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Poetry at Work Book Club: The Poetry of Layoffs and Restructuring


poetry at work poetry of layoffs

An email from the department head calling for a “clock meeting” was never a good thing. In 2008, I was still working for a regional insurance carrier, and the informal, mid-morning gathering of the staff under the clock in the open area outside our cubicles was becoming all too frequent and had yet to be the forum for announcing good news. Rather, it was the delivery vehicle for unwelcome news that my claims manager wisely wanted her team to hear all at one time, rather than in starts and stops as employees had opportunity to open emails.

It was during one of these “clock meetings” some months before that we’d been informed of the layoff of over half of our administrative support. And it was during another of these meetings that we’d been informed that our department was being relocated to Iowa sometime in the next year. (Iowa? Mind you, we were located in South Dakota. But relocating to Iowa?)

By the time we’d met under the clock to hear that the company had received an unprecedented number of claims due to Hurricane Ike and that our office would be called upon to assist, we’d already stood around the copy machine under the clock with our hands in our pockets and been told of the “unprecedented” losses sustained during Hurricane Gustav. And before that, Hurricane Fay.

Eyeing my  colleagues, I spoke up, not yet knowing I was the poet in the office. I was a team player and a driven performer who kept my head down and (most of) my complaints to myself. But across the company, in the midst of a record-breaking hurricane season, office closures were happening faster than the expanding offices could staff up, and while we waited for “our turn,” the workloads continued to increase.

“I know you’re only passing along the message you’re being given,” I said. “But I think Corporate needs to understand that a scenario can only be ‘unprecedented’ so many times before there’s precedent. They need to stop closing offices until they have staff in the new ones. If they can’t do that, they need to at least find a different word.”

I wasn’t writing poetry at the time I went through my second corporate restructuring (both of which closed or relocated my department). I would have still considered poetry “cryptic nonsense,” in fact. But I did write a lot during those months, some of which tapped into the strangely poetic nature of the experience, though I couldn’t have seen it then.

In Poetry at Work, Glynn Young recounts his own experience with restructuring and layoffs in the late 1990s.

There was poetry in there, somewhere. But I couldn’t write poetry then and find it difficult even now. Organizations think of layoffs as “business” decisions; the people affected find them intensely personal and painful.

He shares a poem by Richard Cole, October Layoffs, which concludes with this stanza, after describing a dream in which the corporate ax literally sliced through his literal neck:

Startled, I lie in the dark. I’ve seen,
I think, what I needed to see:
that I’ll never work again for anyone else,”
not with my heart, not with faith,
and I close my eyes, falling asleep
and sleep like the dead until morning.

On my last day of work, a friend came to my office wanting a tour of the building while I still had access, a seven-story curiosity on the flat prairie where my little town is situated. As he wandered around the vacant seventh-floor executive suite (the bygone glory days of the first insurance company ever to occupy this building are memorialized in mahogany and 1970s gold and rust decor to this day), I looked out over the landscape from the corner window and noticed for the first time that my town, built in a valley, looked like it was in a bowl. As I waited for my final HR meeting that day, I wrote

We’re at the bottom of the bowl. I can see the coteau lining the horizon and the highway running downhill to the bottom of this basin. At the bottom, I can’t see that I’m in a valley. At the top, I can.

It seems to me that this should mean something profound.

But I’m all contemplated out.

Looking back, I know that the experience was rife with poetry. But I also know that for much of the time, there was simply nothing to say.


We’re wrapping up our discussion of Poetry at Work today. Have you been reading along? In chapters 16 and 17, Glynn explores the complicated, painful experience of layoffs and unemployment. Perhaps you’d share your experience in the comments. Other chapters this week considered the poetry of the crisis, the poetry of the best (or worst) job you’ve had, the poetry of electronic work, the poetry of workplace restoration and the poetry of retirement. Share your thoughts with us in the comments on your favorite chapter, and any poems or observations you wrote along the way.

Catch up on the rest of our discussion of Glynn Young’s Poetry at Work

January 8: The Poetry of the Workspace (Introduction – Chapter 7)
January 15: The Poetry of Beauty in the Workplace (Chapters 8 – 12)
January 22: The Poetry of Layoffs and Restructuring (Chapters 13 – 20)

Browse more Poetry at Work

Photo by Marc Falardeau, Creative Commons license via Flickr. Post and photo by L. Willingham Lindquist.


Poetry at Work Business and Poetry Books
Poetry at Work, by Glynn Young, foreword by Scott Edward Anderson

“This book is elemental.”

—Dave Malone


Buy Poetry at Work Now




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Your Comments

18 Comments so far

  1. Lyla, I have been through my share of teacher strikes (2 in the last 5 years) and the frustration with administration is something I’m all too familiar with. School district policies always manage to keep the suits at the top, laying off growing numbers of the people who actually do the work in Education.
    I’m ‘retired’ now working as a substitute, leaving me the freedom to spend my days as I did yesterday, at the hospital with a family member who needed me.
    I sat and read through Chapter 14 of Glynn’s book–The Poetry of Interpersonal Conflict–while I was waiting.
    Grateful I am that I wasn’t struggling with any interpersonal conflict (at the time), I sat and wrote a poem about my ‘work’ for the day–visiting at the hospital.


    Reflective marble hallways
    hold staccato taps and thuds
    as hungry hospital hordes
    stream from the doorways towards lunch.

    My station window-side grants me
    a front row seat
    to conversations and crowds
    thinning, growing,
    ebbing and flowing
    like walking waves
    along this light-filled corridor.

    I bide my time,
    sure of banishing any boredom
    as I sit with my quiet feet.

    It is good to be still
    and wait.

    I’m looking and listening for far more poetry than I ever did before, thanks to Poetry at Work.

    • “like walking waves
      along this light-filled corridor.”

      I like that. :0

      Restructuring is hard, no matter how well it’s handled. In both of my situations, I have to say that all in all it was handled as well as it could be. But still…

  2. That poem, “October Layoffs,” was one of my favorite parts of Glynn’s book. I think it’s just good to know that the poetry of the layoff is out there, even if while in the midst of it, you can’t write. It says that others have been there, too. Maybe the layoff poem is one you write 10 years later.

  3. nance.mdr says:

    coteau is my new-word-of-the-day.

  4. Violet N. says:

    I can sure relate–from the partner’s perspective. When my husband’s job was in jeopardy for the second time in seven years I couldn’t write about what I dreaded until the morning after it happened. (Perhaps because I feared saying the words would actually bring it about?) But the morning after, it came pouring out. I eventually wrestled it into 14 lines.


    Five years ago the cut was surgical.
    Just minutes with the boss and it was done
    a severance of sinew, muscle, bone
    shock was the anesthetic, then slow heal.

    This time they used an endless tourniquet
    new paradigms, objectives, letters, dates
    twisting his job description with new weights
    revealing their design by slow degree.

    He slept, I fought with dread through winter nights
    Is what I think I’m seeing really there?
    And then more business, spring – I dropped despair.
    The date they gave him passed. We’ll be alright!

    Till yesterday – the car door slams, he walks
    with office things, like ashes, in a box.

  5. Lyla,
    This line of yours struck me:”But I’m all contemplated out.” I can relate. Thank you.

  6. “At the bottom, I can’t see that I’m in a valley. At the top, I can.”

    Contemplating that…

  7. The Layoffs

    Words like doppelgängers hang
    in the head. Two swinging bodies
    on time-burdened ropes. Forced
    retirement meant to mask the eyes
    that look backward to purpose
    and meaning, the swing of routine
    woven into productivity damned
    by unfettered nihilistic chaos.

    Bodies stiffening, no longer
    aware of the breeze that disturbs
    the hair on distended heads.
    Minds floating above the initial
    shock of uselessness, crashing
    against glass ceilings whose
    identity is no more than figments
    of deteriorating imagination.

    The stench of released fluids
    wafts over the cognitive fight
    for reason. The phoenix sleeps
    on chilled ashes behind the water
    cooler. Yesterday’s sardonic quip
    gurgles in the clogged pipes
    about to spew outrage and disbelief
    on yet another unsuspecting victim.

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