my work life so that I could honor a gig or a hustle that I had in mind, and watched employers, friends, and family furrow their brow when I told them what I had done. But because I live in New Orleans, announcements of giving up a full-time job to pursue something less defined are usually met with understanding and even admiration. In way of appreciation, I began this particular blog to pay respect to the New Orleans ease around different work types and the often-necessary hustle.
One such person who personifies the glorious tangle of it all, refusing to comb the strands out in order to make it easier for others is my pal Bill Lavender who is (from my view) the multiple choice of poet, publisher, explainer, musician, builder, tinkerer, fisher, mediator, backyard griller, agreeable drinking/dining companion, kitchen helper, father, cat-tender, back-up dog walker, interested grandfather, designer/part-owner of my favorite backyard pool and screened porch, full-time partner to writer/professor Nancy Dixon. Nancy is, by the way, another who fully understands and has lived the job, gig, and hustle life. I’d even say that because she lived it for so long, with such honesty, she interprets life with far more intuition than either Bill or I or most people can. I know without a doubt that most of her circle deeply respect her ability to suss out any situation and that skill is clearly derived from a life lived rather than a workplace taught. I’d like to write more about her some day but she is a much bigger presence in my life and harder for me to observe without a little awe and a great deal of gratitude.
I write about Bill here because I returned today to a piece about his life as a poet that he had written a few years back. I have read this piece maybe a dozen times already, often finding one or two paragraphs that I wanted to reread, or longer passages so I could accurately quote them to friends. This is one such passage that charmed me:
For me, poetry (as a vocation, an identity, a life’s work, an obsession) did not grow out of English class, but out of passing notes at the back of it, handing around scraps of paper that one would get one in trouble if the teacher saw.
Throughout the piece, he puzzles over the role of language, truth, other people, emotion, and the world to his poetry. He shares the struggle in keeping poetry in his life, which took him into prominence in academia, but where his success or his person or his politics or his diffidence or none of those at all but just general university stupidity (we all have our theories), resulted in a well-publicized firing, shocking many. I remember having dinner with he and Nancy in the days directly after, and how flummoxed he was by it and what it meant and what he should do as protest.
In the end as he says,
“Then they fired me and I was, after a brief flurry of petitions and irate letter-writing, relieved.
Now I’m back in construction, this time as an employee, though a well-paid one. I run my little press from my house, with help from my wife, New Orleans scholar and writer Nancy Dixon…and/or an occasional volunteer or intern. And though there is always this problem or that, and though I work too hard and there is never enough time for this thing or that (including writing), it’s pretty ok.
There is much more to find in this piece than how his vocation fits into his definition as a worker. The passage with granddaughter Roxy and the cracker is so beautifully illuminating about the poet’s mind that I am humbled by it. Additionally, the clarity he sees around the role of Occupy is one that I share and yet had not been able to explain to others before reading this and so it remains the anchor for me in this piece. I know I will use those few words of analysis for a long time.
But in terms of what AJG&H (this blog) is meant to do, I think Bill offers one fine idea in it:
When you say I am_____, the number of words that you can use to fill in that blank , either adjectives or nouns, is not infinite. You select from a multiple choice list given to you by the culture, by the long bloody, political history of the world.
That is the truth. We are defined by the list of words that we are labeled with, some we gladly choose to be known for, others that are forced on us. Infinite it is not. The list I gave you about Bill at the beginning of this piece are how I know him: through his poetry, by what he has built around town, and through social time with he and Nancy, sometimes in the company of their family. If he saw my list, I am sure he would be surprised or bemused by some. Or maybe not.
“In the Thick(et) of Poetry: Meditations on 50 Years in the Language Game,” Xavier Review 37-1