Cheryl A. Rice at the 2014 Albany Word Fest Up The River reading at McGeary's in Albany, NY

What Do Non-Poets Do At Dawn?

My writing life, even during the short time that it was a full-time job, has always been a bit askew. This past Pandemic year is a prime example. When my job of seven years moved us to working remotely, calls slowed and I had time in between to pursue several ongoing projects. I had no commute, so there was an hour or more a day I gained back for my own legitimate, private use, too. But I have never been able to accomplish much when great stretches of time are available to me. I’m either preoccupied with the problems of the world or my own unknowable future.

Of course, I must cut myself (and all of us) some slack about 2020. First came shock, when the unthinkable began to unfold around us. My Beloved was furloughed almost immediately and remained so for a year. I continued to work remotely until I too was furloughed at the beginning of August. At least with actual work to cling to, no matter the chaotic state of the world, I could pretend things would be normal again soon. I used the time between calls to clean out files. I discarded twenty-year-old tax records, notes from college that were several decades old, and aborted projects that would in all truth never see my desk again.

I prioritized what was left. I have brought a themed collection of poems to some state of completion. I have a decent desk space here at Casa Diva. I have even made room for colored pencils and paint in recent months. I started collaging. I looked for a new job. I looked for another new job. My old job invited me back.

In all that time, I did not devote an entire day, or even a morning, to writing. I do prefer to write from pure inspiration, and not to a deadline. I write best in the early morning, before the world has had its way with my attention. I write best alone, although I have all the space I need to do what the Muse suggests at any hour. This themed collection required some research on my part, and I have all the pertinent books arranged around me literally at arm’s length.

It may be a habit I developed in high school or college, but I seem to do my best work when I feel as though I’m stealing time from some other obligation. In high school, I spent class time in subjects that bored me (most) on my own poems. In college, I was able to take writing courses, but afterward, I wrote outside of my apartment once my future ex-husband began to harass me. Anything that took time away from being in his sight just wasn’t acceptable. I had a canvas tote bag with Tenniel’s illustration of Alice being bombarded by the Red Queen’s legion of card soldiers. I kept all my poems in it, in those days before computers and flash drives, and spent my lunch breaks writing, editing, creating.

After I ended that relationship, I continued to write, at odd hours and in odd places. I have worked in more places than I can still recall easily, and always toted my poems with me. I still write on paper, for the ease of material access and the direct connect it allows from brain to hand. And now, in the safety of my own house, for the last nineteen years, I can write at my own desk anytime I like, without fear or fury.

I recently returned to my longtime job after seven months away and spent a couple of weeks getting up to speed on the new computer system. We are still working remotely, and calls are expected to increase as the world begins to reopen. My Beloved has a new job, and we part in the morning as before, sleepy kisses and mumbles about dinner plans. I write or edit in the morning, or at least research publishers for the completed collection that I fear will be homeless for a while. I Zoom with other poets every month, and we talk about our work, a lifeline in these isolated times.

And I write around dawn when I am alone. I get on a roll, work from scrawled notes, revise a poem that looked perfect the day before. I do what poets do, all the while sipping on coffee my Beloved has prepared. He won’t share the recipe. We all have our specialties. Mine is disappearing into a fog of words for an hour or so as the sun rises. His is going out to meet the day head-on, unprotected by verse.