When the company I used to work for restructured, there was a general air of unhappiness among the longtime employees. Departments were renamed, jobs were redefined, and desks were moved. A combination of malaise and anxiety filled the hallways.
A co-worker, who is also a poet, and I composed a letter to the human resources department. We proposed starting a bulletin board where employees could display poems or short pieces. The work theme seemed like a good subject to begin with, but new subjects could be announced periodically.
We knew that not everyone would be interested in contributing. From my experiences as a poet in public schools, however, I knew that just the act of sharing writing engenders a sense of community. Reading the work of a co-worker might decrease the sense of alienation. We made all these points in our letter.
We sent the letter through the inter-office mail in a regulation brown envelope and waited several weeks for a response. But no brown envelope from human resources appeared.
One day I was checking the e-mail on my computer. Among all the mundane company announcements was a message addressed to me. The sender's name was unfamiliar - a new member of the human resources department, I guessed. The message was a disheartening response, disheartening because it ignored all our reasons for making the request. I read the sentences with dismay:
"Due to the fact that we don't allow employees to post any material that is not directly related to our business, we cannot honor your request. Our other concern is that most likely many of our employees would not be able to contribute to the program."
What about the notices for tennis tournaments and softball teams? I wondered. News of those activities was posted on company bulletin boards. And the crafts fair? That event was publicized. Employees were allowed to sell their crafts in the cafeteria. Not everyone was able to play softball or tennis. Not everyone made jewelry or knitted.
Although I was disappointed, I wasn't completely surprised by the response. People are a bit suspicious of poetry. It's not a forthright activity - like tennis or softball. Company morale boosters are associated with fanfare and physical activity. A corporation might view writing by employees as a subversive rather than a unifying activity.
So desk-side publishing was born. Rather than fight the big guns, I decided to use the front of my desk, which faced the main door into my department, as a poetry wall. I started by taping a sign, "Desk-Side Publishing," along the top. I posted poems by some of my favorite poets - Mary Oliver, William Stafford, and Robert Bly - as well as some of my own.
Then a man from a neighboring department started dropping off his poems. People who worked with him stopped by my desk to read his offerings.
Some of my co-workers, too shy to display their own work, contributed poems written by their pets. The subjects ranged from hairballs to the joys of dog biscuits. The pet poetry was very popular.
Some kind of bridge is under construction, I thought, a bridge that connected creative life and work life. The office routine seemed less separate from "the real world," less an eight-hour isolation from soulful considerations.
Sometimes, during a mind-numbing task at my computer, I'd turn from my keyboard to see someone bending down to read the side of my desk. Often it was someone I didn't know. It was gratifying to know I was providing a poetry break. Often the reader moved on without comment, but that didn't bother me. Poems work in mysterious ways.
"What do you think made the turtle do that?" a voice queried.
"What?" I switched my attention from piles of slippery fax pages to the person kneeling in front of my desk reading the poems. He was a supervisor whose desk I often passed on my way to the fax or copy machines. We'd exchanged good mornings and occasional work-related comments.
I realized he was talking about one of my poems I'd posted that week. The previous spring I'd witnessed a turtle leap from a bridge into the Brandywine River. That startling experience was the subject of the poem in question.
As we discussed the turtle episode, I felt a surge of satisfaction at being able to talk about my writing. When my poems are published professionally, I seldom hear from readers. This direct contact with a fresh reader made me feel less fragmented. I didn't have to leave my poet-self in the parking lot. Knowing this made my hours in the office seem less stressful. It also made me see management types as people who were able to think about things other than time sheets and output tallies.
I cleared off the side of my desk when I left the company. But I hope that somewhere back in my old department a desk side is blossoming with poems.