The Rhythms of Risk

By Lawrence Biemiller

Bangor, Me. -- What Edward Nobles calls "the poet's room" is behind a handsome parlor in a big Victorian house with an attached barn and an apple tree in the yard. The room is cluttered with journals and papers and the composition notebooks in which Mr. Nobles, the poet in question, records lines he might employ and thoughts he might play with. Just now, however, a doll sits on the poet's desk chair, courtesy of Mr. Nobles's daughters, Hadley and Lydia, who are 12 and 8 respectively. While Mr. Nobles signs a copy of one of his books on an ironing board and a pug named Christabelle trots around sniffing everyone's feet, Hadley and Lydia eagerly tell a prospective customer about their handmade-greeting-card business, which they and Christabelle and the doll run out of the poet's room when the poet himself is at the office doing his day job.

Almost all poets have day jobs, of course. But Mr. Nobles has what may be the consummate employment for a poet: He is a risk manager -- specifically, a risk manager for the University of Maine System. Who else but a poet -- endlessly evaluating the effect of every image and rhythm, constantly considering how much of himself to reveal -- knows so much about risk?

Actually, what he does at work is "review tons of contracts every year," Mr. Nobles says in the parlor after shutting the door to the poet's room and shooing away the girls and the dog. He handles insurance for the seven-campus system, making sure the university is protected against everything from standard auto-accident claims to claims for calamities only a poet of the dark and brooding persuasion would imagine. Indeed, shortly after he came to work for the university, several campuses were battered by a calamitous ice storm, the consequences of which occupied most of his first year.

When he's not worrying about ice, Mr. Nobles worries about insurance for medical and veterinary malpractice, for accidents in the residence halls, for wrongful firing. It's his job to think about whether the system's insurance would cover engineering students who built a solar-powered car, about how to safeguard Mayan artifacts in a university museum from theft, about whether a nursing student who went overseas for a practicum would be protected if the student harmed a patient. He knows that the system's workman's-compensation insurance will follow researchers all the way to Antarctica, and that the cost of the aviation policy rose by a third when helicopter coverage was added.

Being a risk manager for a university system with 36,000 students and 5,000 employees, he says, is "a balancing act between doing the safest thing and running an educational institution." It's a job made necessary by the same human flaws that animate much of poetry: "As our attorney was saying in a meeting yesterday, people can't be perfect," Mr. Nobles says. But somehow insurance is respectable, whereas poetry is suspect. "Most people," he says, "look at you with cross eyes if you say you're a poet."

Journals have been accepting his poems for years now, but he says he had given up on a book of his own, in part because he can be both so tenacious and so critical of his own work: "I was willing to go through life without a book unless I could publish what I wanted to publish." Finally he met Michael Braziller, publisher of Persea Books, with whom Mr. Nobles worked to bring out Through One Tear in 1997, when he was 43. His second book, The Bluestone Walk, also from Persea, appeared three years after that. "I work really slowly," he says. "I might recast something after six months."

Mr. Nobles is a tall, slender man who seems personable but serious, if you don't count the joke poems that he will only repeat -- sing, in fact -- after being assured that all frivolities will be off the record. When he tells the story of his life thus far, a seriousness bordering on obstinacy runs through it like iambs through a sonnet. Raised in Billerica, Mass., in a family of six children, he says he was "a typical teenager who thought life in his hometown was horrible and wanted to get away." He took off as soon as he finished high school, without telling anyone, and hitchhiked across Canada and down the West Coast.

By then he had already been writing -- first song lyrics, then poems -- for several years. When he returned to Billerica several months later, he started taking classes at Middlesex Community College. "I was determined to be a writer," he says.

From Middlesex he went to Framingham State College. He worked as a night watchman at a plant, writing poems when he wasn't making his rounds. After he graduated he worked for a year in a machine shop and then enrolled in an M.F.A. program at the University of Arizona. He took his obstinacy with him to Tucson: "I hated it the whole time I was there," he says, "and I fought with the teachers."

Between semesters he went to work for one of his brothers, a stonemason, and after he completed the writing program he kept on building walls: "Dig a base a foot or more deep, then add crushed stone, then piece the bigger pieces together. It's like poetry. Every stone has its own personality and shape."

Insurance he got into by accident: One year he was teaching freshman composition at night at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, and he went to a temp company for day work. He was sent to an insurance agency, where his ability to communicate made him so valuable that he was hired as a permanent employee. A string of insurance jobs followed, all depending in one way or another on his precise way with the words that make up promises.

In stone or words, his output is "very small," he says. He doesn't have much time now to write -- a few minutes in the morning, maybe some time after he and his wife, Kelly, put the girls to bed. But of course lines crop up at odd moments, too. "When I'm riding in the car I do end up writing things, and I have to pull over." He says he never starts a poem knowing where it's going to end up -- he calls this his "Columbus theory of poetry."

His poems are hard to categorize. Through One Tear includes one poem of only 17 words and another that runs to 19 pages. His language is mostly spare, but often delightful. Many of the poems reflect his taste for the surreal, such as "On the Head of a Pin," which begins: "Through the thin/needle/of an eye,/you can prick/the darkness/to discover/blood, and/eventually,/the splinter/that cripples/your heart." Others have references to popular culture, such as a series of 12 poems in Bluestone Walk that are named after magazines -- Catholic Digest, Fortune, Vogue, and so forth. Some are downright disturbing, such as a poem in which he discovers himself to be swelling with rats in a way too unpleasant to mention. Several poems concern stones and walls, although none appear to be about insurance.

Still, the obstinacy echoes: "I think of poetry as a form of rebellion," he says. "Where else can you be completely idiosyncratic?" He does not overestimate his work, or anyone else's. "A lot of great poets, most of their work stinks," he says. "T.S. Eliot wrote about 10 good poems. If you look at Keats, he's got the great odes, but a lot of the other stuff is drivel."

In the poet's room, Mr. Nobles moves some greeting cards aside and picks up an overflowing three-ring binder that holds his next manuscript. "I have enough poems to call it a finished book," he says, "but I'm hoping to replace a third of them." It's insurance, really: No poet wants to commit to print anything he doesn't have complete confidence in. Even so there's no escaping the risks -- of bad reviews, of poor sales, of finding that your work is ignored. There is no protection save perseverance. "I've been doing it since high school," he says, "and I don't feel like I'm a professional poet yet."

Copyright © 2001 by The Chronicle of Higher Education. Published 19 October 2001.