Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Remembering My Poetic and Not-So Poetic Day Jobs (Part Two)

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Remembering My Poetic and Not-So Poetic Day Jobs (Part Two)

In my last installment, I told you of my adventures as a warehouse worker, cook, merry-go-round operator, and map folder. Yes, map folder. The purpose of this exercise is to determine, with the aid of hindsight, how my previous occupations have influenced my writing. I suggested it’s possible that my first job may have nudged me toward a desire for unconventional employment; being a cook inspired a poem in my first book; operating a merry-go-round taught me that there is a certain lyricism to be found in everyday business; and folding maps for three years taught me that what I learned operating a merry-go-round is not necessarily applicable in every situation.

After the map-folding job, I started working in the book trade, both in publishing and bookselling. Surely, this must have had an effect on my writing, but how?

OCCUPATION: Editorial Assistant
WHEN: 2001 to 2002
EFFECT ON MY WRITING: My first job in the book world was as editorial assistant in a small start-up literary imprint backed by a large distribution company. I learned a lot about the business end of making books in this job, usually fascinating, sometimes disappointing. There was the feeling here that creative people would dream up all kinds of wonderful books, and then the money people would come and tell them what they could and couldn’t do. Necessary, I know, but it came as a shock to a young idealistic poet who was excited about being a kind of midwife to new literature.

OCCUPATION: Poetry Editor
WHEN: 2001 to Present
LOCATION: Insomniac Press
EFFECT ON MY WRITING: I’m still doing this job, and I love it. Working with other poets and helping them prepare their books for press has certainly had an effect on my writing. Every poem I edit helps me understand poems more, because every poem is a different entity, and if it needs work, it needs it in a different way. As much as technique is a factor, so too is intuition. Being an editor is not about imposing one’s will on a text, but rather about understanding it on its own terms, about figuring out what needs. In this sense, being poetry editor at Insomniac has helped to keep me an apprentice, and as Theodore Roethke once said, “Eternal apprenticeship is the life of the true poet.” (Thanks to poet Chris Banks for reminding me of the Roethke’s statement.)

OCCUPATION: Bookseller (used)
WHEN: 2002 to 2006
LOCATION: Annex Books
EFFECT ON MY WRITING: Working with the marvellous Janet Inksetter at her legendary store was one of my greatest educations in poetry, especially in modern-to-contemporary Canadian poetry. I probably spent most of the money I made working there on books, but it never occurred to me spend it on anything else. It was in Janet’s store where I first learned about the richness of Canadian small press publishing, and about the vast universe of Canadian literature ignored in the textbooks of the academy. I can tell you this: I learned more about poetry and literature and Canadian culture working at Annex Books than I did in university (though my formal education is still very important to me). It never made me a rich man, but this was the most enriching job I’ve ever had. Sadly, the store isn’t there anymore as a brick-and-mortar entity, but Janet still maintains a virtual store online. For the intrepid mind, there are treasures untold to be found there.

OCCUPATION: Bookseller (retail)
WHEN: 2003 to 2006
EFFECT ON MY WRITING: The thing I miss most about working in a retail bookstore is knowing about all the new books coming out (and the staff discount didn’t hurt, either). I was never more plugged in to the book scene as when I worked for an independent book retailer. Knowing which books were being published when and by whom made it very easy for me to find the kinds of books I wanted to read, and that reading certainly informed my writing. It takes me a little longer to uncover those gems now, and I don’t begrudge the browsing, but working in the retail book trade really taught me where to look.

After that, I began teaching for a living, and that brings us to the end of my non-teaching day jobs, which was the point of this exercise. I’ve worked a lot of different jobs on my way to this point in my life, and all of those occupations have had an effect of one kind of another on the development of my writing. I want to thank Sina Queyras for inadvertently suggesting this project to me through her Harriet blog. I’ve found it quite illuminating, and I can feel new poems emerging from it already.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Paul Vermeersch

Paul Vermeersch is the author of The Reinvention of the Human Hand (McClelland & Stewart, 2010) and three other collections of poetry. He is also the editor of The I.V. Lounge Reader and The Al Purdy A-frame Anthology.

Go to Paul Vermeersch’s Author Page