Poetry and Work


I recently took out a book via Interlibrary loan called, The Mind at Work: Valuing the Intelligence of the American Worker by Mike Rose. I was drawn to it because of the first chapter where he talks about his mother in “The Working Life of a Waitress.” The chapter opens with the author telling us he sat down at the kitchen table with his mother and a tape recorder and asks her about her work. Reading, I was sent back to my own days of waiting on tables. Though I wasn’t the best waiter in the world (too prone to daydreaming for that), I do remember occasionally being in that zone that the author’s mother recounts when you feel in complete control of all the many elements. A bit like you do every now and then when you write a poem.

Because I have always wanted to be a writer, there have always been part-time jobs. And these have ranged from working in a book store, a stationery store, various libraries, and early on, waiting on tables. Because I never had the nerve for academia, or for teaching (though I have taught creative writing on a few different occasions), I’ve tried to find poetry in the work I’ve done or am doing.

I often come back to the line by Hélène Cixous in her book Coming to Writing: ‘I call “poet” any writer, philosopher, author of plays, dreamer, producer of dreams, who uses life as a time of “approaching”’. I spend a lot of time asking myself questions I never fully answer. What is a poet? What can a poem be? How to live poetically? And maybe these questions are what first led me away from poetry, to writing poetic essays, and then to my latest book, a novel, Rumi and the Red Handbag.

The novel (one hopes) is about more than just work, but it centers around two young women who work in a second-hand store. Another line from the Cixous book, which hovered around me while I wrote:

‘We who are bits of sun, drops of ocean, atoms of the god, and who so often forget this, or are unaware of it, and so we take ourselves for employees. We who forget we could also be as luminous, as light, as the swallow…’

A couple of years ago, I was asked to read one of my own poems at our monthly staff meetings at the library. Of course people who work in libraries are naturally bookish people, poetic souls, so this was a good fit. Since, this way of beginning the meetings has pretty much stuck, though after the first time, I’ve read poems by others that I felt/hope would speak to the group. I keep waiting for everyone to get sick of it, but so far so good. Because I never really expected the reading out of a poem at a staff meeting to go on for years, I have never kept a record of poems read. But there have been poems by Naomi Shihab-Nye, Ellen Bass, William Stafford, Iman Mersal, Alice Major, Gwendolyn MacEwen, Margaret Atwood, and Jane Kenyon. I’ve plucked a few from the anthology Soul Food (Bloodaxe). And most recently, I began inviting co-workers who spoke another language to read the original while I read the translation. We’ve read poems in Hebrew, Spanish, Slovakian and Dutch and have several more languages to work through.

Listening to a poem focuses one’s attention, is centering, enlivening. It gets the brain firing, connecting disparate thoughts, becoming attentive to language, sound, meaning. A poem might calm, provoke, amuse. A poem might have the effect of raising us up. Lifting us, our thoughts. A poem might remind us that we are bits of sun. What better place to begin a meeting from?

I have a dream one day to put together an anthology titled, “Staff Meeting Poems.” Maybe it will happen. But I’m more and more convinced that there is poetry in work, and the poetry enhances work.

Shawna Lemay


Shawna Lemay blogs at Calm Things. Her novel Rumi and the Red Handbag recently landed on Harper’s Bazaar’s #TheList 15 Books for Fall.