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Day jobs inspire poet Ellen Watson, who will speak at Self-Employment in the Arts Conference

Ellen Watson has taught, translated and held medical and retail jobs.

Special to the Times

Ellen Watson has taught, translated and held medical and retail jobs.

Poets might not find the current economic crisis all that daunting, Ellen Dore Watson says. "You never get paid very much for that anyway."

An award-winning poet (This Sharpening) and translator, and director of the Poetry Center at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., Watson will be in Tampa on Saturday to talk about the sometimes surprising connections between poetry and making a living.

She will be one of 18 speakers at the third annual Southern Regional Self-Employment in the Arts Conference at the University of Tampa. Conference sessions will address the nuts and bolts of making art and making it pay for writers, filmmakers, visual artists and actors.

Last year, the conference drew about 150 artists, students, faculty and members of arts organizations, according to conference director Suzanne Williamson.

Watson's session is titled "Translator, Editor, Teacher, Curator — How My Day Jobs Have Made Me a Better Writer." She has held all those day jobs, and others as well, while actively writing poetry.

At UT she will talk about "how the choices we make can take us to unexpected places."

For example, she says, "I ended up living for a while in Brazil. I learned Portuguese, and there was a poet I liked that I wanted to translate. Little did I know that when I came back there would be this boom in Latin American literature."

Watson found work full time as a translator. "After a while, though, I grew tired of sitting in a room with no one to answer to for my own indolence, so I got a job in a bookstore."

There, she ended up running a successful reading series and becoming the store's poetry buyer — which led to her present post as director of Smith's Poetry Center.

"The day jobs feed the poetry," she says. "If you're translating, editing, teaching, you're always using words. It can only make you a better writer."

For several years, she held another job a bit more unexpected for a poet: volunteer emergency medical technician, working as part of an ambulance crew. "For the first year, I didn't dare write about it. I felt this need to look into people's lives in their moment of greatest need, but it felt as if I were using them if I wrote about it."

The death of a child changed her mind. "That was a turning point. I felt I had to write about this little girl, and I had to use her name." The poem, Liza, begins:

In the ambulance a child/ is turning blue around the edges./ The sweep of time has lifted up her life/ and we are a blur of hands trying/ to refasten her to it.

Watson asked the girl's parents how they would feel if she published the poem. "They were delighted to have a memorial to her. People like to have their stories told."

Another of Watson's day jobs has made her much more productive as a writer. For about 20 years she has taught generative writing classes as a freelancer. "I put an ad in the paper, talk to friends, send out an e-mail blast. Individuals pay me to take the class."

What they get are three-hour sessions. "In the first hour I read a poem, then I pull out some language, structure, bits of it to use as prompts." She might replace certain words with X or Y, as in an algebra problem, or give students a list of words from the poem, "whatever part of this gets your imagination going."

Then, everyone writes — including Watson. "I get more written in two hours in those classes than in six hours at home. You're not going to get up and make a pot of tea and put the laundry in. All those people scribbling away, it's inspiring."

In the third hour, they read what they've written out loud. "It's not a critique. These poems are like newborns; you don't criticize a newborn. But they get feedback. It creates enthusiasm about writing."

The generative classes are "a different kind of mentorship" from the poetry writing classes she teaches at Smith, Watson says. "Academics are often only exposed to 21-year-olds. The outside group, they're 40, 50, 60 years old. They have the world that they bring to their poems."

The connection that brought Watson to UT is Donald Morrill, a professor in the English department. Watson has published some of his poems in the Massachusetts Review, where she is poetry and translations editor. Watson and Morrill, whose new collection of essays is titled Impetuous Sleeper, will read from and sign their books Friday at Inkwood Books. (See Book Talk, Page 8.)

Then, on Saturday, she'll be sharing her experience with other writers. "Following your bliss is always good. It might be something that brings you income, or just something that makes you happy. It's an interesting weave."

Colette Bancroft can be reached at or (727) 893-8435.

. if you go

Self-Employment in the Arts Conference

What: Third annual Self-Employment in the Arts Conference, "Artists Surviving and Thriving Together."

When: Registration at 8:15 a.m., sessions begin at 9, reception at 4:45 p.m. Saturday.

Where: Vaughn Center, University of Tampa, 401 W Kennedy Blvd.

Cost: $45; $25 for students. To register, contact Angie Ballard at (813) 257-3782 or For a full conference schedule, go to

Day jobs inspire poet Ellen Watson, who will speak at Self-Employment in the Arts Conference 03/14/09 [Last modified: Saturday, March 14, 2009 4:30am]
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