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JUAN CARLOS URTAZA
JUAN PABLO PEREIRA
CHEENA MARIE LO
Poetic Labor Project
ROBERTO CONTRERAS (Santiago, Chile, 1975) is a writer, teacher, and editor. His
work moves across different genres, he has published fiction, poetry and chronicle.
Currently he is engaged in research and development of strategies aimed to promote
reading in children and youth.
In Chile we work 24/7. We live to work. The Chilean working week of 45 hours is one of
the highest in the world, but this doesn’t mean it is a productive time. What if the goal
was to get things done and not this man-hour confinement among four walls, hanging in
scaffolding, behind a desk, in front of a cash register or riding a truck? It is hard to think
about anything else while we are working. And there is no other work with language than
witnessing how text messages fall in a cell phone screen and then typing desperate
responses like bottles that are thrown into the sea. Where we should turn our eyes? We
owe our hours to the dead time we spend on the public transportation. We stay a lot at
the workplace, and the commute back home –at least in Santiago– can take two hours: we
get out before dawn and we return by dusk. The man-hour is underpaid. The gap –that
wage difference reflected on the banners displayed on hundreds of demonstrations– is
brutal. This is the country of bewilderment. The land of opportunity. A sea view country,
that doesn’t hesitate to hit like a tsunami to those who go out every day to get bread for
their tables. But man does not live on bread alone. The four most powerful families
(owners of the retail industry, the banks and the mega markets) offer them banks
accounts, lines of credit, loans, cash advances, sales on sales, a kind of happiness by
installments as a promise of payment implanted by the economic model. We live in the
red. The only thing we have left is to look away and then sneak a look, and hear to those
who dare to raise their voices. To rehearse Baudelaire’s voyeur, taking a break in the
middle of the working day, and walk down the street searching for news about the
invisible ones: clerks, laborers, waiters, cashiers, and drivers who, in the less expected day,
will cross the Andes to never come back.
Translated by Carlos Soto-Román and Juan Manuel Silva
JUAN CARLOS URTAZA (1982) is a Chilean writer. He lives at the 13th kilometer of the
Route 7 (Carretera Austral, CH-7). He hangs out with street kids and addicts in Puerto
Montt. He prefers unknown people and illiterates of good heart instead of critics and
linguists. Outstanding Super Lightweight boxer (63,500 gr.) he has published Knock Out,
with the support of the National Council of the Book and Reading, and No hay mano, co-
edited by Calabaza del Diablo from Chile and Vox Editores from Bahía Blanca, Argentina.
They studied complicated careers
those men are now thriving
they don’t use words like crisis, relapse or hangover
they don’t keep sleeping pills or painkillers on their nightstands
and they ask kids
what do they want to be when they grow up
I learnt to waste my time sitting in a chair
watching the flight of an owl
over the heads of a country road
looking how nails and grass grow
or trying to aim a spit into a beer cap
I always knew why you shouldn’t ask
what do you want to be when you grow up
About that, that nobody is going to come to knock your door
neither because of work nor because of love
about that, that days go by imitating themselves slowly and heavily
getting harder like bread
in those corners where neither
laugh nor hunger arrive
where the sun leaves from the veins
of the walls
of the silence’s ink
of a solitary property on a third floor
where nobody comes sometimes a friend
from the tip of the abyss to the crack of the foot
searching for salt and air
About that, that nobody is going to come when it’s late
between the squares of the parquetry
the lines of the hand
the chalk of the days
the hands of the kids on the walls
About that, that nobody is going to come when it’s late
I lived two years hanging clothes
on an imaginary little square
but the wind of the unfortunates
Because you can be happy
with little money
with little teeth
with just one woman
in the same town you were born
Translated by Carlos Soto-Román
DANIELA ACOSTA. Journalist, graduated from the University of Chile. In 2010, she
published the online version of the book of poems La otra velocidad by La Calle Passy 061,
and in 2011 her short story Resbalín was included in the Anthology Voces -30. She is a
member of the editorial board of Rufián magazine and she is a co-founder of the website
[SIC] Poesía Chilena del Siglo XX ([SIC] Chilean Poetry from the 20th Century). She
lives in Santiago, Chile.
I was looking for a job and then I found a job
And Heaven knows, I'm miserable now
-- The Smiths
I have worked handing out flyers, as a waitress, I worked in a kiosk, I sold lottery tickets
in the public transportation (when I was a kid), I worked as a journalist for a newspaper
and some magazines, I’ve babysat, I was a teacher, I worked as a teaching assistant, in a
call center, in a publishing house, in a cultural center (where I met the woman I’d like to
work with forever), I’ve worked as a proofreader, in a consulting firm full of ignorant
social climbers (the worst by far, so far), I’ve worked as a secretary, as an editor, in a
boutique, as a photographer’s assistant, in independent cultural management, and as a
It’s good to have a job. It’s OK. It’s seems to me that is good that one should contribute to
society by doing something beyond personal creativity. I think is necessary to build
community, to belong to society, with what you have created, or worked in, in different
areas, which is also part of the creative process, let’s say, the artistic creative process. We
are not special birds that can’t work, or shouldn’t work, like the rest. I’m talking here of
working conditions as an individual that belongs to society, not as a “creative” person.
And I do it like any other worker to whom the system prevents from having a life after
spending hours dedicated to production.
In Chile, the production system that ties us up to one place for 45 hours in a weekly basis,
if we’re “lucky” enough to have a job, leaves us little to no time at all to create, and by that
I don’t mean just to write. It doesn’t leave time for leisure either, time to share with family
and friends, or to that enjoyment or comfort that everyone deserves. Life, finally. In Chile,
work is just a link in the chain of production, and not a space for creation, development,
In this obscenely unequal country, 50% of the workers make less than 251 thousand
chilean pesos a month (that’s like 5 thousand dollars a year) and is heavily indebted.
Workdays are neverending, and at least in Santiago, where I live, the distances are long
and many people must go to the other side of the city to get to work, having to use a lousy
and expensive public transportation system, wasting a couple of hours of their time. On
the other hand, the social atomization leads to the majority of the workers to share very
little. If there isn’t a union at the place you work – something that’s very common in
Chile, a country that has a lot of anti-union laws and policies– is also very difficult to
participate of any other social organization. That’s why we must fight. And it’s possible.
There are many social and community organizations already working, but we still need to
get our society out of the existing individualism, elitism and consumerism.
As I work in an office, without making big physical efforts, it happens to me that, above
all, is the schedule the thing that kills me. Like the vast majority of the workers in Chile, I
barely have enough time to rest. Hence, wanting to write, it doesn’t work that much if you
don’t have discipline. In fact, I don’t write much. Sometimes I get really excited about
certain things, certain images or situations and I write them down in my notebook.
Sometimes I kept thinking in the structure of a story, in a certain character that needs
more development, and well, I start writing. Slowly, faster, in paragraphs or by lines, the
labor issue occupies a large part of the little writing I’m doing these days.
We just have to steal time to our jobs (the one that pays the rent) to use it for creative
work, to fight, to be able to rethink work as a space for construction, creation, and
Translated by Carlos Soto-Román
JUAN PABLO PEREIRA (Santiago, Chile, 1978) is a Chilean poet, translator and poetry
I'm a poet, although I work in a civil court of law as a law clerk, or something like that. As
far as I understand, a law clerk is a qualified professional worker there, in the States. Here,
not so much, or not necessarily: you can find a whole lot of barely literate people in the
courts of law around here; these people (mostly nice, hard working people) do most of
the menial work. And it's a huge workload: the Chilean civil process is not oral but
written, which implies a heavy, Kafka-esque amount of writing on huge, dusty and
always-prone-to-fall-apart files, called “expedientes”; this way of doing things go all the
way back to the Inquisition time, no joking.
The writing gets done by people like me. We do not sew (yes, those files are not glued or
stapled but sewed) or carry around files. Instead we write a lot, “we” meaning generally
people who went to law school but dropped out, or people who are about to earn their
degrees (law degrees are incredible annoying to get in Chile). We do that work under the
guidance and control of a judge. So you can imagine how the writing we do is: dull,
archaic, and ritualistic. It also should be as precise and monosemic as possible; of course,
it’s all about orders, and orders must be plain and easy to follow.
All of this has consequences. Since I do write a lot at work, to get home and keep on
writing can be slightly unheartening, in the best of cases, and almost revolting, when I
have a really bad day (my work can be very, very boring, though is not always the case;
sometimes it can be fun, hard to believe as it is). I read once about a lawyer-poet who gave
up naps; I'd love to say I did the same thing (I didn't). At this point, I guess I must clarify
something: I went to law school, but never made all the stuff I was supposed to do in
order to be a certified lawyer (in the States it would be to be admitted to the bar or
something); I suppose I'll do it, some day. That make me a don't-really-know-what-heck-
I-am, and some label-loving people get easily puzzled with me, and what I do.
Labels are something you must learn to deal with. In my job I am affectionally treated as a
cloud dweller. Around poets I can feel that funny vibe that is directed to block-headed
bureaucrats suspicious of militant petit bourgeoisie (I do not rule out being a bit paranoid
here). Of course, I do have to turn off and on some switches inside when I go from one
environment to the other, though sometimes I intentionally keep some switches on at the
wrong place, with hilarious/awkward results. I guess everyone who lives this sort of
amphibian life would understand what I mean.
I'm not sure how my work and the poetry I write get along with each other. I don’t write
much poetry, although I've written enough to fill a couple of slim books. I do not
conceive my poetry as a getaway from my ordinary life, so to speak, nor as an extension of
the same. I could understand if someone would look for links between law and literature
in what I write, but it's a little shameful to confess that probably won't find any. What I
am trying to address is that I am not really able to grasp the connections between such
different practices, though I believe they exist and sometimes I’ve even seen or foreseen
Of course, the real problem here is if it is sustainable to live like this. My best guess is:
probably not. Or more precisely, not if I expect to be a great o even good (literary) writer
(I've been told I kind of suck at the judiciary one, too convolute, etc.). But I can live with
that. I like the sense of living in the grey world of routine and (almost) at the same time
being able to write/make a poem, in colors or in grey, slightly stained but perhaps
meaningful for me or, if in luck, even readable by the others I live and work with.
JAIME PINOS (Santiago, Chile, 1970). Writer, editor, and producer. He has a degree in
Literature from Universidad de Chile. He was the editor of the independent press house
“La Calabaza del Diablo” and the editor of the homonymous magazine. He has published
the novel “Los Bigotes de Mustafá” (1997) and the poetry books “Criminal” (2003) and
What is money?
Money is everything.
A virus. A poison.
To get money. To swallow money.
To spend money. To shit money. To owe money.
That’s what you live for. That’s life.
An infectious disease.
A virus penetrating the host cell
and growing inside until it kills it.
Money in the veins.
Money in the heart.
Money is everything.
The common sense. The official language.
Five hundred thousand slot machines in the hoods of the country.
Convenience stores, retail stores, video stores, butcher shops.
Housewives, clerks, senior citizens
playing their last chips in the machines.
The fortune spinning. The money spinning.
Cherries. Pear. Lemon.
The fortune of the poor spinning
in the five hundred thousand slot machines.
Watermelon. Apple. Cherries.
The felling of the forests.
The glaciers’ destruction.
The repression against the Mapuche people.
All those depredations.
Violence and fear in the large cities.
The face of the workers
in the crowded public transportation
returning home from a day at work
The smiles of the kids
in the ads of banks and department stores.
The smiles of the famous people
in charity campaigns.
The smile of the President of the Republic.
All of that is money.
Oscar Rojas (44 years old)
was caught last night stealing food
in a supermarket in Lo Prado
he hung himself when the guards were not looking
before the police arrived.
In the center of life
money contemplates itself.
The virus that kills the host cell.
Lemon. Cherries. Cherries.
Translated by Carlos Soto-Román
PABLO LABGLOIS is a Chilean visual artist. For about 8 years, he’s been working on
different devices dealing with the question “Is Art a job?” The scenario he’s been using to
display his work is the International Worker’s Day March, every May 1st, in Santiago,
Chile. The following flyers, and pictures show some of that work.
Flyers by Pablo Langlois.
Pictures by Pablo Soto-Román.
Fisheye pictures by Carlos Soto-Román
PAUL EBENKAMP works at Saint Mary's College and co-curates/edits books of poetry
and anthologies with Counterpoint Press. Before these gigs he drove around from 10pm
to 4am in a boatlike Chevrolet Lumina delivering bad sushi to Berkeley residents,
archived baubles and trinkets of memorabilia in windowless library archives, and mowed
large fields with a tractor for cash.
THE WORLD COMPANY
Here, flailing in perfect orbit the world’s
afforded what it’s cost us: widow channels
backed up across what they cancel, first-
vintage-first-glitch where the book blurs shut;
wherein returning all to robocall exhausts
the conjurer, as amps crave wakefulness,
and in between its doubled notes may thrash
our data-fracked white-outs of eyes high
beyond aura and obstacle, redial elided…
Begins with machines will bring us closer
or a stump hulked inside the cord, oxides
learning to sing through the snarl of rooms
purse like leaves from a seed… Begins drivel—
a tic of ethic to this, one world veils the next
until another, soon, arriving in a hatch pattern
that in order to seduce you blooms and turns
its back, remote as the ritual window through
which there’s just glass. A life happens again
and that is enough to unlearn which events
come to pass, until those that don’t start to catch…
In the shape of the world whose occasions
relapse, I can meander mind in hand around
the picky darkness until, funded and culminating,
here’s a language-long crowd of voices not to
be complained to dissembling into dirt like
cursive in the permanent air, wild above waste
and scale – and takes to raving in the killed mirror
we’d used to rake our moods across their mind –
throbs, a throne to go flagrant in – sirens and thickly
lined sums – all of it to avoid one’s business, how
to shamble a way through the day’s ills folding
over and over, forgetfully itself? The world comes
with company, no problem there, since reason’s
already such a purchase: you can shiver wherever
the sun is and raise yourself and never rise. Oh rest
is complex, yes but it trusts us to be these imaginary
brackets on that cloud no single count is right about!
It takes time, I meant to invent another good way in,
but how automatic’s the way back to the actual? As
I grow fleshed out with verbiage – arable, irreparable,
name-and-number-checked by landfill services whose
peregrinations slave a kind of rainfall down my street
which with feckless alacrity never ends – my body,
having said all of the preceding, however errant,
however garrulous, only sort of reforms: half dead to, half
alive for, half coated over, half shown nothing but noise
under moneyed shade, shade that is the subject of
this work, shade that petrifies outside the flood lights,
about to found a company in its figureheaded haste
to get it fated and straight before the seams show.
It’s time to change states. Let’s get out our phones
and capture all things: body and soul, rod and cone –
until no one’s exempt from the telling of time, the nerve
it takes to sound it through so that no one isn’t thinking it’s
too loud in here for it not to be cold out, in cases traceable
to everyone. What the rush is starts somewhere almost
perfectly as unrelated as known. The world occurs,
mainly, as the wait time takes up the whole room.
JEANINE WEBB is a poet and writer and works in San Diego teaching writing. Her
immediately previous job was manual horticultural labor. Her article, "'Weak Intimacy,'
Celebrity and Bay Area Poetics" for ON Contemporary Practice's .pdf Archive Series can
be found at http://oncontemporarypractice.squarespace.com/.
The Poetics of Reverie, Labor and the Drone Imaginary
Reverie is not a mind vacuum. It is rather the gift of an hour which knows the plenitude
of the soul. - Bachelard
Well maybe, B. But if care is a "labor of stolen time,"
for most, poetic reverie now is only
possible in the service economy in a place of stolen labor-time; plenitude often only exists
for the many in open revolt, or in smaller acts of expropriation and sharing.
[The first time I was disciplined at the workplace in grammar school the first workplace
of the child was for daydreaming in 2nd grade Apparently I and the others had been
imagining the inhabitants of other universes drawing prehistoric mammals sailing to the
ends of the world with cannons and other things most common humans do before they
are told that they are not poets Or before being told they are in some extra-regrettable
cases The problem was of such severity that a conference was called even if the reveries I
experienced and not only alone for we the workers often shared Did not materially
interfere with the completion of any assigned projects pasting one thing to another thing
learning proportion and pilgrims according to secondary geometry coins and bills state
capitols and experiencing the cruelty of 'recess' And so it would continue throughout the
labor of the rest of our lives]
Meanwhile, the pathologization of daydreaming continues apace:
The psychoanalytic theorist Stephen Frosh asserts that one way postmodernity has
affected us is to disintegrate the world and remove most communal reverie from our lives,
replacing it with mediated recuperations of spectacle and consumption.
Any dream that
cannot be monetized is suspect and must be regulated. We become distanced both from
reality and from dreaming; this is another way of saying alienation ("no other nexus
between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous 'cash payment'”).
[I have been working since I was 15 moving stacks of paper data packages held in place by
thick rubber bands or pushing back sheets water of overflow from the massive pump
system as retail aquarist as the frayed wires went unmended on the shop vacs In food
service reverie is often impossible to sustain since every moment regarded transaction
and any breath taken can result in a yell from boss though barrista-ing one has a split
minute during the steam hang-time to wonder so long as the customer is not exacting the
care work and affect labor for such jobs boots help with treads back braces and harnesses
good secateurs gloves one steals from one's employer to do one's job because the wage is
too low and the fertilizing chemicals from the soil change one's breathing and unloading
the trucks makes sore at 4 am grading Dreaming can occur during physical labor as one
takes the stacks of waste to separate into the compactor mopping the dirty floor stamping
tax forms in triplicate for 6 hours But what would the man in the maquiladora or young
girl stripping ewaste in Guiyu think of any of this ]
We live in an era of a global underclass in which the past and the future are constantly
taken from us and sold back to us in false form; the past through capital's erasure of
history, and the future through capital's foreclosure of conditions on the present. The
present requires nothing less than the expropriation of the past and future, not simply
through dreaming but by direct action. What wage-labor under capital attempts to
enforce is a kind of drone imaginary, in which the goal is the subject's alienation both
from reality and from dreams, a brain harnessed to the wage. Alex Rivera's film "Sleep
Dealer" shows this drone imaginary well, a dystopian vision in which the labor of cyber
maquiladoras is displaced from their workers' bodies.
Some fight hardest out of joy and hatred, and some fight hardest out of pure despair and
some fight out of both of these. Dreams deferred don't just dissipate. The memory of
them persists; sometimes they explode.
Ursula K. LeGuin's The Word for World is Forest envisions such a world in which a
people of reverie, the Althsheans, are exploited and enslaved by human colonists. The
aliens' human captors assert that they cannot feel pain and are incapable of revolt.
Meanwhile the aliens struggle to understand the exploitative culture of the 'yumens' on
"'They make the forest into a dry beach' -- her language had no word for 'desert'--'and call
that making things ready for the women? They should have sent the women first. Maybe
with them the women do the Great Dreaming, who knows? They are backward, Selver.
They are insane.'
'A people can't be insane.'
'But they only dream in sleep, you said; if they want to dream waking they take poisons so
that the dreams go out of control, you said! How can people be any madder? They don't
know the dream-time from the world-time, any more than a baby does. Maybe when they
kill a tree they think it will come alive again!"
For the Althsheans, LeGuin's Vietnam-era poetic dreamers on the Lyre, the songs alone
won't suffice; the only way out for reverie given their conditions is a material revolt.
Borges - "Our destiny (unlike the hell of Swedenborg and the hell of Tibetan mythology)
is not terrifying because it is unreal; it is terrifying because it is irreversible and iron-
bound. Time is the substance of which I am made. Time is a river that sweeps me along,
but I am the river; it is a tiger that mangles me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire that
consumes me, but I am the fire."
And so, B., haunted as we are by the boring white night-gowns of disillusion ("None are
green,/Or purple with green rings,/Or green with yellow rings"), we continue to Catch
tigers in red weather.
1. B's wrong about a lot! O phenomenology. But still! Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of
Reverie. Reprint of the 1969 ed. published by Grossman Publisher."Beacon paperback."
1971, p. 64.
2. from "Caring: A Labor of Stolen Time, Pages From a CNA's Notebook," by Jomo in
LIES, A Journal of Materialist Feminism, 2012.
3. Frosh, Stephen. Identity Crisis: Modernity, Psychoanalysis and the Self. MacMillan
Press: London, 1991. Whether or not one subscribes to the Freudian analysis, Frosh's
historical analysis is interesting.
4. Something by some guy with a birthday on Cinco de Mayo. I dunno.
5. "Sleep Dealer." David Riker and Alex Rivera. Maya Entertainment, 2008.
6. LeGuin, Ursula K. The Word for World is Forest. Tor: New York, 1972, p. 55.
7. Borges, Jorge Luis. Selected Non-Fictions, "A New Refutation of Time," Penguin: New
York, p. 332.
8. Stevens, Wallace. "The Disillusionment of Ten O'Clock."
SANDRA SIMONDS is the author of four books of poems including The Glass Box
(forthcoming, Saturnalia), The Sonnets (Bloof Books, forthcoming), Mother Was a Tragic
Girl (Cleveland State University Press, 2012) and Warsaw Bikini (Bloof Books, 2009). Her
poems have appeared or are forthcoming in the Best American Poetry 2014, The
American Poetry Review, Fence, and Lana Turner.
I have trained myself to write poetry, to write about poetry, to read poetry deep into the
night. These hours confuse me for I am, by nature, a morning person. At night, my mind
is fuzzy and the world seems glassed over by some kind of narcotic force so my only hope
is to extract a few magic charms from its erotic center of imaginative power. “The town is
silent. The night boils with eleven stars,” writes Anne Sexton. “May night continue to fall
upon the orchestra” writes Andre Breton.
I’ve trained myself to write at night because my children wake me up around 6am. So, the
morning hours, the hours when I used to write long ago, the time when I’m most clear-
headed, is no longer mine. In the morning, the children ask for bread and butter and
water and milk and I have to pick out their clothes for school, put on their socks and
shoes and drive them across town and then once they are dropped off, I have to drive
from Florida to Georgia where I work as a professor all day and at the end of the day, I
drive back from Georgia to Florida to pick up the kids and then make them dinner and
read books and sing songs and put them to bed.
This daily routine takes up almost all of my time. There are many nights when the kids
don’t want to go to sleep. Sometimes my five-year-old son, Ezekiel, gets up from his bed.
“Mommy, I need water,” he says. I tell him that it’s bedtime and that he has to go to sleep.
A minute later, “Mommy, I’m scared of the dark. I want to sleep in your bed.” (As I’m
revising this now on the morning of 5/8/14, my two-year-old daughter, Charlotte, is
saying “up” over and over again because she wants to sit on my lap). This little dance can
go on for an hour, sometimes, if I’m unlucky, longer. I put him back to bed. Once he’s
asleep Charlotte, begins to cry. She needs milk. Maybe she has a slight fever from a molar
coming in. I go to the kitchen and fill her bottle with milk. Maybe I rock her in the
rocking chair. Maybe I sing Hush Little Baby. I have sung what seems to be lifetimes of
Hush Little Baby. The doctor has told me that she shouldn’t drink milk at night (it could
damage her teeth). What do I do? Do I give her the milk so that she might fall asleep or wait
for her to stop crying? I feel a sense of guilt for giving her the milk. Just this once, I think.
Eventually, both children fall asleep and I am left with some uninterrupted time.
I know that I’m not unique. I know that most of us give up almost all of our time to work,
either housework or work outside the home or both. When you read this now you are
probably thinking, “I don’t have time to read this” just as when I am writing this now I
think “I don’t have time to write this.”
Maybe it’s 9 or 10 at night and I decide that I want to write a poem. Now I imagine all of
the dead workers who inhabit this nocturnal realm, who also had almost their entire lives,
all of their time stolen from them. Aren’t they a kind of family? I imagine their names and
histories. I imagine them as secretaries, and receptionists, and factory workers. One pours
me a cup of coffee. And now, you see, I am making a poem. One tells me not to fall
asleep. I name her “Maria.” One might ask, very politely, how my day was. I name her
“Sarah.” Sometimes, I cry because I am tired but mostly I don’t because I want to write
poetry and I want to write about poetry and I want people to read my poems and I want
to read the poems of other people.
A writer friend today said, “Oh I could never drink a cup of coffee past 5pm because I
would stay up all night!” I admit to feeling a little bit superior. For I have become the kind
heroic writer who can stay up until night becomes the wispy, pinkish, layered sky of the
Tallahassee morning. And now I have created a problem for myself because if I become
the heroine of my own romantic narrative, and if the writing I am creating from this
space is good, it must mean that it doesn’t matter if it is created from this space, and that
the adverse or favorable conditions in which a piece of writing was produced can be
separated, finally, from the piece of writing itself. And yet, we intuitively know from our
experience as women, mothers, as poor people, as people of color, that this is not true,
that the conditions in which we write have everything to do with the kinds of poems that
we make. We write poems about giving birth, poverty, race, surveillance, the police state
and so on because they are intimately connected to our experiences as people who are
struggling to live in this world and it is from these experiences. As Audre Lorde and
Adrienne Rich have argued before us, we must draw our experiences in order to fully
inhabit as well as challenge our subjectivity. When someone claims that the conditions in
which a poem are created are irrelevant to the poems itself, we know, from our own life
experiences and from our poems that come from them, that have become rich from them,
that this must be wrong.
When did it happen, that these night hours became a dominion of uninterrupted time?
When will it happen that these hours will become chopped up, halved, quartered, split
into eighths dissected and deranged by the contemporary imposition of work-time-space?
At least for now, provisionally, I have some part of the night to myself. I doubt it will last
Night and her strange visions! Night and her strange visions of strangeness! How could
we allow poetry to ever be transformed into labor in the same way that going to a job and
getting a paycheck and having to pay rent to our masters is labor? I’d like to echo and
agree very much with Andew Joron’s talk here where “jobs not jail” is turned into “JOBS
So in our political struggles, many of us position ourselves against labor. But I also like
the idea of positioning ourselves against a certain kind of poetry and certain institutions of
poetry that continuously threaten to turn poetry writing into a job, and then, when they
don’t have to pay you anymore because they know you will write for free, an unpaid
To say that poetry isn’t a job is to simultaneously acknowledge that certain kinds of
poems can be forces that speak against political oppression, through their ambiguities,
images, sounds, patterns, assertions, thinking, imaginative landscapes and emancipatory
desires. Poems remind us that the world is not our world. How can we navigate our
thinking and imagination beyond the limits of the surface if we do not recognize the
symbolic constellation and historical struggles that exist in the impossible space / time
that can only be made, manifested and demanded within the language of the
poem? Breton again: “Keep reminding yourself that literature is one of the saddest roads
that leads to everything.”
TED REES has worked as a legal researcher, model, barista, teaching assistant, music
journalist, brand representative, camp counselor, radio station manager, booking
coordinator, desk clerk, landscaper, and dog walker. He has never smelled better.
Elasticity foregone, I am halted in steam distillation swirlings,
the brutal certainty of mercury vapor. So tethered to swell repetitions,
footfall scrapes on my retinal dagger tips,
boundless conflagration of axis and atlas billowing
into occasion's corpse. Fuck it,
the pipeline I prefigured isn't mine. My cool reserves false,
a shadow arcs to the upper right. Its stoicism bristles
viewing the sublimation of snow heaped along the tracks
severing the valley. Spruce bleeds my hands, a continuous trickle
making its way further in, to the rut's end and a thicket, season barbed.
Jaw vibrating allegro in the evermounting glass tract,
at issue is my glistening in pseudoscorpion litter and viola odorata,
an undocumented stabbing related by fabulist neuronal fires
sparked by clean lines' aggression and interrelation.
The eternal lure is cabinlike, or half of a yellow wood structure unroofed,
an economy of feet following back paths' contortions along charred detritus,
around logistical curves, over the suckle of does at riverbank.
Allowed at one of my doors is a taking, abscission's toll small
sullying decoration's absence and the lappings of dogs.
Another forgives slickenings and turds, a scape loosed
by lack of jinglejangle combined with rubber on cement,
dead engine revs.
So delirium sits on my face in imploring weather.
I can dig it, though, as rustication placates my taste
for alkaloids shagged in blank and icy wine chugs
through lava caverns. There is also the unforgiving
crystalline nose of a burg in higher altitudes, a purling
over stones, chatter in blue beginnings of flame.
Choking on it, how ringing the bells.
The preceding poems are part of a larger sequence investigating the oppositional relations
between my wage labor and my actual desires, whether they have become real or not.
Mostly not, as such is the case for most of us in this late capitalist matrix. My frustration
grows daily, but my desire to feed myself is a constant, too.
All have been written through or borrowed from sentiments and images contained in the
songs that Lee Ranaldo wrote and crooned for the band Sonic Youth.
KATY BOHINC’s first job was at Patterson's Fruit Farm in Cuyahoga County, Ohio at
age 13. She received $4.25 an hour because farm labor was not required to be paid
minimum wage (nor to be "above age"). She made donuts and came home with red
marks on her arms from the lard jumping up from the fryer, but she got to bring lots of
broken donuts to school for friends to eat. Else, Fisher's Tavern busing tables, Old Navy
folding clothes & staring at the white walls of the dressing room, Cutco selling knives,
summer camp watching children, in Beijing teaching English, and myriad restaurants,
particularly Clydes of Georgetown throughout college where she worked every weekend
occasionally serving her college classmates on Friday nights (fun). All of her most
important work has been unpaid, including activist work in China and poetic labor in the
United States. She currently very much benefits from the relative comfort of a cube in the
field of marketing. She admittedly adheres to the unorthodox position of preferring the
open hypocrisy of the commercial world to the hidden hypocrisy of academia.
You know, it’s a weird thing, us poets. We have this crazy existential crisis around what
we do to make money. See “Kill List” reaction. Like somehow how much money we have
or don’t is what makes us good or bad poets or good or bad people. And this, is sorta to
blame on the historical record. We all learn in school that poets have always been
bohemian poor people who rose out of the ground like unicorns somehow never really
working to give us these magic tomes of amazing. I dunno. There are a lot of examples of
poverty conditions leading to great writing, but we seem to always forget the examples of
those who came from money or those who worked or anything else. And how horrible
poverty is. On the flip side, I think those who don’t have MFAs because they couldn’t
afford them sometimes feel like only the ivy league students get the glory and screw that. I
don’t really know what the reality is – like if the ivy league people have any more true
success in terms of writing better poetry. Certainly they get more of the resources. But as
for a shiny degree actually conferring better writing capacity, I think that is not
something anybody can say with a straight face.
Also, we write these poems about how reality is unstructured, and certainly the path of
the poet should not be structured either, right? Like there is some kind of right way to be
a poet? No. So, arguably, the challenge we all have is to maximize time to spend on poetry,
minimize effort on making money, and maximize the x factor. X factor being whatever
makes your mojo. Some people write well in comfort, some in bed, some in chaos, some
in new environments, some in contact with people, some in solitude, whatever. That’s
your thing to figure out and choose.
As for an MFA, I didn’t do one and I probably wouldn’t even if someone gave me money.
Is that terrible? If I had time/money to take two-three years to do whatever, I would move
to an island and write full-time and read books and email with friends all over the world.
I still believe in the 1920’s trend where travel was the condition of the great writer.
Something about the cultural contrast always seemed like an amazing teacher to me. And
I believe in the merit of labor. One needs some busy work. It’s like the Jesuits. They would
I believe in the merit of labor. One needs some busy work. It’s like the Jesuits. They would
study for like, a decade. And then they would put down their pens and papers and books
and go work in the fields for two years to “come back down to earth.” The lesson is that
plain old labor is good for
I have dear dear friends who tell me “go get an MFA, it’s good for your career.” (I hate to
say this,but they are usually Capricorns, and they have never been poets.) But honestly, if
that’s what poetic acclaim is, a university degree, then I don’t want it. I’ll figure out how
to make it on my own. That’s just me. But I wanted to say it. I wanted to say there are
reasons beyond pragmatic ones to do or not do an MFA. And there are many ways to
study outside of the walls of the academy, and it’s on us to recognize all those various
ways and honor them. The fact is that higher education, particularly in our caste system
of a degree platform, may control the center of distribution but no system has a
monopoly on beauty and we have to fight against that interpretation because I think,
actually, that art’s survival depends on it, that there be no right or wrong way to go about
being a writer. MFAs are amazing but I think it is important they not be the only way.
Now if you want to talk about what kind of person a poet is, like Mao for example wrote
some poetry that some people liked and does that count as great poetry when he killed
arguably 60 to 120 million people? Now that, is a tricky question. The morality of the
individual and how it reflects – or doesn’t- on the work they produce. Alice Notley wrote
“you are not a good poet because you are not a good person”. So this, also figures into the
navigation of money sources. And, I think this is why there is some honest admiration
given to those who don’t get a “proper day job”, because doing so often means making
compromises, sometimes moral, about one’s goodness or one’s way to make art. That said,
those who devoted everything and didn’t make a back-up plan don’t necessarily ever get
any recognition from anybody! And of course in a fair world they deserve it the most.
Well damn, I have to say I think if someone who read and wrote all their lives with very
little dies and no one notices it’s the community’s fault. Because academia damn sure
doesn’t care about the not well off, or anybody who didn’t play by its rules. And it’s our
job to refer the best up to the historians – such is the system of the current world. So, my
words are almost up, and obviously the poetry community is not perfect, but I really do
think it is one of the most wonderful things existing in this country because it gives a lot
of people from tons of different paths the opportunity to get out there and do it. Just go to
some readings. And that is truly a precious, precious thing.
CHEENA MARIE LO Lives and works in Oakland. They have worked as an art curator,
an ice cream scooper, a line cook, a workshop facilitator, an unpaid intern, an
administrative assistant, and as an award-winning competitive barista. They currently
work at Mills College.
Two months ago I started working full-time at the liberal arts college where I got my
MFA. Transitioning into this job during the Spring semester means that I have been
working directly with prospective students who have just been accepted to the MFA
program, having conversations about the program, about financial aid, about what
students do after the MFA. I have to explain that this particular program is one you will
likely take on debt for, that many students work while going to school to help cover some
of their costs, that they go on to do a variety of different things after the program. It is
hard to explain to students thinking of taking on the debt that the outcomes are largely
immaterial, that the work people find after the program can look one million different
Is it unprofessional to talk about how I spent the morning talking to a debt collector who
refused to accept any payments less than $1000 a month towards my defaulted student
loan? That for two years after graduate school I pieced together part-time work in cafes
and restaurants to pay my rent? That it’s hard to see my friends, who also happen to be
some of my favorite artists, now that we’re no longer in school because we’re all so busy at
our jobs, working hard to make ends meet while making time for the other, more
How to speak about these real, material outcomes?
The job I have right now consists of e-mails, spreadsheets, mostly. Staff meeting on
Mondays, Department meeting once a month, meetings with prospective students
visiting campus throughout the year, some events every now and then. 6.98 hours per day,
often more. Sometimes I go on vacation, a few minutes snuck away on campus to go for a
walk alone or to meet up with a friend who also works at the college. A vacation from
work at work.
But oh, the other work between the work: the writing group, the reading series, the
journal we’re trying to get off the ground, the open letter to the blog, the show for the
Queer Arts Festival, the fundraising, the interview, the manuscript, the submissions, the
meetings that turn into dinner, the dinners that turn into projects, the projects that turn
into a container for spending more time together, the readings in the living rooms and
bookstores and community spaces, the bar after the readings in the living rooms and
bookstores and community spaces, the navigating of community formations, the
mapping, the collaborations.
This work will not pay off my debt or stop debt collectors from calling.
I am often tired.
But these are the things I feel inside of my body.
They can’t be measured by money, or pitched as an outcome. Sitting in a room with my
friends who are also poets and makers. Inviting strangers into our living room to listen to
poetry. Trading work back and forth, the other work done between the work. Spending a
Sunday reading a friend’s manuscript in between slowly stirring a sauce that needs to be
simmered for hours, a meal that will last us the week. The ease with which Taylor and I
laugh together, how’s Tessa’s eyes crinkle at the sides when she smiles, talks on the porch
with Brittany, Zoe’s ideas, Zach’s inflection, Kate’s boundlessness, friends that span time
and state lines. Loving them all the way through.
CATHERINE THEIS is a Provost Fellow at USC. She is the author of The Fraud of Good
Sleep (Salt Books, 2011). She’s been paid to slice turkey very thinly, take tickets, edit, teach,
write, and edit again. When asked about her favorite job, she says, “A ticket taker. Yeah,
I’ve been a ticket taker at three different places—the beach, an outdoor music venue, and
the movies. My favorite part is letting people in who don’t have tickets.”
Labor Is A Fountain I Can’t Follow
I wake up from a 20-minute nap. The metal bench is comfortable. I think this the prettiest
courtyard on campus, though there are lots. I peel two Christmas oranges. The sun’s hot.
It’s November, and I love southern California. Yeah, I really do like Los Angeles—call me
crazy & drape me in flowers. Luckily, the library had the DVD I need to watch for my
Moby Dick class: Pola X. I still have a lot of food in my tote bag. I can hang out on
campus for the entire day, if I wanted to. I know where the showers are, and where I can
find free coffee. All Streams Reach...is all I can read off the fountain right now.
At the end of last summer, I left my job as a Senior Editor at a major corporation in
Chicago. I was happy to go. I worked for 5 years in a department called Brand
Compliance. The summer before last, I took an unpaid leave from that job. I didn’t want
to work, and I didn’t want to write, I wanted to do nothing. I wanted to go to the beach
and read. When I first floated the idea of a sabbatical to my VP, he nearly fell off his chair.
“If I give this to you, will you promise to come back?” he asked me.
As a PhD student, I get paid roughly 1/3 of what I used to make as a Senior Editor, but
earn more money than your average adjunct instructor, which I’ve never been. I made
that choice a long time ago when I graduated MFA school. I desperately wanted to teach,
but I couldn’t swallow not getting paid for my work, so I declined those meager jobs. I
don’t do things just for love. My fellowship is fantastic, and I thank the universe every day
for the chance to be around other talented thinkers and writers. I’m in heaven. I often
wonder if my gratefulness today is because of the incredible wear & tear my 9 to 5 job
inflicted on my body, and on my psyche. (The first 3 years were fine.) I still spend the
same amount of time writing, but my voice has changed, along with the form. I’m writing
an infinitely long serial poem. Now I clock my leisure like I used to clock my corporate
editing. It’s on the same timekeeping system, just the column opposite. Everyone should
know how to use both columns.
“It’s a curse!” I told this woman at a party once in Venice when I explained I was a poet.
“I’m a poet, too. I’m a poet on the inside,” she explained to me. “So, what are you on the
outside?” I asked. We didn’t talk much after that. It didn’t really bother me that much.
My family will tell you I’m contrary. Being a poet is the closest thing I can think of to
feeling free. I like moving to new places. I’m in need of constant calibration. I’ll do
anything to an extreme. And then do the reverse. I don’t mind working in corporate
America if I know I can leave. I don’t mind misunderstanding my academic colleagues as
a motion of mind. I don’t mind living out of suitcase. I don’t mind changing the shares of
my 401k portfolio. I’m private and I’m public, but I’m always on the outside. Everything
is labored. I want to be paid! I want money! I dream infinity signs, but live awake in
poems. My invisible second job? I smile at people. I compliment people, I offer them a
drink. I try not to complain. Sometimes I cry, so you know I’m human. I’m in a trance, so
let me be in it.
My ideal working life? Wouldn’t it be great if all us poets could share jobs on a rotating
basis, within and outside of the Academy/Corporate America? (This would cut down on
corruption on both sides.) The market will never go away, so can’t we just work it?
Wouldn’t it be nice to spend three consecutive years teaching literature, then transfer to a
company on the stock exchange in need of a poet’s vision, then spend a year helping to
raise a baby, then transfer back to the same university at the sixth year only to teach
philosophy or book arts or poetry? Like Camus’ Sisyphus, I’m smiling.
RED TEES is a confused, wayward fellow. He enjoys drinking fine wine, listening to acid
house, and eating Pop-Tarts.
I lived on a street where the waft of wet garbage and crack and meth bloomed horrible
through the air. I lived on the state’s dime and occasional paper offerings from temporary
gigs. I lived on poetry books and theoretical texts that would be given to me or that I
would steal. I lived on my rickety faltering laptop, slowly working through poems and
collaborative processes and arrangements for reading what I was writing. I lived on the
sounds of Swans and Stars of the Lid and Skitsystem and E-40. I lived on and on with my
partner and my friends, punks and poets and artists spread on both sides of the Bay and
across the continent.
And then, suddenly, I was thrust into a new position. I was given a job in an industry that
I knew little about, but by a company within this particular industry that seemed to value
the idea of hiring working artists as its representatives. The company’s website quoted
Baudrillard and Whitman. The prospect of wage slavery had never seemed so erudite, so
imbued with intellectual rigor.
Of course, much of this rigor just disguises one facet of marketing products to a certain
audience, a bourgeois, highly-educated class of people. The company aligns itself with
arts and cultural institutions, and in doing so, creates unorthodox venues for shifting
product into users’ hands. Employees are encouraged to attend art and literary events,
sometimes for reasons that are completely lost to me; before it was dismantled, all were
encouraged to visit or look at the website for Thomas Hirschhorn’s Gramsci Monument, a
project intended to serve as a revolutionary meeting space to engage in art, community
aesthetics, and politics. The contradictions inherent in such encouragement— “Do take
the time from your busy work schedule to visit a space dedicated to the man who
developed the Marxist theory of cultural hegemony”— are truly confounding.
Perhaps, though, this is part of what life under capitalist labor is now about: increasing
contradiction, and the acceptance of such as normative.
And so, I have learned to accept. I accept that I work a luxury-goods retail job, with
excellent perks, which include fancy dinners, boutique chocolates, wine tastings,
exceptional hourly wages, and many other trappings of a life that I could never lead,
whether I wanted to or not. Meanwhile, when I’m not at work, I accept that I live in a 14-
foot U-Haul box truck that my partner and I have converted into a functional RV, and
which is usually parked next to our friends’ warehouse space. I accept that in the truck,
you’ll find something like a trapper’s cabin— jars of spices and food, funny wooden
shelves, a derelict sink. You’ll also find a collection of books that run the gamut from
anarchist theory and practice to hermeneutics to surrealist poetry from Martinique. And I
accept that the warehouse space that is our neighbor houses a group of artists and punks
who are equally versed in Marxist dialectics and the finer points of Romeo Void’s
Sometimes, it is difficult to accept the contradictions, and sometimes I can accept them
with such facility that they hardly seem like contradictions any longer. They are just the
conditions under which most of us live, quietly working, plotting, dreaming, and thinking
towards the day when such conditions will no longer exist, whether that day arrives in the
form of ecological disaster or glorious riotous tumult or any or all of the other
possibilities. While a life without contradictions would be boring to a lethargic point,
when the condition of contradictions isn’t an imposition of capitalism— that will be a day
when I won’t have to think about what I just wrote, because I’ll know exactly how I feel.
And that will be just fine.
TRISH SPOTTS grew up in a small town. She never put her roots down. Daddy always
kept moving, so she did too.
it had the charm [for her] which any broken ground, any mimic rock and ravine, have for
the eyes that rest habitually on the level –George Eliot (from The Mill On The Floss)
as an arc
without plan climbs
just at an angle
an unassuming charm
we might say “slope” but not quite “rise”
we might say “bank” but not quite “pitch”
as if laxness was
no one wants to talk about
from the seaside bookstore
where the book was bought
how it remains
so the picking up & finding one’s place again
some day when the pressure pushed
far to the edges
culminating with the clerk wedging said bookmark
between pages 78 & 79
& off one goes
with the level edge of the earth slinking back
from the horizon
there is a trick to holding the knife
getting behind the joint
so the muscle has nothing left to hold
my landlord, Jeff
my neighbor, a foreclosed home
the feral cat
wants to come inside
which is the opposite of everything
[CONSENSUS OF OPINION]
an irreverent and humorous attitude, combined with polished graphics and professional
simulates the gag reflex
we're not short on sunshine
to be pixilated
to make up the weft
along with the other square
while a bank of elevators shift gray to grey
& gliding back down
listening to Spanish language podcasts
how many windows
have you open
& off one goes
I thought how I would talk about my mutation
how each night
I would press it
it would go
I thought how I would arrange mirrors
so I could see it
and after a longer sorrow than could ever be imagined
ending, it was as if these grim facts oozed
how it easily pooled
eroding into a sore
here I mean
in the basic sense
[IN LAG TIMES]
arrive, depart, & mourn
in the same bloom.
In the face of an epic
I whet the point
of each Dorrito
cracked in half
like a home
a fiction / a fever
confusing a billboard for the setting sun.
In olden times
I’d be old
so I’ll act as I were
noxious & scatological
grim in the face of trees that limb like cathedrals
babes that coo
rush fast as the faucet
with names for things
we do & do not know
[IN LAG TIMES]
gunshots, sirens, milestones, & horchata
GIANT EXPLANATORY science!
young enough to be sewn
with a step-daughter smile
by officious dander
(I see a pagoda!
---again, I go grim)
the cresting edges
out of becoming
not back into –
the spines of my lips
I grow into
that is to say,
you are plentiful, rich, and wide.
If you acknowledge time as it is
in your present:
crapping in your garden,
sleeping on your couch
you are in love!
while I am drinking
tequila I am
while I am eating bacon
DEAR GOD! I am
fry more bacon!
Keep in mind: these are lag times.
We are going to walk
shackled by this frowny-
across a map
I go grim
trying to differentiate the world’s desire
from the desire to summit
or dirty work in the double negative
large & unshorned
the punch line was
in your fucking canoe”
and the new yorkers
That I sold nothing. Possessed nothing, not even a charm
to sell. Even my words
amounted to zip in the bluebook, regardless
of my re-built engine
my obsessive record keeping
filed & alphabetized in a grim little box
kept in the crawlspace
where once a
a dragon slept
it was speculated
& in prior times
a river flowed.
the planned and systematic activities implemented in a quality system so that quality
requirements for a product or service will be fulfilled. It is the systematic measurement,
comparison with a standard, monitoring of processes and an associated feedback loop that
confers error prevention.. -Wikipedia
El jefe referred to me as A BABE then sd one of my co-worker must have been RAPED A
LOT GROWING UP, HAHAHA then called the graphic designer SWEETIE while asking
her to do a last minute job, & by way of apologizing for the short notice sd I KNOW WE
[sic] ARE PUTTING YOUR HEAD IN A VICE HERE…WHICH I KIND OF ENJOY.
HAHAHA and then an hour later called me HONEY, to which I corrected him and he
accused me of not having a sense of humor.
[I AM THE FUNNIEST PERSON I KNOW]
Spanish for "blood of Christ", is said to come from the red color of the range at some
sunrises and sunsets, especially when the mountains are covered with snow, alpenglow.
However the particular origin of the name is unclear, and the name in fact only dates back
to the early 19th century.
A blur where the trigger
was a mirror was now
subject in triplicate
I get the third
the carbon copy
If you want a merry-maker you shoulda known me
12 years ago when I gladly arc-
on a bus
into a cradle of mountains
cutting all of us
in a delirious orange altitude.
kicked from the door –
or kicking the door until the paint falls off
it doesn’t matter –
kicking is the important part.
One of the perks of the job, is that I now know
how to spell “miscellaneous”.
And off one goes.
but perhaps I meant stolid & avuncular
calm, dependable, & showing little emotion
kind, friendly toward a younger or less
& in easy replacement
craigs list bears
wide open nymphs
We rhymes with criminy.
the poem itself
currently on the down grade
(why are we surprised?)
was at DEAR GOD!
or maybe it was the bacon…
does it matter?
You are still here
on the map of “our” transgression
all of us supping
from the same pot.
Salty, sweet, sour, bitter, unami,
rhythm. All can be detected
in the daily gruel.
Barely acknowledged concurrence of flies
becomes “too many”
not to acknowledge. I’m down on my knees
low enough to catch the scent
the scent that travels
close to the ground / on that level
on a different draft
until the pang comes again like a color
I think you know.
The feral cat has crawled beneath the house, hasn’t he?
He has been dead at least a week. Curled up
in the water
Elliot brought home a huge bushel of blooming
rosemary – as if he knew –
and buried him in a bed of resinous boughs
beneath the compost heap
beneath the egg shells & coffee grounds
heaps of collective mornings
their unassuming charms teeming with worms.
We smudge the entrance to the crawl space & the smoke moves in
& out as if
itself is breathing.
Today is march third. The anniversary of the death of Elliot’s father.
And off one goes.
primarily intended to set targets ablaze rather than instantly destroy them.
You make the bed.
You make the bed.
You make the bed.
I take out the recycling.
I take out the recycling.
I take out the recycling.
You clean your face with your paws.
You clean your face with your paws.
You clean your face with your paws.
This was in Santa Monica.
El jefe thought I said “kiss me” El jefe sez he wishes
A lot of nervous laughing looking out at the ocean
a lot of o
the cursive kind
crashing over itself
now everything seems misleading
even the names of mountains in translation
El jefe sez not to tell anybody. Grim-tastic.
I think about telling nobody. But end up telling you. El jefe sez he asked me not to. El jefe
sez he wishes I hadn’t.
Google sez “tell someone in human resources”.
Human resources is la esposa del jefe.
No better time to ask for six weeks paid vacation.
Grim stasis. The cat hogs the chair. No
explanation. Just hogging it. Sitting sure-fire. Like a hog.
When was the last time you’ve eaten?
Dunno is not a food.
Tools > Spelling and Grammar…>
That or Which
Not in dictionary
Extra space between words
Reflexive Pronoun Use
BRITTANY BILLMEYER-FINN is a poet living in Oakland. She has worked at various
small retail businesses as a vintage, DIY & consignment shopgirl. She has worked in
various volunteer, unpaid & stipened jobs in community organizing, teaching
assistantships, research assistantships & high school creative writing workshop
The Poethical Shopgirl
The kind of agency that has a chance of mattering in today’s world can thrive only in a
culture of acknowledged complexity, only in contexts of long-range collaborative projects
that bring together multiple modes of engagement—intuition, imagination, cognition…The
more complex things are, the less certain the outcome but also the more room for the play of
the mind for inventing ourselves out of the mess.
-Joan Retallack, The Poethical Wager
When my friends and I discuss our utopia I imagine land and clean air, making clothes
from curtains, reading in the chicken coop and swimming with the pigs like the stories
my grandmother has told me of her time as a young girl in Indiana. This desire is fleeting
and then returns. The dream doesn’t match our skill sets. It lives inside ourselves
separately and then closer to one another as we react to the things that are hard about
being present, here.
In reality, we live in little apartments under highway overpasses where trucks shake our
homes as they rumble overhead. We share homes that have gardens or don’t, or have
cranky neighbors below us that bang their ceilings to shake our floors, or queer friendly
homes with vegan kitchens, green and pink swirls painted on the walls. Many of us
moved here from various places, myself from Michigan, to go to grad school, to get our
MFA. We have all graduated now. Our homes at times transform into community sites
where we host readings and workshops, healing spaces of friendship, collaboration and
magic. Our homes too are places where we hide. We hide from each other, from poetry,
from micro aggressions, from poor time management, from our desires and failures.
Often, our hang outs are really meetings: editing each other’s books; planning our next
reading; unpacking our dissolving community projects; creating new ones.
Most of our jobs fall under the category of customer service: working the front desk;
slinging brunch; coffee; pizza or myself, resale clothing. We talk often about work, about
our writing practices, about how we wish for more time rather than more money and
how this isn’t always true. I cannot write their embodied reality how love, inspiration,
improvisation, passion, care, tenderness, arousal, anger, regret, resentment, anxiety, stress,
trauma, healing and hope exists inside each one’s body presently or in an embodied
history. I write “we,” to remind myself that I am not alone. That my work intersects with
them and theirs. That part of my poetic labor is imagining the utopia, building it on site,
being where we are together as people, friends, collaborators, community and
dismantling it again and again.
To get to work, I take the 24 to the 13 get off at Park turn onto Mountain Blvd. and find
myself in Montclair an affluent town in the hills of Oakland. It is 10:45 a.m. I count in the
cash, windex the counters as women cluster outside eating cookies from the bakery next
door. They wait for me to flip the open sign and let them inside the store. I feel
simultaneously resentful of their waiting and just a little bit powerful watching them wait
for me to let them inside.
I know what the customer wants from me. It is a familiarity. They want to know about my
“bohemian lifestyle,” they want to ask questions about my “lesbian relationship” and
“poet identity.” I become a character in their daily life that dresses them and give them a
“retail experience.” They ask me questions about what queer means…and it is safe to ask
because I am cis gender because I am white, my hair in a bun on top of my head and
because of my passing the dirt under my fingernails, the hair in my armpits and on my
legs becomes part of the performance, which is simultaneously me: the poet; the queer;
the approachable shopgirl…how I can be their favorite by difference.
I have workshop with a group of writers once a week, most of whom I graduated with
from Mills. The workshop grew out of our desire to have a non-institutional space in
which to structure our work /our selves inside of the thing. It feels easier on my body
Sometimes we workshop each others’ works in progress, usually we eat, occasionally there
is beer and wine, sometimes a puppy dog, sometimes we write together doing a warm up
exquisite corpse or pulling a tarot card from The Collective Tarot deck to write through. I
pull Strength, “We live in a broken system, and we frequently have to use broken tactics
in order to survive. If we don’t want to acknowledge we’re compromising our beliefs, we
usually pay, in some form, to let someone else compromise for us.”
Unpacking “the mess” and writing my poetic labor becomes mundane in its day to day
relation to immaterial definitions of work. My agency is something inside of my
circumstance first. The various names I might give it hold mostly privileged categories or
perhaps a mobius strip of privilege: white; middle/upper class upbringing; cis gender;
queer; femme; feminist; institutionally educated; monogamous; midwestern; community
organizer; ally; shopgirl.
How part of the immaterial work I uphold in my heart and at times in my hands is that of
mundane subversion…maybe. A friend writes, “I have blind spots, but I am working to
sweep out that internalized oppressor everyday.” Perhaps, “the mess” of which we might
invent ourselves out of is inside the body. Perhaps it is an intangible currency. Perhaps it
is the various categorizations and assigned values of capitalism. Perhaps it is the abject
identity. If I am the/a mess I carry it inside my body to each home, to each site. This
embodiment works to create something with skin. Something for the work to live inside
of during daily encounters of which I am on one side of its trajectory. It is the
unknowability of what happens next even inside of the messy sameness the both-ness at
JESS HEANEY has worked as a graduate program coordinator, an administrative
assistant, an art instructor, an environmental quality teacher, and a bead fairy for
pay. Unpaid, she has been a grassroots organizer; archived radio shows and speeches;
coordinated events and rallies; planned political education curriculum; done outreach
and made photocopies, amongst other things. In March, she started a new job as
Development Director, joining the 3-person staff a political organization. This essay was
written in the transition before starting the new job.
Let’s start as I travel to work in East Oakland, which I have done most mornings for the
past five years.
And as I travel to work, I see people working and not working.
As I travel to work, I see people walking to and from the corner and the market, their
homes, the bus, sometimes school, sometimes walking a dog.
As I travel to and from work, I can’t always tell who is working and who is on their day
off, who has work tomorrow or who can’t work.
Sometimes I can tell who has set up their own employment, who is working the corner
and selling their labor on the market, for cash, for credit, for some food, housing, for
As my travel to and from work changes, I can’t always tell what I’m doing for work and
what I’m doing as volunteer. Not in this transition. Or rather, the ‘work for cash, for
food, housing, for security’ issue is becoming both more clear and less significant. Or
rather, I am re-jigging the containers that hold the motivations.
As I write this, there are a few lines streaming through my head. “Security” by Etta James:
“I want security, yeah// Without it I'm at a great loss// Yes I am, now// Security, yeah,
yeah// And I want it any cost, yes I do now// Oh, don't want no money now// Don't want
no pay// But with security, yeah, yeah// I'll have all these things…”
As I write this, also floating is the mission of a certain political organization: “We believe
that basic necessities such as food, shelter, and freedom are what really make our
communities secure. As such, our work is part of global struggles against inequality and
I am thinking about the changes that I am making in my life this year. I am thinking
about my relative security, the stability I’ve had in the last five years from part-time, part-
time, part-time, intern, part-time, volunteer, part-time, full-time, volunteer, full-time
work. The variations of hourly wage, project-based pay, free labor, salary.
I’m thinking about security and what working towards community stability means in this
neoliberal moment in capitalism. I am thinking about context and structures. I am
thinking about my own relationship to security, “individual” and shared. What comes
with pay and what comes with labor, whether paid work is how we meet our security
needs or whether we labor in unpaid ways to build security. I am thinking about how we
actually can't always get paid in pursuit of it or how precarious security is for some,
historically and in this moment. How society is unwilling to pay particular groupings for
work at all and how society is unwilling to allow particular groupings of people to
survive— let alone thrive— at all. How society and the state prioritizes keeping certain
people unemployable, expendable, at risk. How the capitalist state shapes these priorities.
How the state is antagonistic to self-determination. I am thinking about basic neccessities
that we fight and build for, on a personal and on local-state-and-national levels. This
expands ever outwards.
And, as I write this, I am thinking of Ashley Hunt projects that map political, social and
economic landscapes, particularly “What is the context for today’s prison industrial
I am thinking about the changes I am making and what is still consistent. I am thinking
about all the work that I have done for free, that I was happy to do knowing that it was
generally “impossible” to get paid for it. Or that it is the kind of work that would never be
paid or valued as a career; it produced no surplus value for the market. Producing
propaganda, coordinating mobilizations, updating websites, drafting talking points,
reading, monitoring news and government, outreaching to people to build momentum
for political struggle. It is anti-work, as such: work for anti-capitalist, anti-state
movements, these movements being about making visible and powerful the people
displaced, disappeared, silenced, expended and killed under neo-liberalism, these
movements being about reflecting and prioritizing those made unemployable and socially
dead; these movements being about building our people-power capacity to fight cages
and the violence of policing. I know this might sound didactic, but sometimes I want to
be clear. Sometimes I say things in loops. These movements being about liberation,
which has always been antagonistic to the expansion and imposition of capitalism and the
state. Sometimes loops in dialectics. Towards understanding where we are and what is
around us. Sometimes ways of understanding and conversing. Towards a goal.
I am thinking about how I have stolen pockets of time from my job at a college for the
past 5 years to do this work. But I am also thinking about how I have spent almost every
Monday and definitely every Wednesday from 6:30-9:30pm at a certain political
organization for the last 3 years. How I often spend two Saturdays a month doing
workshops, how I spend every other Tuesday evening and one Sunday morning a month
on a conference call, afternoons doing outreach, every other Saturday morning since last
summer working on a campaign to abolish solitary confinement, soon Thursday evenings
instead, and then all the work in between and all that I am forgetting. Which is to say, it is
impossible to pretend that the minutes that I bilked at a desk amount to anything near a
pittance of the time I’ve worked as a volunteer. Which is to say to say that I have been
doing some kind of work or “anti-work” in my “8 hours for what we will.”
And how I can say that I love it.
So? What about this now? Over the last six years I’ve done all sorts of work. Eventually
the split hours and multiple paychecks clustered into one salary, a relatively low-stress
and cyclical administrative job at a college. Fine by me; I’m not a careerist. “How lucky,”
a comrade recently said to me.
I sought fulfillment outside of “work” or “job,” I poured
my love into the 8 hours for what you will and shrug off the 8 hours for work as less
reflective of my personhood, my goals.
I developed anti-work politics to the extent that
I knew it was impossible to get paid for what I loved or for political struggle. And yet, I
recently left the cyclical administrative job to join the small staff at the political
organization I've spent countless hours at. It's both admin and political organizing. It's a
job with a lot of administrative work: office tasks, emails, raising funds, stabilizing the
financial health and well-being of the organization, and supporting our 100+ members
and volunteers, our campaigns, projects, and coalitions. It is towards an end that I love
and find meaningful, challenging and worthy.
I get ahead of myself. Or, that is one way of saying what now is. How did this happen?
At the same time I was getting fucked over by the college last fall as they retroactively and
suddenly monetized a previously free fringe benefit, there happened a job opening at a
political organization that I am a member of. My aggression towards my employer was
increasing and I was refreshed by the cold deluge that reminded me that the college job
was just a job. I jumped. Applied. Interviewed. Etc. Accepted the offer. So now, here I
go, towards being a organizer in my paid work. What I thought was impossible. What is
not a career. Except in the Bay Area. Except maybe in New York. Except in a handful of
other places. Except it's not a career per se and it is subject to precarity of funding, to the
political assessment and vision of campaigns, membership and our needs, which is to say
that it will not last forever, but it is needed right now. Self-aware obsolescence. A job
position to take care of resource stability. What is political leadership, however. What is
a transition, a new step.
People keep asking me, “Are you excited?” I answer, “Yea, I am.” or “Yea, I feel
incredibly lucky that this work gets to move front and center for me.” And yet the anti-
work politics I developed at my administrative job are in question. I used to clock out of
work at 6pm on weekdays and didn’t think about work on the weekends. Instead, I
regularly did political organizing-related things—presentations, workshops, calls,
preparation, etc.—on Saturdays and Sundays. Now I have no idea what will happen when
I don’t have a “week” as organized by paid work. What then is the week-end? What will
be my work politic as the containers shift?
What will be my “8 hours for what we will”? If I’ll continue working everyday (“8 hours
for work”) and I am lucky enough that the new job is not a totally soul-sucking one or a
physically hazardous one or a socially hazardous one, then will I, in addition, continue to
devote time from “8 hours for what we will”? Or will I become a worker as my
contribution? I doubt it will be that clean. Political organizing never is. What one loves
never is. Is it a matter of bandwidth? Of focus?
I’m going to have to re-orient myself in relation to work politics. What will it mean to be
salaried by the thing that I have done for free for so many years? What is the worker ethic
towards anti-capitalist work? What is the worker ethic towards self-aware obsolescence?
Doing it well? To be willing to put out as needed, when needed for the movement? Wary
of applying a workerist ethic to any work, yet driven by obligations, to do things well, and
to be selfless, I am left wondering— is it militancy? Is it love? Is it another kind of work?
Aren't these all infused with each other? (As Kathi Weeks argues in the Problem with
Work, it's not as if all the things that we labor towards are going to disappear after
capitalism. Someone is going to have to make the food, plant the seeds, turn the dirt, take
out the trash, care for our bodies, write our stories, maintain our community centers.)
The problem with work is a problem with capitalism. What is the thing to call the work
that builds capacity for security, for our wants and needs? What is the thing to call effort
and discomfort? Even if with love?
And what about the other containers? Whatever it takes to take care of my personal
needs that can be extracted from the political projects. Alongside the 8 hours for what we
will, there is also "8 hours for rest," and then entire remaining 24/7/52 that I love
generously losing track of. All the other things I rely on to thrive and to be able to to show
up. Being generous with myself and others, comrades and friends, is central in my life.
What of this residue?
In my last week at the college, I took an inventory of the post-its stuck to my computer
monitor, which remind me of the things I dont want to forget:
"8 hours for what you will...for what you will"
"confronting genocide// CA Prisoner Hunger Strikes. In a moment when an extra civil
society that must issue demands, we must be suspicious of [occupy] movements that
refuse to issue demands."
"winner winner chicken dinner"
"call: NAME NAME. (510) ###-#### website, email"
the minutes and seconds from video archiving a reading. phone number for a
doctor. EKG details. my log-in and password for my bank account. "No on [Don] Link"
anti-campaign stickers. someone's graduation year and program. LOG AND READY
FOR BA. lists of people to email and what I have to say.
I think about what I am leaving, these piles of post-its, these inane details of life and what
I think about, and I realize that where I work has also been a site in which I have
organized my life. If we spend 40 hours a week somewhere, that’s inevitable, or at least
highly likely. How work shapes us. Or, “the work you do does work on you.”
This also is part of the 8/8/8 split, or infused in the 24/7/52. I realize how obsessive this
counting and containing is. How work makes us do it. How it becomes a site. I am
thinking about this in relation to all kinds of work, so perhaps this particular piece is
more about me processing transition. How will the containers shift? What will the next
site hold? I am excited and curious. Perhaps also stressed. The feelings of anticipation
when one has less control. Self-lessness. Good work and tiring work.
So, I see this new work as not about me (yet not absent of me). It is a site. It’s where I
show up to and where I apply my effort, my analysis, my companionship. And I think
this is what militancy, or love, or certain kinds of work, or political work, allows you— to
be part of struggle and to be moving with others towards a concrete dream that’s about
survival and liberation. It creates ties that could run deep or at least familiarly. Ties that
rely on communication and collaboration and compromise across and through and
despite difference. It’s hard. Hard work. Effort. It tires. It is tiring. It also rejuvenates.
Which is why it’s not about where I am necessarily, but about where I am particularly and
where [you] are particularly and where we want to go together. I’m stepping into
transition, and trying not to be precious about it. There will be more admin work. There
will also be more political questions, more informed decisions, broader thinking, more
trying things out. Knowing transitions can last lifetimes, and time, place and conditions
are always changing. And that there is work to do, now, here, towards a political goal that
we envision. This new job is explicitly about that.
A dear friend and political partner is moving away. We talk about generosity and
understanding. It is sad. And yet, we hold space for a future to move onward towards.
That night, he talks about Cabral and political reality, how it “can only be transformed by
detailed knowledge of it, by our own efforts, by our own sacrifices.”
I talk about Fred
Moten and Frantz Fanon, how to understand the relationship between living and
struggling, to understand how we are doing both for how beautiful we are. Here’s to
detailed knowledge and how to understand: thru practice, thru efforts, thru sacrifices,
Loving and sarcastic cruel irony from an anti-capitalist. She’s over 40 and is looking at the next
couple decades of her life, and she’s not downplaying the importance of stable food, housing and
Which isn’t to say that I didn’t love people at that job, or that it didn’t build me. Further I do
admit how this writing project demonstrates the luxurious contradictions of landing a job in a
field that would get me going as a writer, set up some social relationships, position me to see
poetry as a form of expression that matched my habits of reading, continual analysis and critical
thinking, with desire for art.
Cabral, Amilcar. “The Weapon of Theory.”