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Poetry at Work

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Some of our most famous poets had day jobs: Robert Burns was a tax collector; William Carlos Williams was a doctor; Audre Lorde was a librarian and professor. Poetry has a lot to say about work and can serve as a meeting place, a provocative memo, or a break from the daily grind. In this episode, we hear from the creator of Poetry At Work Day and the editor of Poetry magazine about the power of verse in the workplace. And some Basecamp colleagues share poems that are meaningful to them.

The Full Transcript:

Wailin: [00:00:00] Leslie Villasenor Marchel gets a daily email from a website called Days of the Year, like the day we’re releasing this episode, February 18th, is Pluto Day as in the dwarf planet, Drink Wine Day and Eat Ice Cream for Breakfast Day. Also Battery Day.

Leslie: [00:00:16] I generally like, on Wednesday or Thursday will look ahead for the following week and see if there’s something I can tie into. I put them on my calendar ahead of time and then I get ready. So I’d looked ahead about a week and noticed that it was going to be Poetry at Work Day and I thought, Oh this is fun. I’m going to do something with this one.

Wailin: [00:00:34] Leslie works in fundraising at National Louis University in Chicago and not only was Leslie looking forward to Poetry at Work Day, but she knew just what poem to bring in for the occasion.

Leslie: [00:00:44] I found this poem when my husband and I were out for dinner at one of our favorite neighborhood restaurants. So they have this poster and it says be like a pineapple. So the poem is, Be like a pineapple, stand tall, wear a crown, and be sweet on the inside.

Wailin: [00:01:03] Leslie brought this poem to work and recited it to her colleagues. She also passed out pineapples made out of rice paper.

Leslie: [00:01:09] Well, I went all over the building and made people listen to me in the elevator. Standing outside of a classroom, any opportunity I had where there was a gathering of people, I would share my pineapple poem. I started out and I’d say, okay, I’m going to share my poem. And then I’d say, “Be like a pineapple.” And everyone looks at me and then I say, “Stand tall.” And everybody stands tall. They changed their posture so it’s like they are listening to the poem and then I say, “Wear a crown,” and everybody smiles. And then I say, “And be sweet on the inside.” And everyone goes, aww. It’s short and it is sweet and it elicits a response almost a hundred percent of the time.

[00:01:49] Broken By Design by Clip Art plays.

Shaun: [00:01:50] Roses are red, as God is my witness. Rework’s a show about how to do business. I’m Shaun Hildner.

Wailin: [00:01:55] And I’m Wailin Wong. Poetry at Work Day is the second Tuesday in January, so we kind of missed it this year, but that doesn’t mean we can’t bring poetry to work on other days of the year, too. Today on Rework, we look at the ways poetry can enrich your work life and a few of our colleagues at Basecamp come on to share poems that are meaningful to them.

Shaun: [00:02:14] First up, Wailin talks to the creator of Poetry at Work Day and Take Your Poet to Work Day, which is the third Wednesday of July.

Laura: [00:02:25] I’m Laura Barkat. You would know me as my author name online, which would be L.L. Barkat. I’m a writer and an author and a publisher.

[00:02:35] When I was a child, my mom would read poetry to us every day before we got on the school bus. I remember one that would always make us cry. It’s called “The African Chief” and it was about this person who had been kidnapped from his tribe in Africa and brought to America on a slave ship and it was fairly graphic, actually. We would just cry when she read this to us.

Wailin: [00:03:00] Laura found her way back to poetry as an adult when she got involved in online writing communities. Her website, Tweet Speak Poetry has been around since 2009 and grew out of a Twitter community that would meet up to share responses to poetry prompts.

Laura: [00:03:14] We had developed this idea that poetry should be for life, not for ivory towers. The idea for Poetry at Work Day came up and as usual, my team thought it was just a joke and I took it seriously. I always take seriously our jokes. I think that in our whimsy, that’s where we often find our deepest most important projects, ideas, visions, heart.

[00:03:41] Why take it to work? I think poetry causes shifts in thinking. It can wake us up. It helps create new scripts. You know, we all have these scripts that we have in our heads. Then we have that between say, friends, family members, and also coworkers. Memorizing poems together, having, say, what I would call a poem as a meeting place gives us something to hold in common and to fall back on.

[00:04:09] There’s this great poem by Tony Hoagland called “Wasp.” At one point in the poem he says, “human beings should have a warning label on the side that says: Disorganized Narrative Inside.

[00:04:27] If you’re getting into it with a coworker and you take half a second to remember that line, “Disorganized narrative inside” it can help you step back, say to yourself, you know, what can I do to wait for that narrative to come out in a more fullness? Can I listen?

[00:04:48] I like the way poetry can give us these little phrases that become new scripts in our minds to help us deal with people.

Don: [00:04:53] Well, I think poetry kind of can save people from their worst impulses because it gives them something to think about. It gave me a lot to think about. It still does every day.

Wailin: [00:05:04] Don Share is the editor of Poetry magazine.

Don: [00:05:06] Poetry can be there with you and it can get you through the day and it can get you through hard times and it can be fun on a good day. I like the idea of making it part of a normal regular life because it is.

[00:05:20] I’m reminded of a John Ashbery poem called The Instruction Manual and it has these lines in it.

[00:05:27] As I sit looking out of a window of the building
I wish I did not have to write the instruction manual on the uses of a new metal.
I looked down into the street and see people, each walking with an inner peace,
And envy them — they are so far away from me!
Not one of them has to worry about getting out this manual on schedule.

[00:05:47] That connection between work and poetry is a little complicated because most people work because they have to. Some people are working at what they do because they’re lucky and choose to. But all of us have that feeling that work can be constricting and confining. So poetry can sort of give you, like those lines do, a way of sort of looking out. Just sort of like taking that little pause for your imagination to remind you that you’re alive, that you are more than what you have to do. But you have to do it anyway.

[00:06:22] I mean Philip Larkin has a famous poem and the first two lines say:

Why should I let the toad work
Squat on my life?

[00:06:29] I mean, who hasn’t asked that question, right? That’s like you wake up and you’re like, Oh, why, why, why? So the connection between poetry and work is real and there are a lot of poems that connect with that.

Shaun: [00:06:42] Instead of ad breaks in this episode we thought it might be fun to do little Basecamp poetry breaks. So first up, here’s our colleague Lexi from Basecamp’s, customer support team.

Lexi: [00:06:53] So this is a Nikki Giovanni poem that I thought of when I was listening to the episode of the podcast about the office and how we’re moving. And when you and Jason were describing like the ideal scenario, it made me think of this poem. It’s called, My First Memory (of Librarians).

This is my first memory:
A big room with heavy wooden tables that sat on a creaky wood floor
A line of green shades—bankers’ lights—down the center
Heavy oak chairs that were too low or maybe I was simply too short
For me to sit in and read
So my first book was always big
In the foyer up four steps, a semi-circle desk presided
To the left side the card catalogue
On the right newspapers draped over what looked like a quilt rack Magazines face out from the wall
The welcoming smile of my librarian
The anticipation in my heart
All those books—another world—just waiting
At my fingertips.

Wailin: [00:07:55] I think for a lot of us, the last time we spent any time reading poetry was back in high school and that experience was probably not the greatest.

Don: [00:08:02] You know, I remember we had to memorize poems and one of them started out as a famous poem and it was:

“This is the forest primeval.”

And I was a kid and I was like, I’d never seen a forest. And I didn’t know what primeval meant. So it got off on the wrong foot.

Laura: [00:08:17] Seems to me what happens is you get to high school and the poem becomes an object. An object that you’re analyzing and you’re kind of poking at it and turning it over and you’re not encountering it as a living kind of entity. As a message, as a call from someone else’s heart to your heart.

Don: [00:08:37] I didn’t know there was such a thing as a living poet. I thought they were all like dead white guys with long white beards, you know, and a lot of them were. But Allen Ginsburg came to town and somebody talked me into seeing Allen Ginsburg. So I saw a living, real, famous poet. It was so cool.

Wailin: [00:08:54] This was in the early seventies when Don was 16 years old and growing up in Memphis, Tennessee.

Don: [00:09:00] He was just wild and fascinating and I thought, oh, like that’s a kind of poetry they weren’t going to tell us about in those days. The first thing he did was he meditated. He said, Oohhhmmm. And he did that for a long time and everybody was kind of like, wow, this is not what we expected. And then with the harmonium, he started playing what turned out to be Blake poems set to very primitive, kind of harmonium music. And I just thought, this was like a rock concert, honestly. It had music, it had a kind of theatricality to it and he was a great performer and it was the first time words in a poem came alive for me in any way. And then sorta from there I used to get in trouble in school and they would send me to the library as punishment. And so I, yeah, I’d be there for a long time. I had nothing to do and it’s just keeping me out of circulation.

[00:09:50] Well, in most libraries, the poetry books are the ones that are still on the shelf because they don’t get checked out a lot. So I just started reading. I would pull a book off the shelf and read it and I was finding great stuff that they didn’t tell me about. It was just right there the whole time. So that’s kind of where it all started. And nobody told me what to read. Nobody told me what was good or bad or who was, I didn’t know who was famous and who wasn’t. And I start walking around school with a book of poems and people would sort of give me a funny look and I liked that. It was a little offbeat and at the same time I discovered there was a lot of people like me doing that same thing, kind of.

[00:10:24] The rebelliousness or secretiveness of poetry. It kind of felt interesting and cool, but most importantly there were poems that really spoke to me and I didn’t know that they existed. And the only way for me to discover them was the read, poke around. And there was a whole world that I got into. But I did have an English teacher in high school and she just kind of took me aside and she said, you know, why don’t you do something useful with all this energy that you seem to have. Like, instead of disrupting class, smart aleck remarks, why don’t you write some stuff down?

[00:10:59] And I was like, oh because I didn’t think it was okay to write my own stuff down. I thought I had to read what everybody else had written.

Wailin: [00:11:06] Don continued to read and write poetry into adulthood and eventually landed at Poetry magazine, becoming editor in 2013.

Don: [00:11:14] And we design, produce and create a monthly magazine and that is a business even though we’re a nonprofit. And we have a tight production schedule because we work on four issues at a time. And basically we publish three magazines. There’s the print magazine, there’s the one on the website, and there’s the one in the app and each production system is completely different. We get 150,000 poems submitted here a year. So much of my life is connected to poetry that everything sort of filters in, in just the right way.

Wailin: [00:11:44] Of course, Don is the outlier, the rare person who does poetry at work full time, but there are lots of small ways to introduce poetry into your day. You can go to Tweet Speak Poetry, Laura Barkat’s website and sign up for a daily emailed poem that goes out Monday through Friday. The Poetry Foundation, which publishes Poetry magazine, has an audio poem of the day at its website and does a weekly podcast. And I’ve been listening to a short daily podcast called The Slowdown where Tracy K. Smith, who was the US Poet Laureate, reads a poem. Don Share says, not to be intimidated by poetry, just dive in and see what you like.

Don: [00:12:20] People worry too much. You don’t have to understand everything. You might not understand any of it, but if you like it, you like it. That’s it. And on the other hand, if you don’t like it, you don’t have to.

Laura: [00:12:33] It’s a seed. It’s a poetry seed. And hopefully from that seed grows the smallest of ideas. Like maybe I can start taking a poetry break instead of just a coffee break, just a lunch break. Maybe. You know, instead of, not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with spending your whole break scrolling through social media, but maybe—

Wailin: [00:12:54] Guilty, guilty.

Laura: [00:12:56] Well, I’ve done it myself. But to say, well, maybe I’ll take a poetry break instead. Feed my spirit, feed my mind, feed my soul.

Shaun: [00:13:06] And on that note, let’s take another Basecamp poetry break. Here’s Matthew Vincent, a member of our Ops team

Matthew: [00:13:12] On Clothes by Kahlil Gibran.

And the weaver said, Speak to us of
And he answered:
Your clothes conceal much of your beauty,
yet they hide not the unbeautiful.
And though you seek in garments the
freedom of privacy you may find in them
a harness and a chain.
Would that you could meet the sun
and the wind with more of your skin and less
of your raiment,
For the breath of life is in the sunlight
and the hand of life is in the wind.

Some of you say, ‘It is the north wind
who has woven the clothes we wear.’
And I say Ay, it was the north wind,
But shame was his loom, and the soften-
ing of the sinews was his thread.
And when his work was done he laughed
in the forest.
Forget not that modesty is for a shield
against the eye of the unclean.
And when the unclean shall be no more,
what were modesty but a fetter and a fouling
of the mind?
And forget not that the earth delights to
feel your bare feet and the winds long to
play with your hair.

Wailin: [00:14:37] There’s a famous poem by William Carlos Williams called, This Is Just To Say. It goes,

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast.

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold.

[00:14:53] If this sounds familiar, it might be because it became a Twitter meme a couple of years ago with people riffing on the original poem, then combining it with song lyrics and so on.

[00:15:03] This poem popped into my head while doing this episode because it occurred to me that the shared office fridge is kind of a fraught place. And coworkers maybe don’t have conflicts over eating each other’s plums, but maybe they do have conflicts over, you know, eating each other’s leftover Thai food or whatever.

[00:15:19] Actually, it turns out that the kitchen in the offices of Poetry magazine does inspire verse.

Don: [00:15:26] Every once in a while here we do find some verse or allusions to verse on a Post-It note and there’s a little staff kitchen. And I did a one day find a wonderful Post-It note that said, “There are a lot of Lotus-eaters here. And it was very funny because this idea of Lotus-eaters goes way back through mythology where if you are a Lotus-eater, you sort of, you’re hallucinating. It’s like a drug and your sort of mind is in the clouds and stuff like that.

And there’s actually a poem called The Lotos-eaters by Alfred, Lord Tennyson and so you do find every once in a while this sort of scrawl or graffiti that’s almost real poetry around here. And the freedom to do that in the workplace is something I urge everybody to take up. I mean just imagine if you left a line or two of poetry on a Post-It note in your staff kitchen.

Wailin: [00:16:20] Another way to take your Poetry at Work game to the next level is trying what Laura and her colleagues are doing, which is studying one poem together for a year. Here’s the one they chose.

Laura: [00:16:30] You don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made in the world may prevail
and following the wrong god home, we may miss our star.

For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
storming out to play from the broken dike.

And as elephants parade holding each elephant’s tail,
but if one wanders the surface won’t find the park,
I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.

And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region and all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should consider—
less the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.

For it is important that awake people be awake,
or breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the answers we give—yes or no, or maybe—
should it be clear: the darkness around us is deep.

[00:17:41] That’s A Ritual to Read to Each Other by William Stafford.

[00:17:44] Every team in America and all leadership groups in America should read this poem with each other before they start their meetings. First of all, it’s a wise poem, it has a lot of space in it for thinking and considering and it asks something of us. And it asks something of us in the way that we behave with one another.

Don: [00:18:05] You know, I don’t like to make really grandiose claims about poetry because they’re not true. Poetry doesn’t make you a better person or the world would be full of great people and even poets themselves are often terrible people. Say, I wouldn’t want to be married to Ted Hughes, you know. But he’s a great poet. But I, you know, no way. Right?

[00:18:24] There are a lot of poets who have and had terrible political views, they’re racist, misogynist, the whole thing. Because poets are not different from other people and they’re not better than other people either. So I don’t like to have an exalted view of poetry that makes these big claims for it.

[00:18:39] I don’t know if poetry induces empathy in other people. I’m sort of dubious. I think it can, but I’m not sure about that because look at it this way. I get all these 150,000 poems here. Well, not everybody sending them to me is an empathetic, wonderful person. I may not be, myself. Right? So I’m worried about that because I don’t think… again, it’s sort of like a vegetable that’s good for you. I don’t think it works that way.

[00:19:12] A lot of poems have the purpose of alienating people. There are poems that are designed to provoke. They’re provocations, like other kinds of art can be. They may be nasty on purpose. That’s a legitimate purpose of poetry as it would be for film, painting, even music. You know, some stuff is designed to confront people with realities that are no fun. So it has other things to do besides make people better. And I don’t frankly know of any poets who write a poem to make anybody better.

[00:19:46] At the same time. It can be very, very healthy to read poems, even unpleasant ones, to wake you up. One of the things that poetry does and can do is it reminds you that there are people who have different values and ideas than you do, and it can connect you with them. And it’s a way for people to have differences without violence, without conflict. That intimacy that’s in poetry humanizes things so that at the least, it may not make you better, but it can help make you more aware of what it’s like to be a person somewhere else. It does remind you of our own kind of humanity and it gives you that insight into what might make things better for people. But a poem alone can’t really do that. I mean, we have to do that.

Leslie: [00:20:40] Today my calendar is telling me it’s Answer Your Cat’s Questions Day.

Wailin: [00:20:45] Do you have a cat?

Leslie: [00:20:47] I do. You know, some cats don’t spend a lot of time asking us questions. I think they think they’re above that and they just don’t have to deal with us.

Wailin: [00:20:56] Have you read your cat the pineapple poem?

Leslie: [00:20:58] I have not, but I have read my dog the pineapple poem.

Wailin: [00:21:01] Oh, how did they react?

Leslie: [00:21:03] So, she just looked at me quizzically. She’s a cute little wonderful dog. Poetry is not her thing.

Wailin: [00:21:10] Okay, that’s fair.

[00:21:13] Broken By Design by Clip Art plays.

Shaun: [00:21:17] Rework is produced by Wailin Wong and me, Shaun Hildner. Our theme music is by Clip Art. Please stick around past the credits because we have one more Basecamp poetry break, this time from Troy, the Director of Operations here at Basecamp.

Wailin: [00:21:30] Laura Barkat’s website is and Tweets Speak Poetry is at where you can find little cutouts of famous poets that you can color and put on a popsicle stick to bring in for Take Your Poet to Work Day in July. You can also sign up for their daily poetry email. The Poetry Foundation is at and the Poetry magazine podcast can be found wherever you listen to Rework. And Leslie’s favorite poem about the pineapple is credited to an entrepreneur named Katherine Gaskin. She’s on Instagram at @katgaskin. Now, here’s our colleague Troy, with a benediction for all of us.

Troy: [00:22:15] My poem for Poetry at Work is Blessing for Those Who Are Exhausted by John O’Donohue. This just really struck a chord with me recently as we were going through the holidays and struggling to get work things wrapped up and getting teenagers ready and off for the holidays and all of the things that come about that. This really was just a reminder that sometimes slowing down and connecting with yourself is an important aspect of life and work and really everything. So here we are. Blessing for Those Who Are Exhausted

When the rhythm of the heart becomes hectic,
Time takes on the strain until it breaks;
Then all the unattended stress falls in
On the mind like an endless increasing weight.

The light in the mind becomes dim.
Things you could take in your stride before
Now become laborsome events of will.

Weariness invades your spirit.
Gravity begins falling inside you,
Dragging down every bone.

The tide you never valued has gone out.
And you are marooned on unsure ground.
Something within you has closed down;
and you cannot push yourself back to life.

You have been forced to enter empty time.
The desire that drove you has relinquished.
There is nothing else to do now but rest
And patiently learn to receive the self
You have forsaken for the race of days.

At first your thinking will darken
And sadness will take over like listless weather.
The flow of unwept tears will frighten you.

You have traveled too fast over false ground;
Now your soul has come to take you back.

Take refuge in your senses, open up
To all the small miracles you rushed through.

Become inclined to watch the way of rain
When it falls slow and free.

Imitate the habit of twilight,
Taking time to open the well of color
That fostered the brightness of day.

Draw alongside the silence of stone
Until its calmness can claim you.
Be excessively gentle with yourself.

Stay clear of those vexed in spirit.
Learn to linger around someone of ease
Who feels they have all the time in the world.

Gradually, you will return to yourself,
Having learned a new respect for your heart
And the joy that dwells far within slow time.

Shaun: [00:24:54] Roses are red as God is my witness. Rework is a show about how to do business. I’m Shaun Hildner.

Wailin: [00:25:00] This is… don’t be mad, you have to do the contraction otherwise we lose the rhythm.

Shaun: [00:25:09] Well, we’re keeping your critique of my poetry reading in, that’s for sure.

Wailin: [00:25:13] Otherwise, there’s an extra syllable.

Shaun: [00:25:15] My iambic pentameter isn’t good enough for you.

Wailin: [00:25:17] You know how long I sat there and was like, what can we say that’s going to fit into this rhythm?