Recently, I met a man at a bar who asked me what I did. Not in the mood to split hairs over whether he meant “money” work or inner calling, I answered, apparently slurring heavily: “I work at a hedge fund.
“Really? Wow, that sounds so interesting!” he said, and winked. “I mean, that sounds so cool!”
What the heck, I wondered? Don’t lots of people in New York work for financial institutions? “Well, you know, it’s a job,” I said. “It’s O.K. …. I guess.”
“I’ll bet!” the man hooted, sort of shaking his head. I looked down at my drink for a moment and furrowed my brow, confused and slightly saddened. After a minute I had to ask: “Sorry, why exactly does my job seem so interesting to you?”
He did a kind of Groucho Marx thing with his eyebrows.
“Well, I’ve never met anyone before who works in a head shop.”
I definitely felt I was letting him down when I explained that no, in fact, I am not a head-shop shopgirl dusting off glass bongs and restocking the Bamboo rolling papers. Rather, I am an employee at a midtown hedge fund, working in the back office. I suppose I could have then divulged that I am also a poet, but I felt this second job description was too much to explain. Why would a poet work at a hedge fund? I don’t quite understand how it had happened myself.
The exchange depressed me. Too demoralized to continue, I slipped off my stool and made my way home, wondering who was I anyway—and where did I work?
Another hedge-fund poet, Katy Lederer, and I had argued back and forth for years over how best to protect the poetic soul while simultaneously sustaining house and home. For months we sparred, each offering up our own predictable arguments.
“You must be free!” I said, in my terrifying, exhausting poverty. “Poets are meant to be afraid in body and spirit! How else are we to access elemental states of being?”
Katy said: “You are so wrong. Get a steady job and you’ll be freer to write more.”
I hissed back: “Don’t you know that the bourgeois life makes one selfish and weak? You want to be a cappuccino-guzzling, complacent scribbler beholden to society’s most punishing and artificial scale: the accruement of legal tender?”
“You’ll see,” she said.
Katy was right: Turns out one can’t make edible pies from the fruits of one’s imagination. Real life eventually crowded in, and even my best attempts at denial began to fail: how to keep up with that pesky mosquito cloud of monthly bills, for example? Who was going to wave away credit-card debt so old it had turned to hard fat? How was a body to get her hands on one of those gorgeous three-inch-thick Ralph Lauren Italian harness leather belts?
As I contemplated actually living the dream of solvency, I wondered if it might not be an interesting state to investigate poetically. So I signed on and waited for something to happen. As the steady income began to blunt some of my metaphysical terrors, I realized that, in fact, interesting corporate, technical and financial terminology had begun to creep into my poems: terms like arbitrage, efficient frontier, extreme value and standard deviation. These terms sounded so “human condition.” But how far had I now “deviated” from an understanding of my own “extreme value?” Was “solvency” a more “efficient frontier” than the backwaters of my creative class’ terminal case of “distressed debt?”
The other day I met another poet friend, Geoffrey Nutter (or “My Cat Geoffrey,” as I always think of him, this term of affection coming from the title of a poem called “For I Will Consider My Cat Jeoffrey,” written by the quite insane but delightful 18th-century poet Christopher Smart), at the Edison lunchroom on 47th Street. We convene once a month in this time capsule of a luncheonette to talk about beauty, suffering and poetry-world gossip, never in that order. This man is, without a doubt, one of the finest young poets writing in America. He works 9 to 5 in the heart of Times Square at a media company that once trafficked in rock ’n’ roll videos.
After our matzo-ball soup, we walked out onto 42nd Street; I was holding his newest book and Geoffrey was clutching my chapbook, each artifact the result of years of work, loving attention to each syllable. We were dwarfed by the towering screens and billboards and the giant tap-dancing Mr. Peanut with his monocle and top hat—all evidence of the “real” world for which we labor, yet about which we feel so ambivalent. What does any of this have to do with us, we wondered?
We parted under the giant Toys “R” Us big-eyed, blinking, celluloid baby giraffe, promising to meet again the following week. In our good-bye send-off, I said: “Ah, Geoffrey! Some page of figures to be filed away; / —Till elevators drop us from our day!” (Hart Crane.) My Cat Geoffrey countered: “ The world is too much with us!” (Wordsworth.) Then we both wove our way through the midtown crowds, back to our office buildings to take the elevators up, up, up. We both returned to our jobs, but not to our work.
The other day, a woman I had just met asked that question I find so hard to answer, at least clearly: What kind of work do I do?
Again with many marbles in my mouth, I answered: “Hedge fund.”
“Lucky you,” she said with a smirk. “That must be nice.”
“Nice? “ I asked, sensing something coming.
“Well, maybe having a trust fund comes with its disadvantages, but I’ve always been jealous of people who don’t have to work.”
Next time I’m going to just tell an inquisitor that I’m a poet and see what kind of reaction that elicits. Something tells me it won’t be jealousy—or unbridled enthusiasm. But despite the negligible compensation, I truly believe that poets have the best job, better than any Trump apprentice or Goldman Sachs V.P. could ever dream of. I refer to William Butler Yeats and his great poem “Adam’s Curse,” which was framed and hung in my family’s kitchen: “ … to articulate sweet sounds together / Is to work harder than all these, and yet / Be thought an idler by the noisy set / Of bankers, schoolmasters and clergymen / The martyrs call the world.”