Tuesday, April 8, 2014

National Poetry Month: Guest Blogger Debbie Benson

It was a treat to read, The Dead Outnumber, the beautiful new chapbook by Debbie Benson, whom I met a few years ago at the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference. Have you gotten your copy yet? Below she discusses what it means to be a poet in addition to other pursuits. Since many of us wear hats on top of (below?) our poetry hat, her post will resound with you.

Debbie Benson is a New Yorker, native Ohioan, and clinical psychology doctoral candidate. She currently works at a state psychiatric hospital. She holds degrees in English, philosophy, and psychology from Kenyon College, NYU, and Yeshiva University, as well as an MFA from the New School. She is a past recipient of the Ann Stanford Poetry Prize (Southern California Review) and the Vern Cowles Prize for a Trinity of Poems (Southeast Missouri State University Press). Her poems have appeared in Best New Poets 2013, The Cape Rock, Barrow Street, elimae, Enizagam, LIT, and other journals. Her first poetry chapbook, The Dead Outnumber, was recently released by Finishing Line Press.

On Avocation

Over the last five years, going to interviews has become an unfortunately well-versed part of my professional life. To meet training requirements as a clinical psychologist, a surprising number of yearly clinical placements is required, necessitating an exponentially greater number of interviews. One must navigate, year after year, a maze of city hospitals, college counseling centers, analytic societies, and the like, and find new places to practice becoming a psychologist, while logging the requisite hours of therapy work (often clumsy first attempts at healing) and supervision. At interviews for these positions, where I answer questions, wiggle, and feel uncomfortably visible—true to my poet DNA, you might say—I have encountered a common question asked of me. Potential supervisors thumb through my CV, which is rife with hints of art and oddity, and, noting an MFA in poetry in the black hole of my vocational history, almost inevitably ask:  “What made you change your mind?”

A misguided, if haunting, question to be sure. A poet understands that there is an unrelenting impulse for using words in the best ways, and this will follow her around with the bossiness of a command hallucination even whilst wood-cutting, popsicle-selling, or law enforcing. The answer, of course, was that I had never changed my mind, and hadn’t planned to. I had chosen a profession that I thought would facilitate poetry by not crushing my spirit completely, that would preserve my independence of thought and curiosity, and that would keep both vocations reasonably cohesive by shared proximity to narrative, language, and efforts at unearthing meaning. I had also hoped to offer a direct human service of a different, more physical sort—my craving for which had not been fully satisfied in creative isolation.

Vocation, some sources say, refers literally to a “call,” while avocation is the counterpoint, or “call away.” At best (and by “best,” I mean, “other worst”), avocation is known as the hobby directing passionate use of one’s “spare” time. At worst (that is, the worse “worst”), avocation is the yarn that pulls you gradually from the more purposive path. I wouldn’t dare, at this point, impose this dichotomy onto my experience of having dual careers, because it inaccurately trivializes one, and also because the two careers have become so symbiotic. However, it does seem fairly clear that poetry is my Superman and psychology is my Clark Kent—a comparison I also would likely not have made, except that I write and offer therapy using different names! I will instead say that there are ways that psychology makes my poetry possible, in part by helping to fund it, in part by forcing me to create more efficiently (even more prolifically than before) in my sparse free time, and in part by shaping me into a more careful observer. An inevitable side effect of hearing so many perspectives from patients each day is that my own presumptions begin to fade. My range of creative options seems to increase with that flexibility of ego. There are days that poetry saves me (a la Superman), too, when I’ve metabolized too much on the job to bear or contain—when I feel I must declare or preserve my own voice in the rubble.

And yes, as I’ve hinted above, there are the practicalities. This is something many writers do not hasten to discuss—probably because it will have absolutely no bearing on their decision to be a writer. And it shouldn’t. But there is still the task of making a living, which poetry does not promise. This often leads to compromises in time and mental space, which we had originally hoped to reserve more proportionately for twiddling about line breaks, feverishly revising a new manuscript, or posing oneself privy to the proper fountain of gushing epiphany. But to those concerned, take heart. Where Woolf’s “money and a room of her own” seems sometimes out of reach, I am here to attest that we poets may yet find inspiration, and even creative wellspring, in the diversification of our lives.

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