Beatriz Fernandez signs all of her emails with a quote from Argentine poet Jorge Luis Borges, who built his career while moonlighting as a translator and screenwriter.
“A writer lives. The task of being a poet is not completed at a fixed schedule. No one is a poet from 8 to 12 and from 2 to 6. Whoever is a poet is one always, and continually assaulted by poetry.”
Every morning, Fernandez is a poet at home for a few hours, before she has to leave to sit behind Florida International University’s reference desk, where she is a part-time librarian.
“A lot of times, it’s really hard to drag myself to work, once I get on something,” Fernandez says. “It’s hard to interrupt the process, you just want to stay until you’re done. But you get as much of it done as you can.”
Fernandez isn’t simply trying to squeeze in a little writing outside the office. She considers her poetry a whole other career. But around 1 or 2 p.m., she’s forced to close her laptop and head to work.
Fernandez relies on her FIU paycheck -- and her husband’s. He’s an astronomy professor. Which is a good thing, she says, because sometimes she only earns $20 for publishing a poem.
“It would be really hard to [be] a professional poet,” Fernandez says.
Letisia Cruz shares that sentiment. A marketing coordinator by day, she can’t imagine focusing solely on her writing.
“I really like having a job that’s outside of writing,” Cruz says. “If that was my job, I think I’d be really stressed about that. Because it’s not that way, it’s something that I always look forward to. It doesn’t stress me out. It does the opposite, you know, it alleviates any stress.”
Poetry isn’t her job, but it’s what she studied in college. She estimates she owes around $70,000 in student loans. A good chunk of that was for a master’s in fine arts. But she says it’s money she’s happy to have spent.
“My sisters both went out at some point and got these fancy cars, and the M.F.A. was my fancy car,” Cruz jokes. “There’s no amount of debt that would have made me feel like I shouldn’t have done it.”
Jaswinder Bolina has found a way to combine his art and his career. He’s the newest assistant professor of English and creative writing at the University of Miami.
“My goal was always to be a university teacher of some kind,” Bolina says.
Bolina says the notion of the poet in the academy is a relatively recent development. Many poets considered to be “the greats” had nothing to do with academia: William Carlos Williams was a doctor, Wallace Stevens was an insurance executive, and Gertrude Stein was independently wealthy.
“If you have an independent source of income and you’re writing on your side, you may feel more liberated to do what you want in your poems,” Bolina says. “You might take greater risks. You don’t have the same kind of publication pressure.”
Before becoming a professor, Bolina earned his money as a bartender, a book editor, a webmaster -- anything that left him time to write.
But if he focused on writing alone, he still wouldn’t be earning much money.
“I suspect it’s like trying to be an actor or a musician. You’re just trying to do anything that‘ll pay the bills and afford you those hours that you need,” he says. “I wish everybody could just do what you really want to be doing so you don’t feel like you’re working.”