I often wrote while working in the research laboratory. There was a lab procedure that I performed a lot which required a wait of five minutes. I’d do a routine of starting the procedure, walking back to my desk, and then writing for a few minutes. This happened so often that my body started precisely timing out five minutes. I’d find myself standing up with a feeling of: It’s probably finished now. I had better go check. And it always was. If I was stuck on a line, I’d use the interruption to take a break. If I was in the middle of thought, I’d force myself to stay seated and finish it.
I no longer do this procedure as much, and I’ve also stopped working on poems at work. People find out that I wrote poems “on the side.” They are always supportive, but I inevitably become self-conscious.
My writing day usually consists of me working on some poems in the morning before work, and then after work. Quiet is my only condition for writing. That, and the internet: I use a lot of online tools to look up a word’s etymology or discover sonically “related” words.
I should probably give an example: I was recently looking for words that “sounded like” reaction. I had thought of real, ready, etc., but a website suggested caress. I won’t disclose what website produced this little gem, because, in addition to being self-conscious, I’m also a little selfish.
I do a lot of work on my poems in my head too. Some of my activities in the laboratory are purely mechanical (tissue culture, transforming bacteria, extracting DNA, etc.). I use that time to brainstorm. However, probably the most profitable aspect of having a full-time non-poetry job is that it accelerates the process of my forgetting my poems. That helps with revision.
Sometimes, my tasks require full attention. Other times, I prefer to be distracted differently. For example, when I was performing mouse dissections to harvest organs, I didn’t think about poetry—even though the dissections would make their way into my poems. Mostly, I listened to Mozart.
Angelo Mao is a research associate in biomedical engineering. He received his Ph.D. in 2017 from Harvard University. His first book of poems, Abattoir (2021), won the Burnside Review Press Book Award. He lives in Massachusetts.