Acclaimed Emerging Poet Speaks on Parallels Between Her Professions

August 8, 2014
closeup of lines of computer code

At first glance, the art of writing lines of poetry and the art of writing computer code seem worlds apart. One is an ancient practice dating back thousands of years, the other considered the path to the future. One deals exclusively in words and rhythms while the other expresses logic in a hybrid of words, letters, and symbols. Yet for TJ Jarrett ’95, poetry and programming are twinned interests, providing immense professional as well as personal fulfillment. Jarrett described her dual careers as poet and software developer in an extensive interview published last month in The Atlantic.

Well before she entered upon her IT career, Jarrett arrived on campus as a student not knowing what she wanted to do. "The older I get, the more clearly I understand my confusion [at the time]," she told us. "I think I had limited understanding of all my options. Ultimately, I fell into IT because it was the dot-com era. So maybe I was lucky. Also: I'm an autodidact by nature, so I absorb things as I'm working with them. I'm lucky that a career evidenced itself as I was growing as a person. 

"But in terms of preparation, let's talk about the larger purpose of a liberal arts education. The most important thing I learned at Wellesley was critical thinking, the ability to make pursuit of knowledge a lifetime goal rather than a means to get out of a class. And over time, I learned the most important thing: All knowledge is fungible. You think you're taking a class in literary theory, but what you're really learning is to think deeply and systemically."
Jarrett studied with Associate Professor of English Terry Tyler. "I think the best thing he did for me was to show me all the writing I didn't know and give me the tools to interrogate language," she said. "I didn't know then that I wasn't reading like a scholar but as a writer: How are the sentences constructed? How are we working toward meaning? I was exposed to literature I probably wouldn't have gotten to know without his prodding. I re-read Beowulf every summer because he instilled a love for the syntactical constructs of Old English. The ancient sagas always connect me back to the root of a language that we take for granted."
In her Atlantic interview, Jarrett describes how her post-college life led her to an M.F.A. at Bennington College and then eventually to Nashville, where, though having little prior experience with programming, she began to learn to code. She now works as senior integration engineer at HealthTrust, what she calls "my dream job."
"At the base of it, programming and poetry are concerned with solving problems with language and syntax," she said. "While I'm not moved emotionally by code... I find that both convey information in a concise and ordered manner for an interpreter—either the [operating system] or a reader. I think I don't look at a large enough variety of computer code though. Once you're in a shop, the team gets in a rhythm and we begin to converge on standards and patterns so that we can support one another and the code base. Poetry gives more opportunities for individuality."
Jarrett's poetry has been published or is forthcoming in Poetry, African American Review, Boston Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, Callaloo, DIAGRAM, Third Coast, VQR, West Branch, and others. She has earned numerous fellowships and scholarships, including scholarships from Colrain Manuscript Conference and Vermont Studio Center; fellowships from Sewanee Writer’s Conference 2014 and the Summer Literary Seminars 2012 and 2014. Her debut collection, Ain't No Grave (New Issues Press, 2013) will be followed by Zion (Southern Illinois University Press, 2014) later this year. 
"When it comes to how I approach each career, I find that I have to write poetry," she said. "It indulges all my vices: my antisocial need to be alone and my need to be in my own head. But working in IT builds so many virtues: how to communicate clearly, how to be a member of a team, how bettering my work habits affects the whole of the team. My job makes me a better person, where my art reminds me of my individuality and forces me to think deeply (and suspiciously) about my opinions."
Say, I will bear you 

from this place
on my back. 

How far have I already
carried you.
—TJ Jarrett '95, "What We Say to the Fire"