Monday, January 17, 2005


Colin & Jesse turned 13 last Thursday, pleased to have become teenagers at last. Having twins is, as you might imagine, a bit of a challenge. Right before the boys were born I ran into Peter Quartermain at the 1991 San Francisco MLA. He reminded me that he had twins & that they were just getting to an age “when things are finally beginning to settle down.” Great, I said, how old are they? “30,” he replied.


Having children is one of those great hinge events in any individual’s life, regardless of whether or not they’re a poet. For poets, however, they represent a particular challenge, just as they offer special rewards that might not be as deeply appreciated by non-writers.


Everything in a poet’s life – I mean this more or less literally – is an incentive to stop writing. For many, the hinge event that turns an active writer into a former one is simply leaving college, which may also mean no longer having the social context in which one wrote. For others, it’s that first full-time job. For still more, it’s easy to be a poet in the setting of an active & lively literary community like San Francisco or New York. Move to Portland or Columbia, Missouri, however, and you suddenly find yourself in a setting in which there are few external supports for a writing habit. But there is nothing more disruptive of your prior routines & daily habits than having kids. With Colin & Jesse, I know that I was happy to be able to return to work after three weeks, just because going into the office meant being able again to distinguish, more or less, night from day.


When I was younger, I knew a fair number of poets in & around San Francisco who actively avoided full-time jobs because they thought it would get in the way of their writing. I myself hadn’t really clicked with employment until I had to take some time off from school to work in the post office & then later left Berkeley to perform alternative service as a Vietnam-era conscientious objector. The Selective Service – great euphemism in that name – made you take socially benevolent work at little or no pay. I was in that latter category, working with felons & their families, which meant that I had to find a night job in addition to the day one in order to make ends meet. Which is how I ended up doing layout and paste-up, plus some occasional writing, for gay bar newspapers in San Francisco. That was the introduction of the 70-hour workweek for me, but even that would have unsustainable had not rents in the 1970s in San Francisco been so incredibly low. I had half of a three-bedroom flat in Pacific Heights for $67.50 a month in 1973 & some four years later was paying just $50 a month for one-seventh of a large Victorian house in the same neighborhood. Somehow I managed to write several books under such circumstances.


What strikes me as much more remarkable is that young poets today – confronted with a $1400-per-bedroom housing market in a place like San Francisco – can still do the same. To try & be a poet in the Mission District or in Brooklyn or in any number of other major urban areas today, is to take on some of life’s most complex economic challenges. I’m not at all sure that I would have been up to that when I was younger.


Anyone who has children must reprioritize their time & their lives. In my case, I cut back on political activity & stopped writing criticism for five years. Those were predictable choices, ones that I understood I would be making when Krishna & I decided to try for kids. What neither of us could have foreseen was that having children would be an important factor in making the further decision three years hence to move to Pennsylvania. As it turns out, our current home in Paoli is now where I have lived the longest in any single place since I left high school. Has having children transformed our lives? You bet.