Jill Bialosky: The Time I Moved to New York City to Be a Poet
On Finding Meaning in Art and Work in the Big City
After I graduate from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the early 1980s, I move to New York City to embark upon what I’ve come to consider my true calling: becoming a poet. The city is a strange, forbidding place, so many people trapped on one island. I am overwhelmed by the smells of rotting fruit and cooked meat from the street vendors, the garbage, the way in which the city’s inhabitants adopt the street as their private living room. I’m a Midwest girl; I’m used to open spaces. There are times when I begin to doubt my calling and my reasons for being here. I won’t survive on poetry alone. I have to eat and figure out how to support myself. I go to Bolton’s discount clothing store and buy my first suit and pair of black pumps for job interviews. The color of the pencil skirt and matching jacket I choose is cranberry, and when I look in the mirror, I feel immediately grown up. I barely recognize myself. I answer an ad in the New York Times for a position as an editorial assistant for a religion and philosophy editor at a university press where I’m required to take a typing test. I interview and am hired for the position. I’m glad to have a job that pays the rent, offers health benefits, and doesn’t involve waiting on customers in a restaurant.
It’s my first real nine-to-five job. I type letters, file correspondence, and take phone messages. I prepare manuscripts for production and occasionally read submissions and write reports about them. I’m fascinated by the various stages of how a book is made, how it arrives in the form of carefully typed manuscript pages and roughly 12 months later it becomes a book. I share a tiny, two-room apartment on West 73rd, in a building where many aging ex-Zeigfield Follies actresses reside, with a poet friend and classmate from the Iowa Workshop. When I pass through the lobby on my way to work, the ladies, with their dyed blue-and-purple hair, thick make-up, and sagging skin, congregate there with their shopping carts, glancing at themselves in the mirrored wall. In Midtown the city is a teeming hive of concrete and glass. Everywhere I look, more buildings, more anonymous strangers filling subway cars and rushing in and out of offices. At night, home from the office, I retire to my room, sit at my musty, flea-market-find oak desk, turn on my Selectric typewriter, and work on poems. I flip through poetry books for inspiration and companionship. I am restless, unsure, lonely. Eight months pass and I hear about a new position at a trade house that publishes fiction and poetry and is more suited to my interests. I apply and am offered a job and eagerly accept. I like my new job, but I wonder if I’ve made the right choice, if I’ll ever publish a book of my own, or be able to support myself in this city. Outside my window, in the street below, people dine in cafés and drink in bars, or stroll home after the theater or a concert. Sometimes it seems as if the whole city is going on without me and an unnamed desire travels through my being. Sometimes that desire is so great I can’t contain it. I get dressed and go out and walk up and down Broadway just to get out of my own head. The desire is like a red coal burning inside my body.
THE RED COAL
Gerald Stern (1925-)
Sometimes I sit in my blue chair trying to remember
what it was like in the spring of 1950
before the burning coal entered my life.
I study my red hand under the faucet, the left one
below the grease line consisting of four feminine angels
and one crooked broken masculine one
and the right one lying on top of the white porcelain
with skin wrinkled up like a chicken’s
beside the razor and the silver tap.
I didn’t live in Paris for nothing and walk
with Jack Gilbert down the wide sidewalks
thinking of Hart Crane and Apollinaire
and I didn’t save the picture of the two of us
moving through a crowd of stiff Frenchmen
and put it beside the one of Pound and Williams
unless I wanted to see what coals had done
to their lives too. I say it with vast affection,
wanting desperately to know what the two of them
talked about when they lived in Pennsylvania
and what they talked about at St. Elizabeth’s
fifty years later, looking into the sun,
40,000 wrinkles between them,
the suffering finally taking over their lives.
I think of Gilbert all the time now, what
we said on our long walks in Pittsburgh, how
lucky we were to live in New York, how strange
his great fame was and my obscurity,
how we now carry the future with us, knowing
every small vein and every elaboration.
The coal has taken over, the red coal
is burning between us and we are at its mercy
—as if a power is finally dominating
the two of us; as if we’re huddled up
watching the black smoke and the ashes;
as if knowledge is what we needed and now
we have that knowledge. Now we have that knowledge.
The tears are different—though I hate to speak
for him—the tears are what we bring back to the
darkness, what we are left with after our
own escape, what, all along, the red coal had
in store for us as we moved softly,
either whistling or singing, either listening or reasoning,
on the gray sidewalks and the green ocean;
in the cars and the kitchens and the bookstores;
in the crowded restaurants, in the empty woods and libraries.
“The Red Coal” recounts a story of two young poets, strolling through the streets of Paris, talking about their poetic predecessors, Hart Crane and Apollinaire, remembering the time when they were young intellectuals attempting to make a life through poetry. One poet has achieved more success than another poet, but I’m not sure that’s what the poem is mostly about. It documents that burning thing inside us, whether it is a passion for poetry or art, or medicine, or law, or being a construction worker, or a chef. The burning coal is that thing we must find in life, our raison d’être, our calling.
There is another desire pulsing through me. It is a desire, as a grown woman, to meet my match and find a partner. But it seems impossible here. There is something about being in a populated city full of individuals with like-minded ambition that makes my loneness all the more palpable.
Over time I begin to create my own mental map, my preferred routes and destinations. The Italian coffee house I like to go to for iced cappuccino, the Korean greengrocer where I buy my fruit and morning bran muffins, my path through the park on a Sunday. But at the end of the day, something happens sometimes when everyone turns homeward and the neon lights of the city flicker on. Loneliness becomes its own continent. It makes me question who I am and the choices I’ve made. I recognize that many people my age are working in the financial world, they’re lawyers and traders, or training to be doctors, or they work in advertising and fashion. When I’m not worried about how I’m going to pay my monthly rent on my meager salary, I worry about the career I’ve marked out. I recognize that being a poet is not a career. It is something to do in the secret hours of the early morning or late at night, in the cracks and crevices of a weekend, but it isn’t enough to sustain a livelihood. I begin to wonder about my choices.
After a string of unfulfilling encounters with men I meet in cafés or at poetry readings or artist residencies or parties, men who claim to be one thing and turn out to be another, who are smug or self-absorbed or nutcases or too much in love with me or not quite in love with me, I begin to lose hope. At night, I grow sentimental and nostalgic and remember my first love who absorbed so many years of my psychic and emotional attention and wonder, does he think about me too? Would I have been happier had I stayed in Cleveland?
WHAT LIPS MY LIPS HAVE KISSED, AND WHERE, AND WHY
Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950)
What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
Under my head till morning; but the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh
Upon the glass and listen for reply,
And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain
For unremembered lads that not again
Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.
Thus in the winter stands the lonely tree,
Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,
Yet knows its boughs more silent than before:
I cannot say what loves have come and gone,
I only know that summer sang in me
A little while, that in me sings no more.
Edna St. Vincent Millay had many love affairs. Her biographer, Nancy Milford, said of her: She smoked in public when it was against the law for women to do so, she lived in Greenwich Village during the halcyon days of that starry bohemia, she slept with men and women and wrote about it in lyrics and sonnets that blazed with wit and a sexual daring that captured the nation. This wistful sonnet was written in l923 when Millay was 31 years old. The poem opens with the speaker in contemplation, alone at night, listening to the rain, remembering the ghosts of past lovers that “tap against the window.” The last lines are terribly sad and beautiful, softened and consoled perhaps by memory of a love affair and the notion that at one time “summer sang in me,” even though no more. I once heard that Sigmund Freud said all literature is about love and sex or was it love and death? I would venture to say that all poetry to an extent is about unrequited love, not necessarily carnal or romantic love, but yearning.
One Sunday morning I wake up early and walk on Broadway to Fairway for my breakfast: a muffin, peaches, cherries, and melon. On the streets are crates of rotted fruit and garbage in piles, waiting for pick-up. The sidewalks are dirty and in need of a scrub down. Heat rises from the subway grates and for a moment I feel faint. Up this early, all I see around me are homeless men wrapped in dirty layers of clothing and homeless women pushing shopping carts. I don’t know why I am here anymore, why I am working all day in the office and coming home on nights and weekends to read submissions of debut novels and short stories, hoping to find, in sheaves of paper that pile up into a toppling tower on the floor of my two-room apartment, the living breathing soul and voice of a story that will eventually get printed and published and sell zillions of copies so I can eventually get a promotion. It is summer and I think of the green fields and parks and simple ways of living where I grew up and that I’ve forgone and emotion wells inside me. Maybe it’s time to call it quits and go home.
THE TROPICS IN NEW YORK
Claude McKay (1889-1948)
Bananas ripe and green, and ginger-root,
Cocoa in pods and alligator pears,
And tangerines and mangoes and grape fruit,
Fit for the highest prize at parish fairs,
Set in the window, bringing memories‚
Of fruit-trees laden by low-singing rills,
And dewy dawns, and mystical blue skies
In benediction over nun-like hills.
My eyes grew dim, and I could no more gaze;
A wave of longing through my body swept,
And, hungry for the old, familiar ways,
I turned aside and bowed my head and wept.
Claude McKay was educated by his brother from his library of English novels, poetry, and science books. When he was 23, he published his first collection of verse, Songs of Jamaica. Written in dialect, it recorded the experience of black life in Jamaica. In this poem, the speaker, sitting by a window in a New York City apartment looking at the tropical fruit on his windowsill, longs for the tropics where he grew up. Its elegiac hues of mourning and nostalgia recalled my own mood, a girl from Cleveland, struggling to find my way in America’s largest metropolis filled with inhabitants from around the globe here for the very reasons I am—to push their limits and reinvent themselves from the obscurity from which they came.
I don’t want it to happen, but jadedness begins to creep in. I doubt I will ever fall in love again or find a partner to marry. My girlfriends and I meet in coffee shops and cafés and discuss the grim pickings. We sometimes go to bars or parties in hopes of meeting someone. If we go out with someone, we come home and share the encounter, wonder if he’ll call again. Usually he doesn’t. Or if he does, he’s not the one we want. I’m grateful for my books, my deep infatuation with literature, and my poems, however nascent. I’ve come to see that the only thing now worth holding on to is the collection of verse accumulating on my desk and in my drawer. They don’t often amount to much, but when they do I sense something alive and crackling, like the sound of stepping on twigs in the woods. In the absence of love, I cling to my work. Literature is the only thing that I can count on; it won’t desert me. I can open one of the many books stacked on the floor in my room, flip through the thin pages of poetry in my Norton Anthology and call forth the passages of experience I’ve already known, or others I might go toward. I can find myself pulled forward and pushed back and sometimes both in one illuminating paragraph or surprising stanza.
I convince myself it is enough. I decide that I’ll pursue a career in publishing and become an editor. I want to find manuscripts that boil under the skin, get under the rind. It’s better than the connections I forge and then can’t seem to hold on to, or the ones I invest too much in and realize they’re flimsy as gauze. And it’s hot in August in New York, suffocating with no air conditioning, and everyone left in the city with nowhere to go seems to have a perpetual mustache of sweat above the lip. I’m sick of hot, airless parties where I come home with smoke in my hair, nights sitting on bar stools sharing a glass of wine with my roommate because we don’t have enough money to each buy a glass, where the only people we meet are struggling actors or penniless poets, or guys who work on sets ensconced in their own mini dramas. I’m sick of artists and writers, some living in cheap sublets in the East Village, others who want to move in, whose own lustful ambitions outpace their desire for intimate connection. I want a grown-up life; a family. For almost a year I saddle myself to an academic who is decent enough to pay the check when he takes me out to dinner, though when he begins to talk about one of the monographs he’s working on, I find my eyes glazing over, until I discover all the while he’s been pining for someone else.
From Poetry Will Save Your Life, by Jill Bialosky. Used by permission of Atria Books. Copyright © 2017 by Jill Bialosky.
“The Red Coal”. Copyright © 1981 by Gerald Stern, from THIS TIME: NEW AND SELECTED POEMS by Gerald Stern. Used by permission of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.