At quiet desks analysts
look at their e-mail requests
for reports and spend hours
stitching together excel
spreadsheets from the phone
reporting software that they use.
When asked about what they do,
and why the numbers look different
depending on which report they run
they go into lengthy explanations
to explain the variances to
the general ignorance of the audience
who wanted an easy answer when
there was none.
At long last and after
a great many complaints, someone
from the phone reporting vendor
comes to speak to the company and
to answer their concerns. They come
with data dictionaries to send to the
analysts and sit in a conference room
with the people who do the phone
reporting and those who wonder why
it is so hard for them to get the
information they want. And finally,
one of them asks the essential question
after which the company rep
says, “We get that all the time
with people wanting cradle to
grave call info on their phone
reports.” There is a pause as
the assembled people wonder if it
is right to ask another essential
question to the speaker, like,
“If everyone asks for this report, then
why don’t you have it?” But there is
only silence and the moment is lost.
In my mind, at least, a poem often is the verbal equivalent of an impressionistic painting that comes in the moment as someone sketches some details to indicate the emotional depth and flavor of a particular instant. So it was that as I was sitting in a weekly meeting with my boss and a couple of my coworkers that I listened to one of them complain about the phone reporting system our company has. This has long been a complaint that I have had to deal with . It so happens that being in the meeting reminded me of something that had happened a couple of years ago or so when someone came from the supplier of our phone’s reporting system to listen to our questions about the reports and give us some insight into how they could be done better. As it happened, when we came to the section about wanting to know a call from beginning to end through all of its transfers, the person piped up that everyone asked for cradle to grave reporting, which led us to wonder why this was not done. After all, when people are asking for something, that should be a pretty high priority on the part of a vendor to provide. Ask and you shall receive and all that. A smart vendor knows that what people can articulate wanting is something that a competitor could theoretically provide that might disrupt their business, but sadly our vendor for telephonic systems is not particularly bright.
I think there is in general a shortage of poems about work relative to the general body of poetry that exists. One can find people who write large amounts of love poetry and there is no shortage of poems extolling the lives of lilies and herons or of farmers and shepherds who work on the land. Even if we add song lyrics and raps, there is still a notable shortage of poetry about work. Is work seen as somehow not poetic? As a poet who nonetheless spends a great deal of my life involved with numbers and computers and analysis and so on, I see a great deal of poetry in the awkward relationship between analysts who are tasked with providing executives and managers with timely information about business processes and the sometimes clueless people who sell and maintain the records depended on by those analysts. And it is in that awkwardness that this poem and that the possibility of many such poems resides. The gap between what is obvious to people who want to be informed about what their employees are doing and what information is provided by those who create reports and manage databases can be a large one. Ultimately, what we want to know should drive what we pay attention to and quantify and can therefore understand at least in some sort of reductionistic way. Yet all too often what we can understand is based on what data we have and not necessarily what data we want or need.
This same problem exists in what are traditionally more lyrical aspects of poetry. When we reflect upon the fickleness of memory or engage in an awkward tete-a-tete with a friend or lover or family member, we are engaged in this same uncomfortable space between what we want and what is possible for us to understand and recognize. This same relationship exists in our dealings with technology and in the business world in general. Yet it would seem that poetic souls do not often find themselves working as quants and other kinds of analysts. It would seem strange to expect or even to tolerate someone who set aside their spreadsheets and numbers and pondered the quintessentially human problem of wanting to communicate something but feeling constrained because it was obvious that you were dealing with someone that was totally clueless and that one would only embarrass oneself by pointing out the obvious relationship between a ubiquitous customer want and the priorities of developing one’s data systems to capture what it is that people are looking for. It would be as if one was looking a regional poet of Oregon and wondered what sort of poetry they written about Oregon only for them to say that people ask them about that all the time, but that they only write poems about creation when they travel to other areas, without seeming aware that being a regional poet of Oregon means writing about one’s own region and one’s own experiences.
Since this poem exists, I believe, in a rather obscure niche of poems, I suppose this poem can be taken as an invitation for fellow poets to take the opportunity to turn the mundane experiences of work life into lyrical poetry that reflects the working life of a great many people. A regional poet, if one takes the insights of the late poet William Stafford, is one who writes from their experiences, and we should note that as a poet he was not shy about writing about his work life, whether that meant making fun of the NEA and those who seek the freedom to write obscenity or whether it meant writing about workshops and teaching students and traveling in airports looking at busy and self-important business types in a mad rush hither and yon. Where was the businessman writing a poem of his own about the random people he encountered along his journey or his attempts to graciously write some report about a conference or prepare for an upcoming presentation while being interrupted by someone next to him who does not know how to select an in-flight movie? Surely there ought to be regional poets of a sort who deal with that mobile and technological area of humanity that travels frequently and whose homes are in hotels and whose daily lives are fit in laptop bags and small carry-on suitcases dragged from one place to another by sleepy people who seldom see home. And surely there ought to be poets who occupy cube farms and whose lives consist of trying to understand and manipulate data so that essential understanding and communication and financial management tasks can take place between different companies. Wherever there is life and effort and time spent, there is the possibility of poetry of some kind. Let us therefore find it where we happen to be.
 See, for example: