In brief: Through interviews with three poets who also work in libraries, this article explores the benefits and challenges of these overlapping roles, reflecting on commonalities in the two communities.
by Erin Dorney
I am a librarian and a poet who has tried to keep those two roles separate. As a library school student and in the early years of my career as an academic librarian, I felt that I had to keep my creative writing under wraps—that it could undermine my professionalism. However, as I become more confident and skilled in both arenas, I have begun to realize that my writing has always influenced my experience as a librarian, and that my librarian training has impacted my life as a poet. As I learn how to embrace these intersections, I have grown curious about how others are combining (or keeping separate) their multiple literary lives. This Lead Pipe article will explore some of the benefits and challenges of these overlapping roles through interviews with three poets who also work in libraries, reflecting on commonalities in the two communities.
For the purposes of this article, I define a librarian as anyone who has worked in a library in some capacity (including LIS students and individuals who do not hold master’s degrees). The definition of poet is even looser—if you think you might be one, you are.
Poets as librarians are not a new phenomenon. Audre Lorde was a librarian at the Mount Vernon Public Library from 1961 to 1963 and at New York City’s Town School Library from 1966 to 1968. Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges frequently included libraries in his writing, echoing his experience of working as a municipal librarian at the Miguel Cane Branch Library in Buenos Aires from 1937 to 1946. Another well-known poet librarian of the past is Philip Larkin. Larkin worked at the Wellington Public Library in England from 1943 to 1946, then switching to a career in academic libraries (University College Library; Queen’s University Library in Belfast; and University of Hull).
Ever since I worked with librarian Erinn Batykefer on editing the Library as Incubator Lead Pipe article I knew that she was a poet. Batykefer’s first poetry collection, Allegheny, Monongahela (Red Hen Press 2009), won the Benjamin Saltman Poetry Prize. I’ve seen librarian Colleen Harris’s name pop up many times on the Women’s Poetry Listserv (WOM-PO, one of the few remaining listservs to which I still subscribe). As my worlds began to collide more frequently, I started a Twitter list of librarians who also do creative writing. Additional lists of both dead and living poet librarians exist at Leaves of Bark.
Are there an equal number of painter librarians as there are poet librarians? Photographer librarians? Why are the roles of artist/creator and librarian frequently embodied by the same person? My “lofty” answer to this is that being surrounded by an array of ideas and other peoples’ creations makes one want to create in turn. Almost every item in our libraries was written by someone who did whatever he or she had to do in order to get that item published and then convince someone to spend actual money on it. That boost alone, seeing tangible evidence day in and day out that creating is valuable, would be enough of a correlation between the two roles for me. Some poet librarians are able to mesh their two worlds even more closely, such as Jessica Smith’s erasure series Exact Resemblance, recently published in La Vague Journal. The poems were created by whiting out words from Animal Camouflage, a book that was weeded from Smith’s own Indian Springs School library collection. Below are just three accounts of poets working simultaneously on library careers and poetry projects, with their thoughts on the cross-pollination of these roles.
Williams has been writing poetry longer than he has been working as a librarian, even though creative writing temporarily moved to the margins while he delved into academia. “…I’m fairly certain it’s the same set of impulses that drew me to both,” he said in our interview. Research for his doctoral project on the online social lives of poets and fiction writers revived him as an active writer and in January of 2014 Williams launched Really System, a journal of poetry and extensible poetics. “I started it for a number of reasons, the foremost of which being a hope that it would help me to find a community of other poets with similar ideas, questions, and aesthetic interests,” he said. Through Really System, Williams is interested in remixing, recombining, and remaking the text of published poems into new things. Some of his experiments can be seen at labs.reallysystem.com, evoking a digital poetry/digital humanities sandbox. Williams’ poem “New Telegraphy” which appeared in Word Riot last summer, will likely resonate with anyone who’s been to library school. Regarding the balance and interaction between being a librarian and being a poet, Williams had this to say:
“I feel very fortunate to have found myself in a library position where poetry is very relevant to my work every day. Syracuse University has very strong English and Writing programs, and it is a delight to support the faculty and students in those programs in my reference and instruction activities. Many of my most productive talks and connections with people happen at readings and other literary events. The writing community around here has been quite welcoming to me.
My interest in poetry also impacts my work in the projects I choose to work on— I’m so pleased to be involved in making videos of SU’s Raymond Carver Reading Series available via SURFACE, our online repository; I am excited to support small presses and independent poetry publishers in my collection development work; I make an effort to promote poetry as a visible part of our library community by making poetry books and journals (as well as our incredible poetry-related special collections) a part of any class, event, or interaction I can. This year I’m organizing a reading series for undergraduates in April and working with Sound Beat (our audio archive’s radio program) to commemorate National Poetry Month.
Writing-wise, I’m inspired by things I see, read, and experience every day at work in the library. We encounter so much interesting description and compression in our work, I can’t help but be influenced but the sound of library language. I feel like I’m editing the word “index” out of just about every poem I write. I also think the history of LIS has some terribly poetic stories and characters. Paul Otlet, for example. I’ll write about him someday.”
Really System will be published quarterly online, with a print edition each year. “I am fascinated by the tension between print and digital and have been feeling a strong unresolved pull toward doing DIY publishing projects this millennium. Maybe that’s just straight-up 90s nostalgia, but I’m also really inspired by contemporary things like P-QUEUE out of the Poetics Program at SUNY Buffalo, and Ugly Duckling Presse’s 6×6 magazine, and want to explore what forms a print version of Really System can take,” he said.
When I inquired about the intersectionality between Haines’ work as a poet and as a professional library staff member, her initial reaction was that they have nothing to do with one another. Digging deeper, the influence each role plays on the other became more apparent.
“A few years ago I applied for (and was awarded) an Individual Artist Grant through the Indiana Arts Commission. I had the opportunity to sit in on the panel and listen to the comments about each application, which was incredibly interesting; by comparison with a lot of the other applications, I realized that I’d done a really good job of including an assessment piece that talked about how I would measure the success (or lack thereof) of the various activities funded by my grant. This seemed like a no-brainer to me as I completed the application, but afterwards I realized that was because of what I’d learned about project management at work. Librarians think about assessment a lot; poets don’t necessarily!
Also, it occurs to me that the biggest thing poets and librarians have in common is curiosity. As a poet, I try to be awake and aware and to pick up on small details, and then dive deeper; the image of a gecko might occur to me as being somehow evocative, and then I would want to explore and learn about geckos – what kinds are there, what do they eat, do they appear in any mythology, is there a specialized vocabulary that applies to the study of geckos? You always want to gather more information than you actually use in the poem; if all geckos are green, you probably don’t want to say “the gecko was green” in your poem but if some geckos are orange, the greenness might be a detail of interest…
Related to that, it occurs to me that the good old-fashioned reference interview is a lot like revision, or maybe more accurately, like workshopping a poem. In both cases, you have to look at what you have in front of you (the poem, the reference question) and interrogate it, make it give up some deeper levels; you can’t assume that the question being asked is really the question that needs an answer. What is this poem really about – the rainbow that you saw on your way home, or the fact that you were on your way home after hearing some terrible news and you were desperate for some sign of hope and were lucky enough to look up and spot the rainbow? What is the reference question really about – does the patron need “a book about African history” which is what they asked for, or can you ask them a few questions and find out that they really needed biographical information about Nelson Mandela but couldn’t remember his name?”
Haines, who has been writing poetry since she was ten years old, sees differences between her two roles as well. “Library work is, I think, inherently collaborative (or should be),” she said, while many poets are “inherently fairly solitary beasts… I like being able to embrace both ways of working, so the duality works for me. Also, working in a library pays a heck of a lot better than being a poet. (Sad, I know!).”
Carr, who recently completed her MLIS, just launched The Poetry Center Chapbook Exchange, a project which grew from a seed in her brain as a library student. The project is an open-access community-curated repository developed for writers to convene, correspond, and collaborate using the poets calling card or “currency” of the chapbook. Chapbooks are small books, often 25 pages or less, published by small presses or by writers themselves in a DIY fashion (Poets & Writers). “The model for the chapbook exchange was catalyzed by the need to invigorate poetry collections in public libraries and was expanded to include extant poetry communities,” she said, adding that the site is a “prototype of what we hope will be a lively and vital cooperative space for poets to practice the continuum of reading and writing in the creative process.”
Carr’s own writing, particularly her 2013 chapbook huminsect (dancing girl press), bears the mark of libraries. “The concept for huminsect originated with the construction of my MFA thesis while at Mills where I also spent a lot of time writing at the FW Olin Library. My thesis was titled from granite to the oyster and sought to examine morphological and sociological relationships between myriad genera including humans, insects, plants, and sea creatures as well as the interstellar. I can also see it as an early pre-librarian attempt at taxonomic classification,” she said.
On the topic of balancing her many roles, Carr (like many writers) feels like she’s not writing enough. “To further complicate things, I am not a paid library worker; the PC Chapbook Exchange is a labor of love. While applying for librarian positions, I also have a f/t office job, and am a mother (as well as a wife, a room parent, etc),” she said. However, Carr has embraced the idea of fragments as a legitimate form: “I tend to write in short bursts that I may later piece together. I’m also particularly fond of postcard poems. There seems to be a continuous need to compartmentalize in order to feel on top of things. So, fragments.” Any librarian familiar with the constant email and juggling of multiple “hats” in our profession can surely relate.
Through interviewing these poet librarians and reflecting on my own experiences, the relationship between the two roles has become clearer. Both the poet and the librarian rely on curiosity—on questioning, exploring, and learning to make sense of the world around them. In both there is an inherent tension between print and digital, with poets moving beyond the page to test the boundaries of literature (see John Mortara’s Small Creatures / Wide Field, Dan Waber’s a kiss, and anything on Internet Poetry) while librarians fight their way through ebook lending issues, big five publishers, and serving a range of users who expect wifi and the latest print edition of the New York Times’ best sellers.
Another commonality between poets and librarians is the necessity of working in solitude and in collaboration with others. Librarians work individually in order to ensure that the library as a whole functions properly, meeting user needs while building a sustainable organization. Although poets often write alone, the process of collaboration emerges through workshopping with other writers, making decisions with editors about chapbooks or full length collections, and even identifying and networking with potential publishers. In a recent anthology call, poet librarians Sommer Browning (Head of Electronic Access & Discovery Services at Auraria Library) and Christina Davis (Curator of the Woodberry Poetry Room at Harvard University) seek to illuminate this hybrid career, asking for:
“…experimental essays, creative meditations, non-fiction accounts, and lyrical explorations that challenge, redefine, and/or widen our perspective on subjects related to libraries and librarianship: from abstractions such as silence, knowledge, questioning, solitude, information, access, truth, organization, preservation, alphabetical order, digitization, and memory to such concretenesses as bookshelves, archives, mildew, the Patriot Act, scholars, pencils, catalogs…”
The anthology also welcomes pieces that celebrate or elaborate upon poet-librarians of the past. “So often poets strive to be teachers, but some of us don’t. Some of us are drawn to librarianship to be close to the book, the word, the silence, the self-directed study,” said Browning. “I think there is a lot of room for poetry in librarianship and I know some of my fellow poet librarians think this too,” she added.
Upon reflection I have realized that my work as a librarian not only intersects with, but strengthens my work as a poet and vice versa. About six months ago I co-founded an organization called The Triangle, which hosts and promotes literary events in southcentral Pennsylvania. This project is not connected to my work as a librarian in any official capacity, but I find myself borrowing many of the skills I have learned (and honed) through librarianship to improve the organization, including graphic design, event planning, data organization and management, web design, and research. The librarian community I have built up over the years provides a solid network of individuals who support literacy and an appreciation for the arts at the grassroots level.
My poetry strengths seep out at work as well. I know how to think creatively—how to push myself outside the box of negativity in the same way I use writing exercises to move beyond writers block. I consider problems from multiple perspectives. I want to explore a whole bunch of wild ideas out in order to find the one that works—the one that resonates and has a lasting impact. This is what writers do in the pages of their notebook and their hundreds of Google Docs. This is the type of creative problem solving, outside-the-box thinking that will help libraries remain vibrant and sustainable.
It is my hope that the networks between poet librarians will grow, helping us to collaborate while supporting each other through the (equally stressful?) process of writing and librarianship. For the librarians reading this article who do not engage in creative writing, kudos for making it this far. I have this to say to you: try it. You never know what voices will emerge—what kinds of answers you will find.
Many thanks to Anne Haines, Patrick Williams, Melissa Eleftherion Carr, Jessica Smith, and Sommer Browning for allowing me to interview them. Thanks to Christophe Casamassima and Lead Pipers Hugh Rundle and Emily Ford for edits, comments, and thought provoking questions regarding this article.
References and Further Readings
“Audre Lorde” The Poetry Foundation, http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/audre-lorde
Carr, Melissa Eleftherion. “Crowdsourcing Content to Promote Community and Collection Development in Public Libraries” Journal of Electronic Resources Librarianship, Vol. 25, Iss. 4, 2013.
“Jorge Luis Borges” The Poetry Foundation, http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/jorge-luis-borges
Library as Incubator posts tagged with “Creative Writing” http://www.libraryasincubatorproject.org/?tag=creative-writing
“Philip Larkin” The Poetry Foundation, http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/philip-larkin
“Publishing Your Book” Poets & Writers, http://www.pw.org/content/publishing_book#q-a_09
Rosenstein, Alan H. “Physicians under stress” American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons/American Association of Orthopaedic Surgeons, April 2010 http://www.aaos.org/news/aaosnow/apr10/managing7.asp
Smith, Jessica. “Erasures in La Vague” looktouchblog, February 9, 2014 http://looktouch.wordpress.com/2014/02/09/erasures-in-la-vague/
Smith, Jessica. “Poetry and Libraries: A Report on Contemporary Collection Methods” Boog City, Iss. 80, 2013. http://www.boogcity.com/boogpdfs/bc80.pdf
Williams, James Patrick. “Social presence, interaction, and participation in asynchronous creative writing workshops” Dissertation, University of Texas, 2011 http://repositories.lib.utexas.edu/handle/2152/ETD-UT-2011-12-4504?show=full