Chris Daniels is a poet, a translator, a science fiction/fantasy fanboy and a feral intellectual. He lives in Berkeley.
[This was extemporaneous. I have a stutter, and make use of support words to keep going. I’ve removed most of those, and have edited portions of the talk. I revised the poem at the end. My short intro was cut off at the beginning. In it, I thank Pamela Lu for deputizing me, and I refer to her as an “amazing writer and a great person”, which is the simple truth.]
I really had to think hard about what I was going to say and I could never figure out what the hell to say, so I’ll just start at the beginning.
My earliest memory of my father is being in the bathtub with him while he declaimed poetry. That has meant something to me: that means that for me poetry is just something that a person can do, and it’s no big deal. I love it, but I don’t have this exalted view of what poetry can be.
The second thing is, at the end of 12th grade, I got called into the principal’s office, and he said: “Look, Chris, you have flunked out of everything except Latin for four years, and we even put you in special class and you couldn’t even deal with that, so here’s what we’re gonna do. We’re gonna let you graduate if you come back to school this summer and do gym.”... Well, I didn’t do it... I flunked out of 12th grade and I never went to college and I guess I’m living proof that you don’t really need to go to college to be a poet. I think everybody in this room knows that, and it’s just fine.
In the 1880’s, the working class in this country was getting awfully rambunctious, and as an attempt to mollify the working class, Grover Cleveland set up Labor Day, which is September 5th, today. Of course, May 1st is Labor Day everywhere else in the world but here. In 1958, May 1st became Law Day in this country, and also Loyalty Day.
OK. I am a member of the working class, and have been for my entire life, and what does that mean? Well, it seems to me that the working class is comprised of anybody who has to work for a living because they have nothing to sell but their capacity to work, who owns nothing but their capacity to work, whose work creates profit, and who has no autonomy on the job, who can make no decision about where the profit goes, about where the money goes.
So. This to me is the working class. This is about 80 percent of the population of the earth. I mean, if you think about it, anybody who cannot make a single decision about where the fucking money goes is the working class. I figure I’m in it with the vast majority of humanity, and I think that’s a pretty good place to be.
Labor. What is labor? I have to come clean about this: I am a commie. I am a Marxist, I am very hard-line about this. I see labor as an attribute of human behavior which transforms reality. You make a chair, you’ve transformed reality. You work as a clerk, you take a pile of paper here and move it there, you transform reality. You teach for a living, hopefully, you want to transform a human mind, you want to help someone transform reality and in your work you are — hopefully — transforming reality.
Art is of course a kind of labor. A sculptor takes raw material and transforms it into a sculpture. A painter take raw material and transforms it into a painting, and so on. The weird thing about poetry is that it’s a form of art which takes as its raw material the attribute of human behavior by which we cognize reality together. So, it’s kind of a strange thing, but when you write something, you are putting something new in the world. You are transforming reality.
Basically, this is my feeling about labor. This is my only feeling, really, about being a poet and a translator. I’m in the business of transforming language, transforming reality and transforming myself in the process.
Talking about class here in the USA is so hard, because it’s utterly confused. We have all these different names for different levels of society. I can’t deal with it. I think it’s kind of stupid. I think it makes things very mysterious, you know, who is upper-middle-class, who is middle-class, who is lower-middle-class, all this crap. I basically see it this way:
There is a capitalist class made up of people who own the means of production; the professional class, who manage everything for the capitalist class; and everybody else: that’s probably all of us in this room and we are all basically fucked. That’s my view of class.
Because I worked as a ditch-digger, and as a cook, around people who didn’t care about poetry, who thought it was really weird, I interiorized a certain attitude, and the fact that both my parents were very much into poetry, I sort of interiorized this attitude of just wanting to do it, do it well and have done with it.
There was a film director named John Ford who made these incredibly beautiful westerns — they can be extremely reactionary, but they’re beautiful — he was once asked “How did you do that opening shot in such-and-such a film, that immense panning shot?” He adjusted his “gimme” hat, pulled his cigar out of his mouth and he said “With a camera!” That’s how I think about poetry; I mean, for better or worse, that’s just the way I think about it. I do it.
One of the things that us commies think very important is solidarity. Being a conscious member of the vast majority of humanity... these are the people I care about, that is my primary community, this massive portion of people on this planet.
With what I’ve said about labor — and I hope we can talk about this some more at some point, because it’s a very complicated question — with what I’ve said about class and all these things, I’d like to end by reading a poem — which I translated — by a poet from Brazil named... [profound stutter] ...Vinícius de Moraes, who is very famous for having written the lyrics to “The Girl from Ipanema”, among other things. It’s called:
With the water of time
And the lime of the day
I mix the mortar
Of my poetry.
And upon the prospect
Of a life for the future
From living flesh I raise
I don’t know if it’s a dwelling
Or if it’s a shrine
(There’s no God within):
But it’s big and it shines
And belongs to its time:
— Sisters, brothers, come in!