Secret Lives

Photo by Kay Hinton

Day Job

Executive director of the Center for Transactional Law and Practice and professor in the practice of law at Emory School of Law

Secret Life: Published poet

It may seem like semantics, but according to the chronology, Sue Payne is a poet-lawyer, rather than a lawyer-poet. Encouraged by a third-grade teacher who gave the young writer “pretty pastel paper” on which to pen poems, then posted them for other students

to see, Payne has cultivated her love of writing throughout her life. She earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Denison University and a master’s in English language and literature from Ohio State University, planning to teach English at a college level, but chose law school over a PhD
in English when she decided—in typical Midwestern fashion— that law would be a more practical way to make a living. After graduating from Northwestern University School of Law, she honed a different kind of writing skill while practicing employment and transactional law for nearly twenty years. Her career turned to teaching when she led a basic writing workshop for first-year students at Loyola University Law School and then served as a writing adviser at John Marshall Law Schoool. She taught at Northwestern University School  of Law before joining Emory Law in September 2012. She has cultivated her literary interests over the years by keeping “boxes and boxes of daily journals,” reading poetry, and attending poetry and writing workshops and festivals. She served as a board member for the Robert Frost Poetry Festival in Franconia, New Hampshire, for a decade, and her poetry has been published in a number of literary journals including the Comstock Review, Spoon River Poetry Review, Pearl, and Red River Review. Her favorite time to write is early morning, in the quiet anonymity of a coffee shop where she can record her thoughts and impressions before her day begins.

And, in contrast to the serene portrait of the poet that many imagine, Payne prefers to amuse, as in her poem “On Reading Too Much Billy Collins,” which was published in the New York Quarterly:

It is said that

one can never read

too much Billy Collins.


But even he would admit

he writes a lot of poems

about looking out the window

while drinking fresh coffee 

and patting his dog’s noble

head. Though I envy


Billy, serene as a painting

or a decoy, woodenly 

ornamental, I do not want 


to give up being jaded.

There is nothing like casting

a jaundiced eye when an eye


is cast. In truth, I’d rather

spit than celebrate. I’d rather

savor the arugula than marvel


at the beauty of the salad. And,

as a child from a broken home, 

I’d like to concentrate on how


things get broken. How the rug

is pulled out from under you

and, more often than not, while


writing poetry and looking out

the window at the birds, you

spill hot coffee on your dog.

Her Words

“I like to read poetry for those ‘A-ha!’ moments, when someone has written something that resonates so much with you. I write poetry to figure things out about being human, and I hope it is something that will help someone else experience that ‘A-ha’ moment.Poetry and contract drafting involve a similar kind of precision. Every word in a poem has to count, and in contract drafting you have to be extremely careful with words because you don’t want to suggest something that you don’t mean. It is all about language. Even as a child that is what fascinated me, words and how they sounded and the capacity of words to carry meaning.”


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