Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked


January 19, 2009

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Capitalist

Long-starving poet Katy Lederer considers her unlikely transition to the world of hedge funds, and what it's meant for her art.

Benjamin Samuel

Proper art-making, despite what anyone says, is not proper lovemaking. It’s only a sellout who would even consider catering to the whims of others and responding deliberately to their petty desires. It stands to reason, then, that sellouts make excellent partners, but poor artists (not in the literal sense, of course). Such has forever been the central tenet of artistry, but is there not a Third Way?

Katy Lederer. Photo by Star Black
"It is bizarre that some people can’t understand how a serious poet could work at a finance firm. Goethe was a bureaucrat. Eliot worked as a banker."

Katy Lederer. Photo by Star Black

Despite vigorous, decades-long examination by grad students and precocious teenagers, no alternative interpretation of what it means to be an artist has taken the public imagination. (As evidence, consider the familiarity of the term "starving artist"). Katy Lederer, author of the critically-acclaimed The Heaven-Sent Leaf poetry anthology, starved for 10 years. And then she joined a hedge fund in Manhattan.

Lederer, who is 36 and holds an MFA from the University of Iowa, isn't all that concerned about adhering to artistic dogma. Nor was the firm she worked for wedded to business convention: D.E. Shaw & Co. actively recruits poets, novelists, and other stereotypically numbers-challenged types. She wouldn't be the first creative type to have a real job—you know, experience life as a regular person. Had Kafka never worked at an insurance company, there may have never been a Metamorphosis.

In the following interview, which has been edited for clarity, Lederer—who, in addition to writing poetry, authored the memoir Poker Face: A Girlhood Among Gamblers, a 2003 Esquire Book of the Year—reflects on living in New York on $10,000 a year, the futility of extricating yourself from "the system," and why young people should listen to no one. You can hear Lederer, along with Amit Chatwani and Daniel Gross, talk about her work at Gelf's free Non-Motivational Speaker Series on New York's Lower East Side on Thursday, January 22, at 8 p.m.

Gelf Magazine: Many of your poems—the Brainworker poems especially—seem to take a bleak, perhaps ironic view of the financial world. Admittedly, my finance background is limited to This American Life's "Giant Pool of Money," Boiler Room, and The Bonfire of the Vanities. What was the transition like from poet to "master of the universe"?

Katy Lederer: Well, first, most people's view of New York finance is really outdated. I hardly ever came across a "Gordon Gekko" sort of character while I was working. The world I inhabited at the hedge fund was much more like that depicted in the movies Pi or The Matrix than that in Wall Street.
As far as the transition goes: Like any good poet—any good liberal, really—I had been trained all my life to distrust corporate environments. Perhaps I was just trying to get attention from my family and friends by being the "black sheep." Who knows? I did know I wasn't ready to take a teaching job at a liberal-arts college in some far-flung part of the country.
As far as the transition qua transition, however: I very quickly got used to delicious free food. I learned to order wine. I wanted to kill myself every time I read an email that included any or all of the words/phrases: "drill-down," "off-line," "agnostic," "calibrate," "for what it's worth," influencing behaviors," "option-value," "optimize," "kerfuffle."
When I was depressed, I had something to blame it on that everyone could understand. I could suddenly understand the business section in the New York Times. I realized that it should be everyone's right in a capitalist system to have some way to take advantage of compound interest.

Gelf Magazine: What was your role at the hedge fund you worked for? Are you still working there? In what ways has it been either a rewarding or damaging experience?

Katy Lederer: When I left, I was vice president in charge of front-office recruiting, which means I spent most of my days doing some combination of: reading resumes, taking people up and down in the elevators to their interviews, "managing," going to lunch, checking my email, and staring out the window at the unbelievable view. I left in August 2008; perfect timing, if I do say so myself.
Rewarding: when I started at the hedge fund in 2002, I had made about $10,000 the year before, was in debt $10,000 on a credit card, and hadn't had health insurance for almost 10 years. When I left, I was not only out of debt, but had an actual retirement account. I also made a lot of friends—not only front-office staff, but also several other poets and writers I recruited to work at the hedge fund with me.
Damaging: there is a line in one of my poems: "now think yourself to smithereens." People who do well in these environments are highly analytic—kind of Vulcan-like. It's one thing to analyze a finance problem, quite another to analyze, say, a romance. Not everything in life can be "solved." Even now that I am out of that environment, I over-think—try to "solve" everything by breaking it down into its component parts and analyzing.

Gelf Magazine: What do you think about aspiring young creative types who believe the only viable job is waiting tables, tending bar, or working at an independent coffee bar in Williamsburg? What would you say to these people, and do you believe you can "sell out to the establishment"?

Katy Lederer: I might quote this from the poet George Oppen:

“Such an art [poetry] has always to be defended against a furious and bitter Bohemia whose passion it is to assist, in the highest of high spirits, at the razing of that art …This is the Bohemia that churns and worries the idea of the poet-not-of-this-world, the dissociated poet, the ghostly bard. If the poet is an island, this is the sea which most lovingly and intimately grinds him to sand.”

Also, this from Georges Bataille::

"On the surface of the globe, for living matter in general, energy is always in excess; the question is always posed in terms of extravagance. The choice is limited to how the wealth should be squandered. …If [man] denies this, as he is constantly urged to do by the consciousness of a necessity, of an indigence inherent in separate beings (which are constantly short of resources, which are nothing but eternally needy individuals), his denial does not alter the global movement of energy in the least."

Gelf Magazine: In an interview in the Paris Review, William Faulkner once said, "The best job that was ever offered to me was to become a landlord in a brothel… It gives [a writer] perfect economic freedom; he's free of fear and hunger; he has a roof over his head and nothing whatever to do except keep a few simple accounts and to go once every month and pay off the local police." What would you say is the best "day job" for a writer?

Katy Lederer: There is a different best day job for each individual writer. If you are a young writer and reading this, please listen to me: don't take advice from anyone. It's not meant to help you—it's meant to help whoever is doling it out to feel better about his own choices. Do not listen to him. Do not listen to me.

"We live in a capitalist system; anyone who believes they are above this system or purer than this system, even while shopping at the cute organic market across the street or taking a hiking vacation to Guatemala, is certifiable."
Gelf Magazine: Do you find you were ever dangerously entrenched in Wall Street, or did you maintain a "poetic distance"?

Katy Lederer: Of course I was, and will always be, dangerously entrenched. We are all entrenched; this is like asking a fish if she is entrenched in the water. We live in a capitalist system; anyone who believes they are above this system or purer than this system, even while shopping at the cute organic market across the street or taking a hiking vacation to Guatemala, is certifiable.

Gelf Magazine: Did you encounter any skepticism when people, particularly the Wall Street crowd, learned you were writing a collection of poems about topics in finance? What were some reactions you received?

Katy Lederer: There were as many different reactions as there were people I encountered: every sort of reaction you can imagine. My mother, after reading the book, remarked, "You write like you had some terrible day job working in a dingy office, but you actually had a fancy job working in a beautiful office." She also remarked, after a reading I gave in Las Vegas, "All these people who think the book is about money are going to be very disappointed, because it's actually not about money at all."
I sent the book to my old boss. He didn't say anything to me about it.

Gelf Magazine: In a recent article in the New York Times Magazine, William Safire wonders about the proper nomenclature for our economic situation (e.g. market meltdown vs. market slump vs. economic Armageddon). What metaphor would you use to describe the current economy?

Katy Lederer: I like this quote from John Kenneth Galbraith:

"During the last century and until 1907, the United States had panics… But, by 1907, language was becoming, like so much else, the servant of economic interest. Businessmen and bankers had started to explain that any current economic setback was not really a panic, only a crisis… Mr. Herbert Stein, the amiable man whose difficult honor it was to serve as the economics voice of Richard Nixon, would have referred to the panic of 1893 as a growth correction."

Or, as Wallace Stevens once wrote, "Money is a kind of poetry."

Gelf Magazine: The economy has indirectly generated a lot of interest in your collection. Would you say you're one of the few people to "benefit" from the financial crisis? How has the economy impacted the reception and perception of your book?

Katy Lederer: I recently was offered a really sweet two-year appointment as a visiting poet at a university within a commutable distance. I hadn't been planning on teaching, but the thought of a 1/1 course load, a steady salary with summers off, and benefits was a pleasant one. A week later, the appointment was pulled; they'd invested with Madoff.

Gelf Magazine: Who is your audience, and is it different than you'd anticipated?

Katy Lederer: On the Amazon page for The Heaven-Sent Leaf, it says people who bought this book also bought [these titles]: Bolaño's 2666 and The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens, as well as titles like Data Analysis and The Return of Depression Economics and the Crisis of 2008. Obviously, this list is bizarre.
One audience I imagine for myself is people who can't understand how a serious poet could work at a finance firm. This is also bizarre. Goethe was a bureaucrat. Eliot worked as a banker. Stevens worked as an attorney at an insurance firm. The ghosts of Rilke and Wordsworth—along with the 300+ MFA programs, which now seem to employ all Living Poets—have misled the American public egregiously into thinking that poets are morally pure and/or useless. Along with state-sponsored health insurance, free college education for all qualified students, and a much more aggressive plan on the part of the administration to combat global warming, the American Public should demand the reinstatement of its public intellectuals.

Benjamin Samuel

Benjamin Samuel doesn't live in Brooklyn.

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- Books
- posted on Jun 26, 09
Brook Cross

Great interview. ..well done. Very interesting person. I like her points of view and her languaging. She is speaking on this coming Wedsnesday in Irvine, CA at a meeting on UCI campus. I'm looking forward to hearing more then.

Article by Benjamin Samuel

Benjamin Samuel doesn't live in Brooklyn.

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