Steven Farmer has published six poetry books to date, most recently Medieval and Glowball. He's been in the workforce since childhood; with extensive years in the restaurant business and a decade or so in the IT world.
Inside the Outside (on Lablor Day 2010)
Thanks to the Fab Five who curated this event: Suzanne Stein, Alli Warren, Brandon Brown, David Brazil, and Sarah Larsen. It’s inspiring that the younger generation of the current Bay Area poetry scene has come up with such an important and salient topic. I chose to simply answer some of the general outline questions sent to us, so you’ll hear four responses.
1. How does your employment life relate to poetic form in your own work, or in poetic work generally?
It seems to me we're invisible as workers in poetry circles, and invisible as poets in workplace circles. I've done many years of both blue collar (a line cook, a chef) and white collar (IT) work. They engender different inputs/outputs to the writing. It's pretty amazing what I've learned in both silos. I have to remind myself to be grateful, but I'm often too tired to do so.
Of the two, blue collar work offers a cleaner body/mind break, but you're physically exhausted after work. White collar is more blurry, because the mental work stays with you longer, and complex business problem solving doesn't always work on a watch. The break is not as clean, and it's hard to sit in front of a computer and write after spending 8-12 hours doing so during the workday.
I tend to think of tactical and social relations in blue collar work, and of hierarchical relations in white collar work. By tactical I mean the rewarding feeling of executing a skill repeatedly under pressure, getting better at it over time; or the way workers interact in a team setting, the culture they come from, etc. By hierarchical I mean structural relations of power, modalities of communication, alienation, etc. These things cross-pollinate the content of my writing.
To clarify, I should mention the two professions I've worked in require at minimum 50 hr work weeks, and often more. 70+ hours when the need arises. This is not uncommon in salaried positions of what was once described as the middle class but what is now I'm hearing called simply, 'the multitudes'.* There is nothing middle about it.
2. How do you navigate your employment life and poetic life energetically?
Because of the excessive weekly hours dedicated to the job, and then kids, animals, etc., the writing time has to be economical-- a minimal time investment with a maximal return. My method is (has become) to carry around a small notebook for random content to put into predefined buckets (poems-to-be), and then spend one night a week in intense writing mode, which sometimes spills over into the weekend a little. I do this on Friday nights. Over the years it was hard to get used to setting a specific weekly timeframe, but it can work. The ritual involves working at the computer, mostly in the living room with a pile of books I've been reading, my notebooks, maybe a baseball game on the TV, my wife and daughter doing whatever they're doing, the dogs running around, the internet open, and earplugs keeping the noise at a minimum. It seems I've come to want life buzzing around me, to be connected when I write. Other times I do the same but in solitude. But whether alone or in company, Friday evenings bring a transfer of energy that is brought into the writing from leaving work-- sort of a liberation of identity and mind. At the same time it brings content/baggage/frustrations/insights from work with it into the writing, still fresh in the mind and ripe for re-framing.
This method fits the specification I've come to adopt in my practical structuring of my books. Generally I don't write poems, I write books. I write titles first, and then fill in the poems like buckets as I go. I write and rewrite a table of contents (really a table of titles). The notebooks, the internet, the environment around me then lends itself to one bucket or another, which will be the bucket I work on that evening. The buckets then take on a life of their own.
It seems my years of over-employment has something to do with this method, as if this "catch-all" bucketing method was subconsciously adopted to optimize the scarce timeframes available to write. At any rate, it works for me; it's my compromise with capital's demand on my time.
3. Can you comment on the particularity of our struggle to “do two jobs,” that is, make artworks and earn a wage to support ourselves?
I'll answer this in two parts. First, I'll say this: I have not resolved this struggle. As a result, my relationship with work is often unhealthy. I've made it unbalanced. I approach it too often like I'm a victim, and I can sometimes bring an overwhelming negativity to it.
• Writers don't know this side of me.
• Workers don't know this side of me.
• My family does know this side of me, unfortunately (and I often work from home).
I am however working on my mental habits and approach. I want to temper my victimhood; I'm responsible for my decisions. Regardless of the struggle, I think the unaffiliated should work to become more than just a contingent of whiners.
Secondly, there's a big difference if you have children-- you just doubled or tripled the stakes. The amount of money you'll need to make, and demands on writing time will increase. So the question shifts a bit-- we are earning a wage not "to do two jobs," but three.
I started to say most poets aren't breeders, but then I checked myself. Poets do breed. They breed in the academy. "Steve Farmer the poet" was born in the academy. Without it, he's just a worker with a hobby.
4. The stance of the institutionally unaffiliated artist or intellectual in relation to the academy**
This could end up being a bitch-fest, a cesspool of duality, exclusion, victimization, and blaming. Let's get started!
I think the unaffiliated feel left out of the conversation a lot. I think they think the affiliated have an unfair advantage over them in terms of readership. I think they wish they could also teach on the side occasionally (-- become affiliated?), regardless of compensation, without it being a job. And of course, they're jealous of those 3 months off every year.
I have a lot of friends and acquaintances who teach, but I don't. What's the connection? In a review of one of my books years ago, Edmund Berrigan talked about how I bring the insider/outsider perspective into my work. He never really specified inside and outside of what, but inherently as readers we knew he was referring to 'the life of an artist' vs. well, everything else. The culture at large. But we don't want to say so. We don't want to be identified as spies. Or do we? I'm a spy, and I work for both sides. In the US, it seems the "life of the poet" has increasingly become "the life of the teacher" It's what poets do, so, the inside = the academy, the outside = not.
The unaffiliated. The working unaffiliated. What does this mean in terms of readership? In terms of community? Can an unaffiliated poet even imagine being asked to a residency as a visiting artist-- if even for a week? How about just dropping into a class and talking for a day? What if they did it for free? Are writers-in-residence only of value to students if they are already on the inside track, already teaching? Already "qualified"? Why do author bios read like resumes-- or is that too obvious a question?
Inside the outside, and vice versa; the borderline, rich with conflict/ contradictions/ content.
The academy produces poets; restaurants, offices, and factories do not. To be clear, I could have ended up in the academy, and would have if it made sense. It was the choices I made as a young parent and breadwinner that kept me out, for starters. Traveling assistant adjunct English professor in a recession didn't sound very practical to me at the time. I started writing poetry in college; college changed my life. I went in a cook, musician, and sketcher/artist of sorts; I came out a poet, no turning back. Many of us here have a similar story. If your family of orientation didn't value or know much of anything about art, the stronger your passion grew. You moved to a city where the poets were. You weren't kidding around. As Louis Cabri might say, you started writing to save your life.
Thinking about it a minute, when the door closed on my formal education, it closed pretty hard. In my case (of over thirty years of a writing life), I've been invited to participate in one conference. Meanwhile, I've heard of and watched many of them go by-- some of them addressing points important to me. To the younger writers present here-- is that what you want for yourselves?
So there are possible grievances; not against our peers, but systems. Grievances unaddressed can lead to a festering and negative imagination. But to many on the outside; the advantages the academy has for an increased readership and platform can seem (to the unaffiliated) almost staggering.
But there are signs of hope***. I would like to imagine a space where unaffiliated and affiliated could co-mingle, come and go at will, something more organic. But it shouldn't be just outside the academy; I would ask our peers in the academy to reach out in a real way to these communities, and pull them in to speak to the people who matter quite a bit in this regard: the students. It is they who will make certain decisions in their labor life that will impact their writing life (more than they think) going forward.
[*] The multitudes: To paraphrase very roughly, a globalist notion (often attributed to Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri's book Empire) that stresses (among other things) how we are all taken advantage of regardless of class or position (the doctor and lawyer, the line cook and bus driver equally in this sense); our time is stolen regardless of the material or immaterial nature of our labor, and the very fabric of our thoughts and inner values come to mirror what is best for capital, and most often, against our own interests.
[**] I'd like to comment here on some feedback I received from a friend after this talk, regarding my use of the term “the academy”. While we should make a distinction between tenure-track teachers and adjuncts (who work for less pay and job security, and for the most part no health insurance), the points I'm making regarding influence on students and (to some extent) syllabus control still hold true for both. I don't think 18-20 yr old students make a distinction between the two job positions and rank; I know I didn't when I was a student. Still, an apology to any adjuncts who may have been offended by my remarks; they weren't intended to be insensitive to any financial struggles that may result from a pursuit of the vocation.
[***] The internet has exposed large DIY communities all across the states, and social networking sites have helped this immensely. Locally in Oakland, the reading series at 21 Grand, Artifact, and Studio One are far more than series. The many crowded house readings at the Doll House and the Brazil/Larsen compound, as well as community organs like Try magazine, and the Non-Site collective in San Francisco.