How I Came to Work for Sounds True, for Many Voices

Last weekend I celebrated my fifteenth anniversary at Sounds True in the middle of our second annual Wake-Up Festival at the Rocky Mountain YMCA. The next morning I was sitting in the dining room with a couple from Nebraska who were attending the festival. They asked me how I came to work for Sounds True.

I told them that back in January 1997, my life was golden. I worked three twelve-hour shifts a week as a clerk in the emergency room. I’d worked there for over seventeen years and had long ago topped out on my salary grade and got the maximum $4.25-an-hour night shift bonus, and I spent the majority of most shifts reading and writing in the empty waiting room. If I wanted time and a half there was plenty of overtime, and there was no topping out on vacation hours, and I accumulated something like eight weeks of vacation a year.

And in my off hours I was transcribing Allen Ginsberg’s poetry lectures at $1.50 a page. I had come out to Boulder to apprentice with Allen back in 1979 and had worked for him in one capacity or another ever since. The transcriptions were easy money and since Allen rarely taught the same subject twice, it was like continuing my education and getting paid for it. At this point I’d been doing it more or less half-time for over six years, and I could cash in my used vacation time at the hospital, so before long I’d collected enough money to put a down payment on a townhouse in central Boulder.

Then in January of 1997, I suddenly lost my job at the hospital. Allen said not to worry, I could work for him as much as I wanted until I found another job. Still, for the next three months I walked around in a kind of stupor, saying over and over again, “I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t have Allen. I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t have Allen.”

Then in April 1997, Allen was diagnosed with liver cancer and within two weeks he was dead. That ended the transcription project, and reduced my income to zero.

In August 1998, I saw a help wanted ad for a transcriptionist at Sounds True for some talks by Clarissa Pinkola Estes. Since I had transcribed over 28,000 pages of Allen’s lectures as well as hundreds of lectures by William Burroughs, Anne Waldman, Diane di Prima, Gregory Corso, and Philip Whalen, I doubted there was anyone more qualified for the job than me.

I wanted this job so much that I called and left a message at Devon Christenson’s work number. At the time Devon was a minority partner in Sounds True, second in command. I told him that I’d never done this before but I wanted this job so bad that I was willing to do whatever I could to increase the chances that he’d at least review my application, which was all that I was asking. Then I reminded him that we had met about six months before in the basement apartment of Lisa Crystal Carver in Denver, and did a quick review of my qualifications, and hung up.

A year or so before I had read an article in Denver’s free newsweekly Westword about Lisa Crystal Carver’s avant-punk magazine, Rollerderby. She was legendary in the music underground for having Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth write liner notes for her second music cassette, and having been half of a notorious performance group with her first husband Jean-Louis Costes while still in her teens.

The enterprise sounded interesting and worthy of financial support, so I subscribed to the magazine and bought the back issues. I read every word of every issue of Rollerderby, but Lisa couldn’t spell, and she didn’t know that she couldn’t spell. So I wrote her a fan letter, and ended it with some sage advice: hire a proofreader. As an example, I pointed out that she’d spelled “lightning” three different ways on the same page. Her writing would gain an extra ten IQ points with a good proofreader, I told her.

She called two days later. I was obviously the guy for the job. How much did I cost? I told her a lifetime subscription to Rollerderby, and that’s how I happened to be in Lisa’s basement apartment at the same time as Devon. We were the only two people she knew in the area who were close enough to call on such short notice.

I’m not sure if Devon’s original connection was to Lisa or to the father of her child, Boyd Rice, of Denver’s infamous nihilist one-man band NON, because Devon was also part of the local music scene. In 1987, I’d seen his band Big Man opening for the Replacements at the Glenn Miller Ballroom.

I’ve never met Boyd. We don’t move in the same circles. And that night he’d agreed to stay away in return for Lisa not involving the police in whatever happened between them the night before. Shortly before 7 a.m., when we had to be out of the apartment, Lisa locked the front door and left her key inside the flowerpot. Then Devon drove Lisa to New Hampshire, where she had family. I followed them as far as Boulder, where we had breakfast at the International House of Pancakes and said goodbye.

Over breakfast I found out that Devon worked for Sounds True and Devon learned of my transcription experience and that I was currently working as a proofreader for the University of Colorado part-time and full-time for an insurance manual publisher as well. With both jobs, I was barely staying above water. An interesting transcription job would be ideal.

Devon called me back almost immediately. He said that the transcription position had been filled, but they were looking for someone who could create a proof-reading department at Sounds True. Would I be interested? I wasn’t sure.

Devon invited me to lunch at the Double Happy in downtown Louisville. He handed me his napkin. How much did I make from both jobs? I wrote down a figure. Add ten percent. Now add another ten percent. That’s what we’ll offer you to start. Interested now?

I wasn’t sure. I had been self-identified as a poet and working with poets since I was seventeen. Publishers were the enemy or punchline in every terrible literary story I knew. Would working for a publisher corrupt me? Would my commercial responsibilities suffocate my creativity? Would I be taught how to be insincere?

We’re not an ordinary publisher, Devon said. We’re a publisher that was born out of a spiritual mission to bring the teachings of the world’s wisdom traditions to those in need. That means that we have to operate under high ethical standards. If there is a right way to do something, we do it, regardless of the expense. And when there’s a dispute of any kind, we always do what we know in our hearts is right. And we’re expected to keep each other honest.

And I thought, yeah, I could work for a company like that, sure.

But first I had to pass inspection. The next day I met in Tami’s office with a team of managers. At about the twelve-minute mark someone asked if I had any meditation background and I told them that I had started Transcendental Meditation when I was nineteen and was still doing it twice a day at forty four.

Up until then Tami had been looking through her mail, but suddenly she looked up and asked if there had been anything I’d learned in all those years of meditation that could be useful in her business.

For an instant I was surprised into a kind of snow blindness. Then I knew the answer. I said if you think of your work as being in service to the customer, the customer will sense that and be back, and tell their friends about you too. That’s how you maximize repeat business and positive word-of-mouth, I told her, by remaining worthy of their trust. (I’d graduated from bookselling school—I knew the lingo.)

Tami excused herself and the next part of the story I have from Devon. He said when Tami left the room she poked her head in his office and said “Hire him.”

And that’s how I came to work for Sounds True.

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