Once again we return to our So You Want My Job  series, in which we interview men who are employed in desirable jobs and ask them about the reality of their work and for advice on how men can live their dream.
There are legions of aspiring writers out there–would-be journalists, novelists, and bloggers are a dime a dozen. But I had never met someone who aspired to write verse, until I connected with Jordan Chaney. Perhaps you too never gave any thought to being a poet as a job, figuring that full-time poets died off a century ago or were reserved to those chosen to be poet laureates. But as Mr. Chaney discusses in this interview, being a poet can still be a real career in this day and age; it just takes a lot of hustle and heart.
1. Tell us a little about yourself (Where are you from? How old are you? Describe your job and how long you’ve been at it, etc.).
My name is Jordan Chaney, and I live in Kennewick, WA, right in the heart of wine country–though I was born in Alexandria, VA all the way across the map near Washington D.C. When I meet a person for the first time and they ask me what I do for a living, I tell them very confidently, “I am a poet.” I usually get a raised eyebrow or shy “ah, ok” or “hmmm, interesting.” And I don’t blame them; in my 32 years on earth I have never seen an ad in the classifieds that read: Wanted: An energetic sap that has a soft spot for metaphor & rhyme. Must have their own pen, paper, and car and be willing to travel to random locations on any given week. No 401K. No healthcare provided. A road less traveled indeed. I started pursuing life as a poet in 2003 and have been at it full-time for about a year now. Between the ages of 16 and 24, I had over 54 different jobs. I was everything from a concrete form layer to a pharmaceutical rep, and every job that I ever held had one very agonizing thing in common: a boss! I’m not the type that has a problem with authority or anything like that, it’s just that I believe I have just as much personality, creativity, and go-getter-ness in me that I decided to take a leap of faith and go after my wildest childhood dream, and that is to be who I am today: a poet with a paycheck.
2. Why did you want to become a poet? When did you know it was what you wanted to do?
When I was 7 years old, my mother showed me a poem titled “Mr. H.” The poem was about a young woman who was in a poisonous and toxic relationship with a man by the name of Mr. H. Mr. H was abusive towards her. He was controlling and jealous and spent all of this young girl’s money, but no matter how evil he was to her, she could not leave him. She wouldn’t leave Mr. H even though the relationship was truly becoming deadly; this woman would do anything she could to be with him. At the end of the poem it is revealed that Mr. H is really the drug heroin and this woman is losing a battle to her addiction. I know that that is really heavy reading for a 7-year-old, but it did two very powerful things for my consciousness. 1) It illustrated a very real and scary issue that a lot of people face in our world. 2) It gave me a high understanding of metaphor as a tool for expressing myself with word. I didn’t know then that I wanted to be a poet, but 14 years later when I was living in one of the most crime and drug-infested neighborhoods in Phoenix, Arizona, I was up late writing and watching HBO, and a movie came on called Slam, and a poet by the name of Saul Williams recited a poem called “Amethyst Rocks.” The poem reminded me of “Mr. H;” it felt like the message came full circle. It gave me the chills, and I knew then at 21 years old that I wanted to save the world with my poetry.
3. Now let’s get right to the question everyone is likely wondering about: how can someone support themselves and make a living as a poet?
Two of the most important things I learned about myself after surviving 54 painful jobs is that I know how to market Me, and I am good with people. Most of all, I am a shameless self-promoter. I get out and shake a lot of hands and will perform a poem on the spot to build a relationship, and that relationship has a way of growing into a gig of some kind. I have written a book titled Double-Barreled Bible, and there is a CD that comes with it too. The money from that helps pay the bills and for business cards and so on. I am working on a second book titled Fly, and I also have a column that I contribute poetry to in a magazine called Winepress Northwest. Another way I have made income is by creating a workshop and teaching poetry and communication skills; that has been a great success. I have been invited to several places throughout the country to facilitate my workshop including colleges and prisons. It’s a grind–a lot of people don’t take what you do seriously or know how to assign value to your art. But there’s hope. There are several ways to make money as a poet–you just have to be willing to try different things, and you have to really want to make it work. I do.
4. How do you get attention and a following for your work? Some would-be full-time poets are turning to social media—things like blogs, Facebook, and Twitter to promote themselves and their work, while other poets feel such methods cheapen their craft. What’s your take?
Since I am an independent artist, a lot of my “gigs” come from me getting out and meeting people. Selling what I can do and myself. I turn a lot of my contacts into real friends, and they have helped me in more ways than I can count. My networking ability is my strongest asset. My Facebook page helps me to stay connected with people I have met at colleges and other venues. Writing for Winepress Northwest has helped me reach wineries that pay to book me too. I am willing to do what it takes to sustain my life and reach my goals. I don’t feel that putting your work out there using these methods cheapens my craft. I see it as a great way to get my books into as many hands as possible.
5. How do family/friends/would-be romantic partners react when you tell them you’re pursuing a career as a full-time poet? Have people been supportive?
At first when I shared my ambitions to be a career poet with some of my old friends, the idea was immediately given a fat-lip, dragged out in the alley, and had the crap kicked out of it. I was laughed at, discouraged, and warned of how fruitless the pursuit would ultimately be. These “friends” were looking out for my best interest after all, right? Not! We disbanded a few months later, and I decided that I wouldn’t let anyone stomp out my dream ever again no matter what. 99% of the people in my life today are the most loving and supportive people I could ever ask for. When a person sets out to achieve a goal they will instantly be met with opposition. But that is where the true beginning is because if a person truly intends on making something happen in their life, their network is the secret factor. The quantity and quality of actual support in their support group will determine the likelihood of that dream manifesting. If I never understood that one very powerful thing, I would not be where I am today. That is no exaggeration. You have got to surround yourself with supportive people.
6. What is the best part of your job?
The best part of my job is that I get to give people the best part of me: my art! When I share my poetry and my stories with people, they tell me that they are inspired to start pursuing their dreams and goals again. I love that what I have overcome and put into words has inspired so many people and has created “work” for me to the point that I am able to support my family. I put quotations around work because it often feels like play, and a quote comes to mind: “If you do what you love you will never work a day in your life.” I’m not sure who said that, but when it comes to careers, truer words were never spoken. One of my favorite poets, Buddy Wakefield, summed it up as “Live for a living.” That is the greatest and the best part of my job–that I fully get to be me. I don’t have to negotiate my self-respect or identity in the workplace if a boss or co-worker is having a bad day and wants to shove some of it my way. I saw that a lot through all the jobs that I had. People are able to cling to their jobs for so long by having the ability to bite their tongues. My job now is the total opposite. And I found that if you bite your tongue too many times, you can lose your voice and dampen your spirit. The best part of my job is that it requires me to be fully alive and loving what I do.
7. What is the worst part of your job?
The worst part of my job is that I feel as though I wear a lot of hats. I am an independent artist and that comes with a lot of skills needed to make it all work. I write creative material, perform that material, promote myself, book and negotiate gigs, draw up invoices, shop for supplies needed…it’s like running a department store by myself. There is always something that needs to be done, but I would much rather handle it on my own then to work for anyone.
8. What is the work/family/life balance like for you?
Though sometimes I get into grind mode and don’t want to be bothered by anyone, I always, always make time for my lady and my son. They are the reason why I chose this path. I want to see them happy, and I know the happier I am with life, the happier they will be in life too. A lot of parents tell their kids that they can be anything they want to be and all the while they are clinging to a job they hate. My son has a mini-recording studio and a business license of his own. He fully believes that his dream of being a R&B recording artist is fully possible, and I encourage him to be exactly what he wants to be. He has recently started coming to some of my gigs with me to earn extra money and to get experience being near stages and microphones. But I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that juggling both worlds wasn’t overwhelming at times. After extroverting all day long you sometimes want to go home and introvert, but your family is now excited for you to be home and ready to talk. Sometimes at the end of the day, you just want to have silence and be left alone. So making time for my family is something that I made a priority once I noticed that I felt that way.
9. What is the biggest misconception people have about your job?
I think the biggest misconception that people have about my job is that it is not important or truly needed or in demand. That couldn’t be further from the truth. I used to work as an employment specialist once upon a time. Part of my job was to meet with an economist once a month to study market trends for in-demand jobs per zip code. That data would help me assist my clients with what job to go after. Well, being privy to job trend market info gave me the awareness of what really is in demand in our society today. Inspiration. People are bombarded with magazine ads and commercials selling them anti-depressants–“hope in a bottle”–and these drug companies are so successful at selling pills because they know that people are willing to spend LOTS of money on hope. I am succeeding because of the same principle, but I am doing it with poetry and stories of triumph and also educating people how to express themselves the same way and grow a new tongue. What I do is definitely in demand.
10. Any other advice, tips, commentary, or anecdotes you’d like to share?
I have been successful at what I do because I understand something about grinding to make your dream come true, and I’ll sum that up in this short anecdote…
Every day in Africa when the sun comes up a gazelle knows that it must outrun the fastest lion in order to survive. And every day in Africa when the sun comes up a lion knows that it must outrun the slowest gazelle in order to survive. The moral of the story is this: It doesn’t matter if you’re a lion, gazelle, or a poet: when the sun comes up you better start running.
Don’t be a dreamer be a dream Do-ER!