Poetic Labor Project July 2012
JOSEF KAPLAN ANNA VITALE JAMIE TOWNSEND CATHY WAGNER
JOSEF KAPLAN is the author of Democracy Is Not for the People (Truck Books, 2012). He lives in Brooklyn.
I Hate Job I maintain that my labor has no bearing on my poetics. A discussion of the conditions of poetic production is only illuminative insofar as those conditions are equitable with the poetry itself, and the poetry is understood to exist on a continuum with the life it inhabits. is concept is at best pathetic. Within this formulation, a poetics can never rise above the anecdotal; it is merely life's exhaust, expelled reeking of a world in which forms reveal themselves both linearly and in good faith, and therefore where the immanent formal stakes of a poem need always nd coherence with the means of their production. e poem is here beholden to the world. If a poem is beholden to the world, it is in service to the world. In this way we are required to be "good," and to make our poetic work be "good" or as "good" as the world we'd like to see manifest for ourselves. In this way we qualify our poetry. But poetry needs neither quali cation nor inherence, and the assumption that poetry must inhabit or acknowledge the conditions of its writing is, again, a kind of devotional apology, a defense of service, and therefore cowardice. e world does not need poetry, nor does the world desire it. Poetry that bears witness to this disinterest, that works to justify itself via the traumas and triumphs of the world, is super cial and useless. For this reason – that the world is not beholden to poetry – it is truly poetry’s job to tear down and subjugate the world. Rather than embrace the conditions of its time, or critically document their existence, poetry should enact a wholly negative procedure: sabotage – sabotage against the conditions of its time, against itself as work, and against all work as such. erefore, regardless of truth or accuracy, I maintain that my labor has no bearing on my poetics. I am not interested in means, only in the successful, annihilative manifestation of the poem, as an absolute violence, where worth is gauged by how much damage that poem can do to both itself and others – preferably with regards to interpersonal relationships and employability.
Fuck a job. Fuck even thinking about your stupid fucking job. ere should be only the relentless negation of all formal determinations, in service to total enmity. e enemy of any and every world. I set my will to this purpose
ANNA VITALE was born in Detroit City and is currently a student in UW Madison's English Literature graduate education program. Her rst two chapbooks, Breaststa (Mondo Bummer) and Anna Vitale's Pop Poems (OMG), were published in 2010. She's writing some other books called Dreams and Anna Vitale's Autobiography. A few of her recordings are available at LIMIT (historyrepeating.wordpress.com) and textsound.org is an online audio mag she helps to edit.
When Psychoanalysis is Poetry 45 minutes a day, 4 times a week, for the past 12 years. e cost has ranged from $25 a session to $90 a session. e only time she was able to pay the full amount was when she was a school bus driver for Ann Arbor Public Schools and had Blue Cross Blue Shield. She hated ling the insurance claims. It probably took only a half an hour every month, but the job felt so big to her. Each time she had to write the same thing: psychodynamic psychotherapy, the diagnosis code, the location of the visits, the length of the visits. She had terrible feelings and thoughts, most of the time, most days. She oen wanted to know, why are you making me ll out the forms? Why don’t you do this yourself? I didn’t have the time to do this for everyone and I needed to focus on giving her what she needed: a blank slate for projection. is is hard work, cutting yourself out so they can see themselves. AV can’t think about how and to whom she sells her time without thinking about the time she’s been purchasing since 2000. When she started psychoanalysis, she needed to buy time because she had none. Her crisis was too deep. Having her college education paid for by her grandfather (a vice president of U.S. Steel) made it possible for her parents to help with the costs of analysis. She bought my time (which was to become her own) at a reduced rate so she could survive. Ultimately, the work of analysis has made it possible for her to continue the work of being a poet and begin the work of becoming a scholar. In many ways, she is lucky, but would never call herself this. I love my work and I’ve done my best to show her what loving is. When she asked me if I loved her, I told her that love is in the work.
JAMIE TOWNSEND works sporadically for pay, but always for love. He is the cofounder of con/crescent, a periodic hub of creative mumbo-jumbo. He is author of the chapbooks STRAP/HALO (Portable Press @ Yo-Yo Labs; 2011), Matryoshka (LRL Textile Editions; 2011), and THE DOME (Ixnay Press; 2011). In 2012 he was selected to be a Millay Colony fellow.
THREE JOBS (from SHADE IN 3 PARTS)
work-hardened the former weak aenemic esh everybodies working again, on breaks fucking up in the parks hands compressing beds pathways or words given sanction no longer waiting for a public body politic chosen to reinscribe a dance of muscle & thought over futures projection down avenues now overgrown w/ intimate histories unearthed rootwork buried in nerves attuned to our beds growth our mass reconstructed memory nally standing at the end to form a living horizon
& to hear as shared tragedy! so packed into Rosetti’s late market place such strongly focused independence on narcotic sweet displays beyond any belief a temporal patina made pact w/ this weekend’s alcohol a glorious paranoid cave in of borrowed time & debts short lease life drawing tighter around a numbed ribcage its muscle pinned back as example
– to be, nally, everything to everyone –
be spoken of in labor the rest as sleep portioned out of lost will & forethought your presence ground down to basic needs / shelter rst second concerns ‘yes’ / the pact of limitless beauty forever living among what we cannot have
CATHY WAGNER’s new book Nervous Device is forthcoming in September from City Lights. She teaches at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.
I AM A POET AND I HAVE one of the jobs that poets are supposed to want at our moment in history. I work at a park-like sharecropper estate called a university. I am not myself a sharecropper; I am an associate professor of creative writing. I make $62,500 a year, wildly more than I made when I was a sharecropper (I was one for thirteen years). $62,500 is supposed not to be very much for my “rank,” and I am to be given a raise this year, partly because I am underpaid in comparison to my colleagues locally and nationally. I asked for the raise. I have decent health bene ts, dental/mental, etc., and money is deposited for me into a retirement fund every month. I also have access to about a thousand dollars a year to travel to conferences, exclusive parties to which sharecroppers can’t aﬀord to go. I have worked at the park-like estate for six years. I work in one of the heavily used mansion-like buildings that dot the estate. Every weekday I walk down the hall past many doors. Behind some doors work my peers (tenure-line teacher-scholar-writers). Behind other doors work the sharecroppers (adjunct teachers, graduate teaching assistants). e sharecroppers are inferior to me under the terms of the hierarchy on which the institution insists, and which it requires in order to continue to support itself (and me) as it did formerly. e support to which the university and I have become accustomed is collapsing. ere is a terrible drought and a weevil. e drought we call a recession (although recession implies recovery and the recession as it aﬀects sharecroppers is not going to end). e weevil is an infestation called student loans. It aﬀects the robustness of the plants grown on the sharecropper estate. When everyone has cottoned on to the weevil infestation, they may begin growing their plants elsewhere without the help of the sharecropper estate. en the estate will transform into I don’t know what. In the meantime, when they are not out in the elds, the sharecroppers work in tenby-ten-foot rooms that each contain three desks. e sharecroppers make $2400 per course (i.e., less than $20,000 a year if they teach full time) with no bene ts, no participation in governance and no guarantee of renewal ($2400 is the national average paid for adjunct labor). More than seventy percent of faculty appointments at US universities now go to sharecroppers*. Some of the sharecroppers are my former graduate students. ey hope that sharecropping will lead them to a job higher in the hierarchy, a job like mine. While they were still my graduate students, I tried to ____________________________ * Michael Stratford, “A Simple Spreadsheet Strikes a Nerve Among Adjuncts,” Chronicle of Higher Education, February 19, 2012, http://chronicle.com/article/Accidental-Activist-Collects/ 130854/
explain that the sharecropper estate was broke and broken and that I was not suremyself how I had managed to snag one of the few non-sharecropper jobs remaining on it. In response, they shrugged and said that they loved teaching. e sharecroppers like making plants grow; this is their agency and their participation in the life of power. I am lucky not to be a sharecropper. Sometimes I feel a little ill walking down the hall. One day I was on my way to a meeting of adjuncts and graduate students. e meeting was about adjunct and graduate student labor conditions nationally and locally. It was an information-sharing meeting, not a planning meeting, though there were hopes that ideas for concrete activism might emerge. I ran into a friend who is an associate dean and told him where I was going. With a half-smile he said, if working conditions improve for the sharecroppers, your salary will go down and your teaching load will go up. He is right of course. I still wanted to go to the meeting but I began to have doubts. I am a single mother with no family or ex-partner living anywhere near. In addition to my mortgage and groceries and house repairs and whatnot, I spend about $350 a month helping to pay for my ex’s visits to my son and (during the school year) about $300 a month on babysitting. My job and son keep me busy and I have little time for activism or writing the poems that keep me sort of sane and which I must write to keep my strange job and get “merit points” toward raises. If my salary went down and my teaching load went up I would enjoy my son for even shorter portions of the evening and I would write and think less. Perhaps I could nd some sort of communal living situation to compensate for the loss of time and money, but that is unlikely in my village. Denise Riley* said in the seventies that single-parenthood is a conservatizing force and though I ght that force in myself I feel its weight. Nevertheless I don’t think I can handle for much longer the way my stomach feels when I stroll past the sharecropper doorways. I fantasize about giving my raise to a fund for sharecroppers and thus guilting my colleagues into action; I fantasize about going on a hunger strike; I don’t do these things and my stomach feels worse and I wonder what sort of antacid I should take. en I remember, I am already taking an antacid and it is poetry. One antacid I have tried was developed through research that suggested poetry might somehow be able to be useful: to aﬀect, draw attention to, resist, the situation that is driving a wedge between the adjuncts and me, the same wedge that is being driven between groups of people in all industries. e research on which this antacid is based is unreliable and maybe completely made up but sometimes I believe it anyway. Shelley wrote a probably spurious defense of this research claiming that poetry’s ________________________________ * Quoted in Sam Solomon’s yet-unpublished dissertation, which includes a chapter on Riley; thanks to
eﬃcacy is invisible and beyond our time. en he died before going up for tenure. Not very many people buy this antacid because it’s a little bit embarrassing to swallow it; but once in awhile new versions of it turn up in the drugstore. Another brand of antacid was developed through research that concluded that forces arrayed against the sharecroppers are impossibly strong. For those persuaded by this research, antacid poetics serve as a protective retreat or playground in which we can nd compensatory pleasures and understandings and from which we can view, with new eyes, the situation that led to the necessity for retreat. A third antacid ignores questions of eﬃcacy and realpolitik; when I take it, I am trying to write poetry that remains as unknown to me as possible while I write it. My writing will always reproduce the park-like infested trap, but maybe the reproduction will t together oddly and something will be diﬀerent and a corner will emerge that was not there before. My son explained to me that “one wall has a diﬀerent history from another wall, so a corner is an impossible place.” e impossible place is the best antacid I have found, but like the other antacids it is a placebo. I forgot to mention one important thing about the sharecropper estate: its elds. ere, suddenly made equal (but separate) the sharecroppers and I come to the head of a particularly rigid and visible and occasionally fertile hierarchy: grades-based teaching. ere we can, from our unsettlingly diﬀerent angles, talk about the hierarchy-turbines through which the writers we read, and ourselves, and our students, are rotating, and what they power. Maintaining a eld for debate, that’s necessary. It is an excuse for universities. ere is no excuse for the sharecropping system, and there is no excuse for poetry and I don’t want to make one. I’m trying to describe the part of the trap I am homesteading. So what’s to be done. A colleague and I are planning to ask the University Senate to support a resolution that when raises are given, adjunct laborers should get a share. (eir fee per course has been the same for een years.) I already know the arguments that will be arrayed against us, which amount to “If we pay them more we will have to cut our programs/ salaries/etc.” and “ey’re willing to do it for the money: there’s no shortage of them.” We will reply, “True; but let’s notice that if we don’t support the resolution we are electing consciously to participate in an oppressive situation.” It will be a rather hopeless and symbolic gesture. I fantasize about academic sharecroppers organizing with contingent workers across industries, a category (taxi drivers, seasonal workers in agriculture and tourism, truckers, oﬃce temps, construction temps...) that has exploded over the last twenty years. Together their power would overturn cities.
But for that to happen, academic sharecroppers will have to tear their allegiance from the people who love what they love, that is, they will need to understand that my job is funded by their oppression, that there are more of them than there are of me, that they are the shaky foundation on which people like me totteringly stand. ere are more and more of them and fewer and fewer of me.