Friday, August 05, 2011
This is one of those bellwether birthdays, and it feels like that for me. Only one of my male ancestors ever lived to be older. I’ve already outlived my own father by 27 years, and with my mother’s passing in April, I’m now the eldest in my family. Last week I officially gave notice at Gartner: I will retire at the end of this year, having worked fulltime for 40 years, more than half of that in the computer industry.
In Lyn Hejinian’s talk on time in Gertrude Stein’s Lucy Church Amiably, she speaks of a nephew who works for a leveraged buyout firm in Europe. Asked if there are cultural differences that he has to negotiate between the different nations there, he responds that in Southern Europe, they think of 50 or 60 hours as a full workweek, the implication being…. But of course that is the work world in which I’ve labored now for decades – at a time when unemployment and under-employment are devastating problems, the 40-hour workweek is looked upon in many industries as a part-time commitment. Over the decades, I’ve generally worked a 50-hour week, although in the past five years or so that’s ratcheted up to around 70. This seems like a very good point to step off that merry-go-round.
Somehow during all this I’ve managed to raise a family and keep up with my commitments to poetry. This hasn’t always been easy, and in each of these realms I’ve had regrets that can be tracked precisely back to the physical limit of the number of hours in a day. My secret, to the degree that I’ve had one, is that I average maybe five hours of sleep a night, usually less. Aaron Shurin half-jokingly once told me it was unfair, that in the years since we’d attended UC Berkeley together, I’d had years more time in which to write, simply because he needed a normal night’s rest. It is true that I could not have made the choices I did over the years if I didn’t have those extra hours.
Clayton Eshleman pointed out to me not too long ago that he’s had three volumes of translation published this year -- Bernard Bador, Curdled Skulls (Black Widow Press); Aimé Césaire, Solar Throat Slashed (with A. James Arnold, Wesleyan U Press), & Bei Dao, Endure (with Lucas Klein, Black Widow Press). Clayton, who is 76, also continues to be as active as ever with his own poetry. Clayton, Jerome Rothenberg, John Ashbery, Keith & Rosmarie Waldrop, Ruth Stone, Jack Collom, the late Jackson Mac Low and especially the late Barbara Guest all strike me as excellent templates for what do next in my life. Seventeen of the 28 books listed on Guest’s page in Wikipedia were published after her 65th birthday, beginning with Fair Realism. Even though Guest was famous in the 1960s, thanks to her involvement with the first generation of the New York School, she didn’t published her first chapbook until she was 40, and her career as an author really took off during the last 20 years of her life, when she emerged as a writer of enormous influence, both as a poet and mentor.
With few exceptions, none of us know just how much time we are given and all the silly blather about living each day as if it were your last has a certain truth to it, one that becomes increasingly obvious as those days begin to dwindle. I would love to think that, like Guest, sixty percent of my writing career still lies ahead of me, but that feels like hubris or at least whistling whilst walking through a dark wood.
Still I have ten book projects of varying kinds in different stages of planning or execution, including co-editing collected poem volumes for both David Melnick & David Bromige. I hope to do more readings & travel, plus take advantage of writer’s residencies, something my work life has never really before permitted. I may even teach if & when the right opportunities pose themselves. It’s fun, frankly, to think that in ten or eleven years, when I am the age Clayton Eshleman is now, I might have three books out in one year. This is just the beginning.