Back to School 2014
When I was a kid, I wanted to be a pirate, an entomologist, or a writer. I don't remember when I lost interest in the first two (either of which would probably have been more practical), but I remember when I realized if I don't write I'm not happy. I especially like writing poetry, which currently, in America, is about the least lucrative form of writing there is. Very, very few people can support themselves doing it. You're told as a kid how important it is to have passions, but not usually about the difficult passage you must make in order for these passions to be seen as a worthwhile use of time in adulthood (if they don't generate money). But I realized I'd never had any money anyway, nothing else made me nearly as happy as writing, and I was willing to do unpleasant things to make money if I had to. I'd seen my best friends, a treasure hunter and a filmmaker, happily dig through garbage and risk getting crushed by giant sculptures to finance these vices. I decided I wanted to know the thing I love most as well as I possibly could.
It was a man wearing rainbow suspenders and reading from his unpublished science-fiction manuscript in a fake Scottish accent at an open mic that finally motivated me to apply to grad schools. It had been about a year since I got a BA in poetry. I sat down to work on a poem the way I did every day, thought of suspenders guy, and started to cry. I thought in grad school I could at least find out whether or not I sucked.
The day of my admittance to UW's poetry MFA program, with its champagne and delighted relatives, was followed by a week of anxiety. There were only two TA positions (which provide a tuition waiver and stipend), and despite deferring the previous year in hopes an improved portfolio would land me one of the jobs, I didn't get one. I was working at a movie theater, making about $12,000 a year. Knowing how reckless it is to take out loans for basically any fine arts degree, that summer I took every additional job I could find.
Briefly, I wrote jewelry ad copy for Amazon. They sent me 50 images a week of necklaces, earrings, and charms (those ornamental things that hang from bracelets), and I wrote a paragraph describing each item and a scenario where it might be worn. If the jewelry seemed fancy, I wrote about going to the opera. If it seemed low-end, cafes and movie nights. If I didn't know, my go-to scenario was a garden party. There were a few baffling things, like earrings made to look like a pair of "no smoking" signs and a pewter charm shaped like a woman bathing a baby. Once I got 50 images of chromium-plated hat-shaped charms. I had no idea there was such a big market for jewelry shaped like other articles of clothing. Fortunately, the editors realized I know nothing about women's jewelry (my ears aren't even pierced) and also that I can be sarcastic. I was fired.
At the time, I lived in one of the few apartments in South Lake Union that hadn't been bulldozed to make way for some shit-colored sheet-metal condo. It was a 100-year-old former boarding house, rumored to have once been a gay brothel and to be haunted by a friendly, red-wine-drinking hippie ghost. I learned of a company that delivered food from downtown restaurants by bicycle. They had an office in Belltown conveniently near my apartment, but seemed to be based out of the Lava Lounge. The delivery range was from Queen Anne to the I.D. When I wasn't working at the movie theater, I hung out at home writing one freelance article or another until I was summoned to make a delivery. I used a friend's messenger bag, big enough that I could fit inside it (I did once!), embroidered with the word "Fingers," Homer Simpson exposing his ass, and about a dozen holes from an enraged girlfriend's hunting knife. The manager texted me the restaurant and the delivery location and off I went. Sometimes I was tipped $20 for a $30 order, and sometimes 50 cents. Once I was tipped a very intoxicated, lazy boob flash. I almost threw up one day delivering $300 worth of Thai food to Virginia Mason with a terrible hangover. When a pretty surgeon in the elevator complimented my ass, I felt better.
I began sporadically picking up shifts with a traveling catering company. I loved it. The food was great, the uniforms looked sharp, and most of the work was done on the immaculately maintained grounds of mansions. I saw miniature horses and a dance party of elderly drunk people wearing Hawaiian shirts and dreadlock wigs, and I ate a slice of $25,000 cake.
Shortly before moving in with my dad, I shed the catering and delivery jobs. I had never quit after such brief employment, so I worried about it for the entire month before it had to be done. Of course, no one was mad. It made me feel free, but also like I might disappear. My friend Riley (the treasure hunter) summed up the feeling well when he said, "I used to deliver pizzas, but they don't call me a pizza boy anymore. And I went to beauty school, but no one calls me a beautician. So then I went out and I fucked a sheep."
I moved in with my dad and his girlfriend on 85th and Aurora, very near the house I grew up in. It was interesting to see that neighborhood as an adult. Our closest neighbors were an abandoned pancake house, a cemetery, a strip club called the Dancing Bare, and a psychic palm-reading place. The man who lived across the street emerged from his house periodically to yell, "Yee haw, I'm Mike fucking Tyson!" On Halloween, he came to my dad's and stood on the doorstep smiling, un-costumed, and held out his hands for candy.
The Dancing Bare fascinated me as a child, so the week I moved in I got drunk in the cemetery with Riley and went to the Dancing Bare alone. The doorman, who leaned against a case of dildos, strumming an acoustic guitar, said, "No cover for ladies... are you one?" I got a plastic champagne flute of seltzer water and took a seat on a vinyl couch in front of the stage. It was a regular strip club, if one that appeared to have originally functioned as a toolshed. Actually being in it dispelled and intensified its mystique at the same time. When school started, I went there occasionally after evening workshops.
The first quarter of grad school was hellish. My relationship fell apart, the bike commute to Aurora from the movie theater where I worked on Capitol Hill was long (obviously I couldn't afford a car), and my mom was hit by a car in a crosswalk and needed new teeth. The first time I was workshopped, I had a panic attack, because I was afraid the admissions committee had made some mistake—that I was actually an idiot and something I said or wrote would reveal it. I wonder if anyone in that room knew I was so close to fainting. My hands went numb, so I sat on them. I must have looked ridiculous. I called Riley afterwards, who told me to drink a 40 and sit outside with my head between my knees. One day after a particularly scary class, I saw my girlfriend at the time walk across campus with the classmate she was fucking. I went to the university's free counselor (I had no insurance), who essentially told me I was too crazy for short-term counseling to do any good. That night, I drank whiskey with another MFA student who has since become a dear friend. He gave me a copy of Ovid's Amores, and then I went to the Dancing Bare alone.
Then my dad and his girlfriend bought a house in Lynnwood, and the bike commute became impractical. I was waiting at the 358 stop when I saw the freezing wind blow the bandage off a woman's tracheotomy and knew I had to find other housing. I inquired on Facebook about spare rooms in exchange for cleaning. I found two potential squats, a condemned house by Lake Union and an abandoned apartment building in the International District. I was enticed by a houseboat that appeared to have suffered fire damage. I half-jokingly approached an architect friend about constructing a giant birdhouse to affix to a tree or telephone pole. We decided I would be less likely to be disturbed by police or curious pedestrians if the tiny house looked like a hornets' nest. I would of course have to wear a black-and-yellow-striped sweater at all times.
A poet who also does performances invited me to live in her basement for a couple of months. This was a happy time. I sometimes came home from work to find her and her collaborator rehearsing for their performances, doing aerobics to Robyn in suits made to look like balls of moss. The house had a trampoline and an endless supply of delicious homemade pozole.
A friend of this poet's—a robot sculptor—needed a dog sitter while she was in Spain, so my next home was a place near Volunteer Park. It looked like a palatial gingerbread house. Its owner and I talked about synesthesia while she showed me her basement workshop full of hairy robotic sculptures. The house had a library big enough to require monthly visits from a private librarian. After she left, I microwaved green beans, brown rice, and chicken for the dog twice a day. The house was a little spooky. At exactly 1 a.m. every night, the dog stood in the living room and growled at nothing.
After the robot sculptor's vacation ended, I went to the MFA program's annual Friday Harbor poetry intensive, which was started years ago by the poet Richard Kenney. It was an idyllic two weeks of poetry, critical theory, and lectures in the Friday Harbor marine laboratory. When the other students and I weren't writing, we had barbecues and swam in the ocean. The MFA program gave me a scholarship for the intensive, and when I was back in Seattle I discovered I had gotten a couple of internships that paid enough for me to rent an apartment. I sat for a long time on the floor of my apartment after I signed the lease. I'm pretty sure I know which professor recommended me for the internships, and if I ever have the chance to do her a favor, I will. One of the internships mainly consisted of sending a lot of e-mails and getting permission to use a Theodore Roethke quote on a shot glass, and in the other I got to teach a bit. I met a woman I love and waking up in her arms in my own goddamn apartment that wasn't a burnt-out houseboat or giant papier-mâché hornets' nest, and then going to teach English, felt like something a normal adult might do.
I spent so much time thinking about grad school, and patching together a life that worked while in grad school, that it's weird that I've already graduated. Now that it's over I feel disoriented, and happy. I'm still broke, but I've got a book of poems coming out this fall. Since I'd essentially been working on the book since I was 18, I expected, when I sent the manuscript to the editors, not to feel anything—I thought it was something too big to register emotionally. In fact, sitting alone in a dark living room afterward, I was completely euphoric. It lasted for days. Also, I was recently solicited to write a book having nothing to do with poetry (I'm keeping the topic a secret right now, for luck). I have no idea what will happen. I think tuition is too high, and that in general writers are woefully underpaid, but given the opportunity to choose a different life, I would live the same one. I had some experiences in grad school I wouldn't change for the world, and I'll never kick myself for not following my heart. Sure, I worry about things like rent and my teeth, but now I'm getting paid to do my art while living in a city full of amazing artists. Someone I didn't know hit me up on Facebook recently, saying I "came up in conversation." A few nights later, I was drinking wine on top of a building inside a giant lightbulb.