Poetic Labor Project

October 2012

SARA WINTZ JARED STANLEY FRANCESCA LISETTE LINDSAY TURNER

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SARA WINTZ has worked since she was a teenager in suburban New Jersey. Chronologically, as a floral arranger, a record store clerk, a gallery assistant, an editorial assistant, a barista, a museum docent, a communications assistant, a freelance theater and performance writer, a social media researcher, a writing tutor, and a writing instructor for college-level art and design students. She's the author of WALKING ACROSS A FIELD WE ARE FOCUSED ON AT THIS TIME NOW (forthcoming from Ugly Duckling Presse) and works as a Contributing Editor for UDP's annual performance art sourcebook, Emergency Index.

Most of the time I just cut to the chase and say that I’m a writer. My personality gives it away. I sit with words and sentences for the majority of my time. How could it not have an impact on the way that I speak/respond to the world? Sometimes I sit with words on my computer screen or on a piece of paper and sometimes I sit alone on the train nervously while I think about words while using words to think or maybe like, talk to myself, in my head while preparing to do some writing. Sometimes I sit (stand?) with the words that I write on the whiteboard in my classroom, where I teach students how to write while I think about words and writing. I think of the labor that I perform as a writer more as my occupation, than my job. It has more to do with an activity or possession, than something that I am expected or obligated to do. I write all the time. It’s what I like to do. Most of the time, I don’t get paid to write. I dislike this. But, at the same time, I wonder how my writing would change if I relied on my writing as my primary source of income. If I relied on my writing as my primary source of income, I would have to produce work on a regular basis that could be rendered immediately desirable. I would most likely have to produce texts concerned with the idea of being “on trend” as opposed to the idea of doing whatever, something “innovative.” I’m glad that I can teach writing to students. I feel proud. I wish that my employer paid more money to teachers so that I could teach less classes and

focus more on each one of my students as individuals. I like to write and I think that it’s important to be a good writer.

JARED STANLEY mostly writes poetry, walks, cycles and practices plant identification. He has been a teaching faculty at a few universities and colleges over the last decade, and before that, a roofing delivery guy, a roofing salesmen, and a real estate assistant. Ambition! He's written six books and chapbooks, most recently The Weeds (Salt, 2012). He lives in Reno, NV where he's a Research Fellow at the Center for Art + Environment at the Nevada Museum of Art.

Unemployment is an Apocalyptic Word I am one of those Americans steeped in the apocalyptic Protestant tradition. I come by it honestly: fire and brimstone preachers on my Mother’s side and Brigham Young Trail Mormons on my Father’s. Add to that the sheer good fortune of first coming into attention during the time of Reagan, Andropov, Chernenko, and The Day After. Chernenko – I was sure he was going to cause my death – he didn’t talk to little American girls like Andropov did. Some people say that the very idea of history is apocalyptic and moves, inexorably, toward the end – and it may well, I mean, long long term – eventually even the moon will break free of the earth: even now it’s leaving our grasp at a rate of 4cm a year! Despite myself, my actual loves, those selves, those rebel angels I’ve learned to inhale through poetry, unemployment has some quality of apocalypse about it, as if all my work, all security was just a prelude to deprivation, which would sooner or later appear, accusingly, to tell me I hadn’t worked hard enough, hadn’t really done anything; was nothing. A strange problem for a poet! Last year I left my job because I wanted to live with my partner, who got a job in Reno. A choice. I worked at that job longer than I had ever worked anywhere, and it didn’t take long for me to get used to the comforts of the well-employed: benefits, retirement. The job, I loved. The place where the job was, I despised – I saw, every day, the way the advent of factory farming, and the closing of a military base had systematically destroyed a community, had hollowed it out from the inside. Once, at a garage sale, a retired MP had a bunch of his Air Force issue pistols for sale. “Need a gun?” The casual, ‘just-so’ quality of blood in the driveway.

As a university teacher, I was supposed to be part of the solution to these economic challenges – our university was supposed to help, and I think that in many ways it actually did. But as an Apocalyptic non-Christian and a Scorpio, that’s to say, somebody with a low level of optimism, daily life in the place just seemed to be going nowhere fast: nihilism, violence, and the dull, repetitive stupidity that come when the boot of poverty is always stomping on the head. That job ended in May, and I didn’t have to go back to the sad place. At first I was relieved. Remember the scene in the Six Feet Under episode in which a woman mistakes a flotilla of hovering, helium-filled inflatable sex dolls for raptured Christians? And she has a teary moment of joy and relief? It was like that. I could be with M., and I had come through my attachment to money unscathed. I was one of the elect, the pure! Let my lover work, I shall make art! Huh. So I started to work on new poetry, but it was strangely bereft of ideas, too tidy, overly interested in subjects. I think it was because I was unemployed. What happened? Where was the force and joy I presumed would come to the work, now that it was my whole commitment? What happened to my sense, following Duncan, that “the law I love is major mover”? To what extent had I become comfortable with myself as a professor, someone who professed, when my real love was the irresolute, the unanswerable, the inscrutable greatness, the un-understandable? And, a more embarrassing question – was I uncomfortable being supported by a woman? Had I absorbed that really annoying element of my Protestant and Mormon forebears’ beliefs, the sense of rugged selfsufficiency, manliness, something that was completely contrary to my sense of what civilized society was built upon? Or worse, was it that my ambivalence about being freed from work was somehow tied to the naïveté of those Ayn Rand-reading students – was I wasting my potential? Good god! But these things got in me, like Bob got in Leland Palmer. It wasn’t an easy few months. A metaphor might do to describe it: it felt like my head was encased in a beach ball full of snot – my mind and my senses didn’t work right. Because I didn’t have a job, I didn’t move in the world. I didn’t do too much agonizing, though – in a stroke of great good fortune, I got a new job, one in which I was actually teaching poetry. There was more room, in this new job, for teaching poetry as a question. M. said “I was mad for a minute because I wanted to support you – but then I realized that we’d have more money.” And I was mad at myself, for failing to be able to stay a person without

a job, without that part of my existence might be intelligible to my family and my non-poets – an utter failure! Reading Jarnot’s just-released biography of Robert Duncan, I am so excited. I marvel at the way that both Spicer and Duncan imbued those workshops they held, those meetings, with such drama, such ritual, such commitment to the sense that poetry is “the boat” that connects the most quotidian to the most cosmic. It is my fond wish to emulate them – even, perhaps, the drama, the infighting – Poetry, The Real, is almost the only thing worth fighting for. As Humphrey Cobbler, the disheveled music teacher in Robertson Davies’ TempestTost, put it: “The only thing more important than peace is music.” Some people call that privilege, and I agree. We are privileged, and it is our luxury to live in poetry. Even unemployed, this faith never, weirdly, seemed to waver, even as the quality of my poems waned. Now, a teacher again, alongside my poet-hood, it is my job to find out whether other people can come over, can luxuriate. In this, if in no other way, I fight the apocalyptic hues which color the identification of my life as “mine”. There is no doubt that this way of life is always under threat, but if it is there to be lived, I’m living it – however soon I might be out on my ass.

FRANCESCA LISETTE’S first book Teens collects work written and published 2007 – 2010 and is available from Mountain Press. She currently lives and works in east London.

23.07.2012 For a while now, I mean for a few days, I’ve woken up & thought immediately of you. And that’s fucked-up Since we’re not even together, & never were, and anyway, Why cling on to the replication of a Black Power relationship dynamic wherein I, the oppressed, do all kinds of aggressive, beautiful, self-risking crazy shit to gain the attention of you, my loved/ hated oppressor, who in the process becomes even more alienated, eventually caving in to some of my demands through a sheer loss of will, as if to metaphorically turn your back? Everyone knows the Black Panthers were right. – Still that’s not my point. No, my point is this: ‘there comes a time in your life’ when you wake up with a ritual conflagration of other people’s words in your head poets who also have sold their poetry-labour time to an organization they are heartily against the fundamentals of, which they believe the dissolution of would benefit man, her kind, & the earth which they’re so fucking responsible for just to make rent, all the time & space & possibility you thought you were buying to write poetry GONE in that expenditure of self-value anyway.

So you – I – we alike have committed to a myth of gardened providence seeking our fortune in the Gold Rush instead of recognising poverty, loneliness, boredom as the source of our poems, our mother & our sole right to that our liberty. What I mean is I can’t stand to wake up another day With imported dictates, choices, & without the right to live as myself, unprepossessed, the lean wish of ‘nothing to put up with’. What I’m saying, Tory cunts, is that I’ve been trying to find a way to write about you for a year & I think this is finally it. Take the shiny coin From the corpse you’ve made of my mouth, & feed the larks. Penny or gross, I’ve nothing to hide behind Or stand on But the slack refusal of affirmation To be found dissolving in my word, my body, the colossal agit-prop staining this basted, lived-thru air Emptied & flung from contract: The sound I make when I come is the same sound I make now in my throat As I’m turning away

LINDSAY TURNER’S places of work have included a travel guide office, a winery, a French high school, a few restaurants that serve mostly brunch, and many trains. She currently lives, teaches, reads, writes, and translates in Charlottesville, Virginia, where she is a PhD student in English at the University of Virginia. Her poems and prose have appeared in Lana Turner Journal, The Boston Review, Drunken Boat, WebConjunctions, Harvard Review Online, and elsewhere.

The first real conversation I can remember having with my father was about work and art. I think I wanted to ditch college and run off to play the fiddle in a rock band, and I think I quoted Frost at him: “But yield who will to their separation / My object in living is to unite / My avocation and my vocation / As my two eyes make one in sight,” etc. I didn’t want to work to work, I told him. I wanted to do what I loved. Art wasn’t work, I told him, it was passion. Now I’m a graduate student. I read, I teach, and sometimes I write poems. I’ve never had a salary, a retirement account, or an office. If I had to report to a “real” job tomorrow, I probably couldn’t: I don’t have anything to wear. But I do work, and if I’m going to admit that what I do is work even if isn’t supposed to be, I want to think about what kind of work poetry is. Why? I’m not speaking just in terms of my “work” as a graduate student instructor, although—as Catherine Wagner reminds me here —the place of this work is uncomfortable and unstable and needs, well, work. It’s important for me to be able to incorporate the work of poetic production into my thinking about my work within and for the academy because I don’t believe in a radical separation between these things. So. Poetic work, teaching or writing—isn’t it sometimes called a “labor of love”? Here’s a place to start. I think “labor of love” is supposed to mean “not labor.” A familial duplicity: “labor of love” is how my mother, a fierce worker, refers to motherhood. Neither poetry nor care-giving is work, it’s love. I don’t question the “love” part, but I’m not doing anything very new by questioning the part where motherhood isn’t work. (See: Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, see— two examples among many—Silvia Federici, Nancy Fraser. See: my mother.) I’m not writing this because I’m particularly interested in motherhood. But the repeated, repetitive, stories of women who have been—or risk being—told that their choice is between work and love haunt me. Do the decisions often foisted upon those who choose work as poets, or as parents (or who choose between

these occupations) begin to look different considered in the light of work? There’s a productive analogy and / or solidarity in here somewhere: one thing we face—as teachers, women, artists—is the necessity of seeing beyond the false choice between work and love. It’s work and work. A vocation and vocation. All of these preliminaries open out onto worlds of speculation and thinking, webs of connection between forms of labor and those who carry them out. At this point I suspect that obscuring poetry’s function as work is both dangerous and limiting. First, there’s the possibility that my feeling of autonomy as a writer—I’m not being exploited! I’m not alienated! I do what I want and I’m not a product of anything!—is partially illusory. This is too scary to ignore; and if poetry can change its own conditions of production, it probably has to be aware of them. Next, there’s the wall that tends to go up between those private, autonomous artists and the rest of the workers of the world, the service workers and chemists and consultants and graduate students and stockbrokers. And the mothers. I think that’s also an illusion. Their work matters to the worker-poet just as, potentially, her work matters to them. If the poet is also subject to conditions of precarity and exploitation, labor passed off as love and love spun out into labor, shouldn’t she be able to write them? I think maybe she has to.

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