Faculty Profile: Charles Sweetman

| Special Features Editor

“The Second and Final Meeting of the Self-Improvement Book Club,” “Bill-Paying Zombie” and “National Take-Your-Inner-Child-To-Work Day.” No, these titles aren’t part of a literary tribute to “The Office.”

Instead, they are part of Enterprise, Inc., a prizewinning chapbook of poems written by Washington University Professor Charles Sweetman. In the work, he explores the lives of white-collar workers, often using satire and humor to describe their cubicle-filled worlds.

Mentioning bar nights, early promotions and performance specialists who try to instill confidence through the S-H-O-U-T method, the collection touches base with many of the staples of corporate life, as well as some moments that showcase Professor Sweetman’s nuanced office characters. It is unsurprising that, before becoming an English professor and poet, Sweetman worked as an accountant in Houston.

“I didn’t find it a very satisfying line of work, so part of that tension comes from my experience. But it was pretty easy to observe tension in others, too,” Sweetman said.

“Some people are kind of rebellious and cynical, some people are all-out careerists, some people are fantasists. They escape–immerse[ed] in sports talk or anything that passes the day,” he said. “Some people are genuinely engaged with the work.”

Each type of person can be found in Sweetman’s 60-odd pages of poetry. In one poem, a model worker is discovered with a stash of romance novels in his cubicle; in another, we are introduced to the office cowboy. The poem “To Staff” shows a worker who quits a company and transfers to a lesser paying job because, according to the text, the “illusion of control/ was too strong to pass up.”

In some of his poems, Sweetman explores business lexicon—“tangible assets,” “intangible assets,” “Return on Investment”—and how this language could intersect with the decisions individuals make when they plan and live out their lives. It reflects the sort of tug-and-pull those in college can appreciate. About Wash. U. students, Sweetman said:

“There’s a lot of pressure to do something practical—their own pressure and also from the culture at large. The next thing—what is it? Sometimes people don’t know what that is when they get to graduation.”

In the poem “Portrait of Hooper as a Drama Minor Pulling an All-Nighter for the Finance Exam,” a student mixes up his academic interests and his life aspirations during a moment of stress.

“As he’s studying, all the material from the play is going through his head and the business jargon and the play jargon are swapping places. It’s during a late night, a disoriented night,” Sweetman explained.

The notion of opportunity cost, the cost of what one gives up when making a choice, comes up in the poem’s last stanza: “These costs tend to be subjective, for example, the happiness Biff foregoes when unable to say who he is.”

To an extent, many people can relate to Hooper’s late-night struggles, jumping from passionate actor to finance major, from line to line. When discussing how thwarted dreams and thwarted aspirations related to the experiences in Enterprise Inc., the professor responded: “One of the blurbs on the back says satire, and there are satirical elements. But I hope people find a kind of pathos. Enterprise, Inc. is partly about human aspiration, human enterprise and how it meets practical goals.”

He further explained, “You have talents and aspirations—the question is how can you use those and still make a living. Talent plays a part in work, but a corporation has its own goals, and it will want you to do certain things. It will often channel your energies.”

Enterprise Inc. is available for purchase in the Campus Bookstore.

  • Writing student

    I like these articles about WashU professors. I read the poem about the drama student studying for his finance exam. It was novel– I never read a poem like it– and thought-provoking.