Understatement alert: NYU is a big, big place. Think of the dozens of people you might nod hello to on a typical day—in the dining hall, at the library, between buildings, or behind a particular desk. How many do you know by name? What do you know about their lives?
By day they are office administrators or landscapers, technology specialists or event managers; by night they’re parents and poets, activists and athletes—and so much more. They’re the dedicated staffers who keep this place running, and in this series NYU Stories will go behind-the-scenes at their day jobs—and also reveal how they let off steam after work. (We’re coming for you, dude in the Bon Jovi cover band!) Look for a new and often surprising interview every other week or so. You might just see a familiar face.
Title: graduate program assistant for the department of history
At NYU since: April 2013
Hometown: Rock Hill, in Sullivan County, upstate
Quintessential New Yorker habit: Wearing yoga pants—like that is a real outfit.
Favorite lunch spot around Washington Square: Meskerem—amazing Ethiopian food on MacDougal Street. Get the vegetarian combo and you can’t go wrong.
What brought you to NYU?
While I was pursuing an M.F.A. in poetry at Sarah Lawrence, I worked as a graduate assistant for the undergraduate program, and I really liked being in the academic world, interacting with deans and advisors. So after I graduated, I started looking for jobs in that field, knowing that as a writer, I’d have to support myself. It was a natural transition. And I’ve found it fascinating how much this job feeds me—I guess as a writer there’s something about gathering experiences and living a life alongside your writing that makes it a lot easier to do. I have energy for poetry that I wouldn’t have if I were holed up in a cafe all day.
Where do you find inspiration for your poetry?
I’m inspired by the connections I have with people, and by people sharing with me their deep vulnerabilities. I’ve become really, really close with the people I work with, and we share our lives and support each other. I like hearing people’s honest stories because I find that when you tear off all the layers we’re all struggling with these same major questions. That’s what I write about.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I was a very, very shy teenager. And I’d been writing from a very young age, but not sharing my work with many people. Still, I was always encouraged. I remember my third grade teacher, Joanne Barrish, said, “Alyson, anyone can write a book.” I guess I want to trace it all the way back to that—she used to encourage me to write creatively and turn in those pieces as assignments toward my grade. And then, much later, doing the M.F.A. really connected me to my passions and what really brings me joy in my life. Now I am more passionate and joyful about every day.
Which poets do you admire?
Andrea Gibson—I don’t know that everyone would call her a slam poet but I think she definitely has roots in that. A poet that I worked with at Sarah Lawrence—Marie Howe. Louise Glück—her poem “The Wild Iris” helped me through so many difficult experiences in my life. Who else? June Jordan, Mindy Nettifee, Saul Williams, Rumi, and of course Love Poems To God by Rilke.
Where do you go to hear poetry in the city?
Poets House is on the water and gorgeous, the Nuyorican is always fun, and Bar 13 has a Monday series called the Louder Arts, which is a lot of slam poetry. I’m not a slam poet but I love slam poetry. There’s so much honesty in it. So I definitely recommend Bar 13.
What was the last great reading you went to?
There was an amazing poetry reading at Greenlight Bookstore that was supposed to be under the Brooklyn Bridge, but it rained. It featured all Brooklyn poets. Greenlight was packed to the gills—you couldn’t get in or out—and there was a huge thunderstorm outside. There’s just something so powerful about poetry readings—about performing personal work drawn from hard experiences, and entrusting that to the audience. The poet Patricia Smith said that the room felt like family. And it felt so true.
Where do you take tourists when they’re in town?
I used to live in Washington Heights, so I take people to Ft. Tryon Park and the Cloisters. I also like walking with people on the High Line and through Chelsea Market, if I’m doing touristy things. And the Lower East Side Tenement Museum is super fun, because you’re walking on the street and then all of a sudden you’re in this building that’s been totally preserved. Now that I’m in Brooklyn, I had the best tacos of my life at Smorgasburg, so, even though it’s annoying, I’ll definitely be taking my parents there.
What do you do to let off steam after work?
I love yoga. Usually I want to move after a workday because I spend a lot of time in front of the computer. And NYU has free yoga at the Center for Spiritual Life at 5:30!
What about to goof off?
Going to see movies. Getting ice cream. Walking in Prospect Park, simple things. And my parents live upstate, so if I really need a break, I can go visit them and play with my nieces.
What makes you laugh?
I’m a very silly person and I love to laugh, so I if I’m in that mood I don’t have to do much—I just have to be with the right friend! (laughs) My two-and-a-half-year-old niece Andi makes me laugh harder than anyone I’ve ever met. I can’t even describe what it’s like, being an aunt. She has a direct line to what I think is funny.
What brings you peace?
I do a lot of meditating. I’m a slow morning person, and I’ve mastered the art of waking up really early so that I can move really slowly all morning and meditate for ten minutes at my window, and read a little bit of poetry. More than that, though, it brings me peace to know that I’m deeply connected to the people in my life. I spend a lot of time on the phone!
What do few people know about you?
I think the biggest misconception about me is that I didn’t have to work to be the person I am now, because I did—I think all women do. It’s the rare woman who didn’t have to work through layers and layers of insecurity and whatever else she inherited. To be confident, to be happy in our bodies, and not apologize—it takes work. Few people know that it took me a while to get here.