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
Poetry at Work, by Glynn Young, foreword by Scott Edward Anderson
“This book is elemental.”
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