What’s a writer to do when writing doesn’t pay the bills? A default option seems to be teaching, but as Jamaal May said in a recent interview, “Being a teacher is not for everyone, and if we had less writers out there doing it because it seems to be the correct path, there would be more jobs for the people who live for being in front of a class.”
Poet Amy Woolard, who I interviewed last fall, is one example of a writer who has forgone the academy, spending most of her days advocating as a child-welfare attorney and lobbyist. Recently, I emailed with emerging poet TJ Jarrett to learn about the working life of another acclaimed part-time writer.
In June, Jarrett had poems published in Poetry Magazine and The Virginia Quarterly Review. At the end of this month, she’ll attend the Sewanee Writer’s Conference on one of its coveted fellowships. In approximately three months, her second poetry collection, Zion (winner of the Crab Orchard Open Competition in 2013), will be published by Southern Illinois University Press. She’s managed to accomplish all of this while also serving as a senior poetry editor of Tupelo Quarterly—and while working as a Senior Integration Engineer at HealthTrust in Nashville.
A condensed, edited version of my conversation with Jarrett conversation follows.
You were born in Nashville, did some “wandering,” and came back. Tell me about your wanderings.
I went to school in Boston and then worked for Greenpeace in Nashville for a summer and then in Boulder, Colorado. Then, I moved to Denver for a while and did a lot of odd jobs. I came back to Nashville after being busted broke and worked at Vanderbilt’s orthopedic department filling out purchase orders. Then, I moved back to Boston. I worked in logistics and operations for a medical transportation company for four years and then worked in IT in earnest ever since. It’s secure, and it keeps my mind occupied. I describe it as solving puzzles every day.
My 20s were a little crazy (like everyone’s), and I dated a guy who said that I should probably work with data because I’m good at it, and because the way we deal with data moves a little slower than more operational programming languages like C or Java. He was right about that and wrong for me. Everything happens for a reason.
What does a “Senior Integration Engineer” do?
I move data from one place to another. The specific toolset involves doing ETL (extract, transform, and load) for data in source systems to various data warehouses. The point is to move data in such a way that end users can discover correlations between systems. For example, let’s say that you sell widgets. You have an ordering system and a delivery system, but they’re not housed in the same application. Maybe you want to see how soon you ship an item after you book a PO (purchase order), or how your inventory supply and demand affect how people purchase items or which items they purchase. I specifically work on a pharmaceutical and a medical/surgical equipment decision system that analyzes how facilities purchase these items to determine how they can best save money.
Which came first: poems or software code?
Poems. I wrote them almost every day when I was 12 until my early 20s. My mom worked at Hampton University with Paula Rankin, who was an awesome poet. After seeing me writing every day after school, she asked to look at it. She read a few, declared them awful, and gave me a reading list and some assignments. If she had to read them, she said, they should at least be good. I was young enough to not know how good she was or how generous she was. When I was 16, she talked my mother into letting me attend her seminar. She really nurtured and loved me into being a poet.
She did all of this even though I told her that I was going to be a lawyer. She shook her head and told me, “No, that’s not going to happen at all.” I ran off to college in a fit of rebellion and then realized that I couldn’t be a lawyer if I tried. It’s not in my nature.
What is your nature, and how does it correspond to that of a developer and poet?
In regards to being a lawyer, I’m not terribly combative. Or to be clearer, I don’t have the patience to argue. I don’t know how people live like that. I know that it would exhaust me. I am forever questioning, and I do more than enough arguing with myself. And I have an artist’s temperament: I’m so sensitive sometimes that I astonish myself.
I call it a crisis of empathy. All poems have an element of rhetoric, but I find it best to approach this humbly so that your reader doesn’t feel bludgeoned. I’m always putting myself in someone else’s shoes and trying to see the world as they see it. I see the world as a system, many parts coming together to make the whole work. To troubleshoot code or to ask the question of “how did we live under Jim Crow?” means that you have to watch the parts coming together like gears and ask good questions. How did it come to be like this? How can we make this better without dismantling the whole? If we are going to replace it all, how does this one part function within the whole? What were our fundamental requirements?
How does writing lines of computer code relate to your writing lines of verse?
I tend to break things up into functions. If I were building a cash register, I’d build the “add” and “subtract” and “running total” functions. If I were building a book about lynching, I build “how the crowd gathers” function; “how fear works” function; the “grieving” function; the “questioning if this is the best way” function. If a poem is a tiny machine, then a volume of poetry is a car or a plane—a bunch of parts that come together to perform a larger action.
Have you held any other jobs while writing poems?
I stopped writing poems from about 20 until 33, but I would always tell a friend of mine that my dream would be to go to Columbia’s MFA program. Finally, my friend got tired of my saying this and said that I could write anywhere and asked what was stopping me. This is a long way of saying that I’ve only written poems “professionally” while working in IT.
Does this mean you have a trove of poems prior to your life in IT?
I wish it did. I lost most of them (my mother claims to have some), and I burned some of them. I don’t have much early work. Sometimes I run across attempts to write before this time period, and I cringe. I think I was very clever but not very wise. The sound is there, and some stylistic tics remain, but the clarity of thought and the sincere reaching to a reader are absent. I think being unconcerned about your reader is selfish.
How do you they think these earlier poems differ from the poems of your life in IT now?
When I was younger, I wanted to hear myself speak for my own sake. I’m not sure if it’s because working in IT is a team sport, but I am always worried about the reader and how they will interpret what I’m saying. Right now, I think I’m one of two Americans on my work team, and it greatly colors how I say things, not just in tone but culturally. I’m more concise. I’m more measured. I go for meaning more than rhetorical flourish.
A pastor and a professor raised you. Tell me about your upbringing and how it affects your writing.
Oh, there were no words left un-interrogated in that house. My mom filled the house with books, and where she left off, my dad continued. Funny fact—my dad still memorizes every sermon each week. He writes it out on Thursday and Friday night and practices on Saturday. I can’t believe he still does it that way. Mom let me read anything. There was no such thing as verboten books. There were times where she wondered if something were too mature for me, but I absorbed only what I could understand.
Have your father’s sermons’ pastoral, religious, or spiritual themes ever found their way into your poetry?
Absolutely. I believe in redemption. I believe some poems are really prayer. I believe one is called to write poems because God knows it’s not for money. I believe the words move you and not the other way around. I believe that one should submit humbly to hearing what the soul has to say. I’m not terribly religious, but I know some poems come, and I just stand by and attend their journey into the world.
There are poems I’ve written that feel like I had very little to do with getting them on the page. I start writing and get my ego out of the way. I don’t know if that’s spiritual, but Dad and I have often talked about doing the reading and preparing only to have magic happen when we’re sitting down to write about it. I realized only after the fact that all the Bible reading I did as a child (if you don’t want to be in church, no one ever raises an eyebrow if you’re recreationally reading a Bible) comes through all the time. I can’t tell you how many times I’ll hear a Bible verse attributed and hit my head and realize that I quoted it almost verbatim in a poem.
When do you do most of your writing?
After work. Late and in bars. Specifically at the Red Door Saloon. I don’t know why that bar, but it’s my place, and it gets really loud. I know I should leave around the time that Ronnie or Danny gets on shift at 8 or 8:30 p.m. If I stay longer, I’m really only watching baseball or basketball. And drinking.
How does your current work schedule affect your writing schedule?
Christ. I don’t sleep. And I can really only write in bars. I need the ambient noise. I tried cafes, but I can’t drink coffee after 3 p.m. I’d never sleep at all if I wrote there. This year, I plan to write a little slower because I have tasked myself to re-certify on the BI (Microsoft’s Business Intelligence) stack. It’s something that I’ve needed to do, but was too busy writing to get it accomplished. I’m striving for balance.
What do your co-workers think about your writing?
Some people know that I write, and others don’t. Because I’m the only American developer on my team, I can’t be a “grammar Nazi” when I speak only one language fluently. I’m more impressed with them and the myriad ways that English is spoken between them. It’s like being in a linguistic mixing bowl. Sometimes (and I’ve never told them this), I sit back in meetings and listen to the musicality of them talking back and forth about an issue. Then, I snap out of it and realize that there’s work to be done.
Have you ever written while on the job?
Not at my current job. Sometimes, I’ll get an idea and write it down to work on later. Frankly, I’m much too busy to even start a poem at work. This, I’m sure, will make my boss very happy, but it’s the honest answer. I have done some writing during lunch at other jobs or while running a batch load that I had to watch too closely to actually start real work but not so closely that I can’t tool around with a poem. The same thing might happen during long software installations. For the most part, writing and working don’t mix. Most writing happens after work and before sleep. I get a lot less sleep than I should.
What would be your ideal job be?
I have moments when I realize that I’m working at my dream job. I never have enough time to enjoy both as thoroughly as I’d like, but I really like my job. I love writing, but there’s so much ebb and flow with it. I need things that are more stable, and I don’t have the patience to teach on a regular basis.
A version of this post originally appeared at Bull City Press.