I have been thinking of Dana Gioia, a lot, as of late — but not the formalist poet of Interogations at Noon or the critic responsible for Can Poetry Matter?  I haven’t even thought of his tenure helming the National Endowment for the Humanities.  For me, it’s something a lot more basic and complex at the same time.  Dana Gioia has lived a double life, that as a man wholly absorbed in the arts, and that of a business executive who once had a career in corporate America.  That was something I used to laugh at, quite a bit, thinking the sides were wholly incompatible  Of course, life turns and bites you on the ass.  I laugh at Dana Gioia no longer.

He and I are nothing alike.  He was an exec at General Foods.  I’m a peon hourly manager overwhelmed by a dysfunctional automotive department at a New Jersey Wal*Mart.  Gioia left his corporate life for that of the arts.  I, on the other hand, spent close to a decade trying to get a full time job in academia, only to have some bullshit happen every time I got close — always the adjunct, never the full time instructor.  I left academia because Wal*Mart would provide some much needed stability, and it has.  So much so, I have been actively contemplating trying to climb the management ladder.  Sometimes, I think of trying to go back, just to teach a night class or two, and other times, I just cross my arms and say, “Fuck that noise.”

Despite my everchanging temperament at work, there’s one thing I’ve learned to identify with Dana Gioia, and that’s strange aspect of living and leading a double life.    I am, quite easily, the most educated person in my store.  I don’t say that to be snooty; I say that as a matter of fact.  I have two masters degrees in a place where many people are viaing for an associates in their off time.  Since this is Wal*Mart we’re talking about, the notable exception is the amount of senior citizens and older Americans on their second or third career.    When I was first hired, the Asst. Manager supervising me had an MFA in photography, so she could relate to my situation — although her life was complicated and compounded by Hurricane Katrina and how it had leveled her home in New Orleans. But, there are very few people — and she was one of the exceptions — that I share my background with.  This is practical, because many of the people I work with will not understand my circumstances.   Nor will they care.

I remember, a long time back, learning that I had sold my book length poem “Wood Life” to a publisher (And, trust me, a few glitches, but that sucker’s going to be out soon).  The news came to me via blackberry.  I was giddy, so giddy that I had shed my hard face for a broad smile.  A co-worker asked my why I was so happy, and I tried to explain, and they just shook their head and walked away.  That interaction reminded me of my core principle and retail work ethic: I’m not there to make friends or impress people — I’m there to do my 8-9 hours of wage-labor and then go the fuck home, try to write something, work on publishing somebody else’s books, and kiss my wife as much as she’ll let me.  

But, I cannot change who I am.  And I’m not going to lie about who I am.  So, eventually, the dreaded discussion always comes up.  Usually, the response is: “I never pegged you as that  sort of guy.”  Collegiate types, I’ve been told, are effete types who complain about the brand and variety of soymilk in their lattes and use words like “Antidisestablishmentarianism” while pondering the sexual state of commas in Jane Austen novels.  Apparently, they’re not six foot two men who don’t have problems lifting a lot of boxes.     Mind you, this discussion only concerns educational experience — throw in the word “poetry” and discussion becomes even more tedious for me, in terms of wading people’s misconceptions 

So, yes, it is a double life.  Maybe not to the same specifications as the one Dana Gioia led at General Foods, but in the but it’s one none the less.  The strange thing, however, is that I’ve grown to like it.  Sometimes, I think I’ll never go back to teaching.  The beauty of working at a Wal*Mart is that the bullshit stays in the store.  You don’t take the store home and grade it, and you certainly don’t have to spend your weekend trying to figure what to do in the coming week, and writing lesson plans/lecture notes.  Even better, if you work hard and try not to be an asshole, the management tends to notice, in terms of getting raises.  Whereas, over in academia, department chairs will fall all over themselves to praise you, and give you a feeling of comfort and possibility, but in the end, you’re still and adjunct, in a department crammed full fo them, and the prospect of being anything other than an adjunct are slim with too few opportunities and more than enough qualified people to staff thos opportunites six times over.