SO MUCH THANKS to all who came out to listen and participate in the conversation around labor, poetry, & poetics this weekend. If you weren't able to attend, you can listen to (most of) the presentations, which are posted as individual audio files below. 

We'll shortly be posting print versions of the talks here; visual or other material for presentations that were not primarily text-based; and a collectively generated bibliography / reading list.

During Monday's discussion there was a lot of interest in thinking about some ways of building constructively on the energies of the weekend. If you have something you'd like to add to the conversation---reflections, constructive criticism, threads you'd like to follow moving forward---please drop it in the comment box here or send it to us at labday2010 (at) gmail (dot) com. We'll add as much of it as we can to the blog as we go. 

Stay tuned---


Kevin Killian has worked in the same downtown office since the summer of 1983. He is the author of two volumes of Selected Amazon Reviews and fourteen other books.


deputized by CAConrad

Samantha Giles got her first job at age 9. She is currently the director of Small Press Traffic.

CAConrad LOVES the poets of San Francisco more than his own mother, and you can see him at

I want to start by thanking CA Conrad for being and for sending me here in his stead and to say that I wish he was up here saying something brilliant and insightful and infused with color and meaning after having given us all a lot of chocolate. And of course thank you to Alli, David, Sarah, Suzanne and Brandon for co-coordinating, for you all for being here and for some of you for helping out.

In the process of deciding what to say to day I thought about a series of conversations with people whose thoughts on all matters of things to say and think matter to me. And because I still haven’t figured out what I am supposed to say, I am going to relate those conversations in such a way that I hope they help me say something about my labor and the writing that does or doesn’t result from it.

A little side step first to lay down the work life. I am both the administrator a small non-profit literary arts presentation organization and a…ugh…struggle with the word…homemaker? Housewife? Caretaker? of my six-year-old son and forty-seven-year-old partner. Both of these occupations provide an economic value to my household. Both are supposed to be part time, which in fact means I am almost always working or that I am constantly in a situation where what I perceive to be recreational time suddenly becomes work. And neither gives me health benefits.

Both jobs make me feel extraordinarily lucky to have them, because I love them equally and deliriously and I know the scarcity of such good gigs as these and yet both are not without their really terrible parts. I should also say that I am doubly underpaid, albeit in a friendly, compassionate, wish-we-could-do-more way. Both jobs require that I be super organized-- a skill at which I almost always fail miserably, but also require that I bring snacks which fortunately I can handle pretty well with regularity. Each is held together by sheer will as both are crafted in a system of resources that are unsustainable.

Both have the same sense of working in isolation in public, which is to say most of the work gets done alone for a communally-received product. And I think I am supposed to make this look somewhat effortless and create the illusion that neither requires any money.

These jobs deeply immerse me in a community and a politic and a thinking, each of which is almost entirely invisible to the other. This is to say, I never talk about Hiromi Ito at the elementary school playground and I don’t bring my child to readings or often relate how frustrating it is to make dinner for my family at drinks at the bar. Which results in that fact that I always feel sort of liminal in both communities--with one foot in and one foot out.

And I don’t want to be nor do I think I am the kind of parent who would demand that poetic communities change in some fundamental way to accommodate the conversation about what to make for dinner, because I am, I think in league with the other parents in the room, delighted to have an intellectual and communal space that has nothing whatsoever to do with the vast amount of resources it takes to do our jobs as caretakers of our homes. But it is interesting to me how totally nothing whatsoever it feels and what continues to maintain, so ardently, the nothing whatsoever.

Which is partly why, when I decided to return to poetry and pursue my MFA when my son was two years old, I had a conversation with a group of contemporary avant-garde women writers about this intersection of being a parent and a poet and how those angles show up in their writing and community work.

Their answers crafted a surprisingly uncharted map of a place where there are some of us standing with a child on one hip and our poetics on the other and then our bodies somewhere in between. I desperately wanted to hear that being a parent made them more interesting as writers, (sleep deprivation and multi-tasking being the great experiment that it is) or that writing made them better parents, or that both writing and parenting made them better activists. What I most wanted to hear was how great it was but mostly what I heard was an echoing of this invisiblization about what can or can’t be said or presenced about this duality.

And so I think about a somewhat recent conversation I had with Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young, both of whom work at the same university, about “class passing.”, which had a little something to do with the idea (and I am super-simplifying of course) that if one read the right books or maybe the New Yorker and/or accidentally went to the right college at peak of its interestingness, it was possible to front as having a greater cultural relevancy than you might have otherwise enjoyed. And about how this fronting shows up a lot in the academy but also a lot in the general poetry world. I found this conversation baffling, and kept returning to it over a
number of days. Class passing, I said to myself. Class passing!

And most of what was so impenetrable to me was finally realizing this is something I would never even consider attempting to do because of its sheer impossibility. That my woefully under-read ignorance and white trash upbringing is writ large all over me, inescapable and permanent. But also, really, that I wouldn’t even want to class pass if I could, because it sounds exhausting. It made me somewhat grateful for my job as an arts administrator for an organization that is housed by a university but is not part of a university and feel love for my friends who work in the academy, whose jobs are hard in many ways not least of which is that they involve such concessions. Hello academy friends! I feel love for you!

But larger than this, this conversation gave me a lot of anxiety. Because now there was a whole new set of considerations outside of those that I already imagined to somehow wrangle the limninal sense of being here and here and there and there. Because more than the duality of my two jobs, I wrestle with the kind of poetry community and poetic I want to live in.

What I am most left with after all this wrangling and thinking about what gets seen or not or registered or not, is that it is enormous privilege to be standing here talking to you today about this. Well-fed and hydrated and safe on a beautiful day in which I am not working.

That while I do feel strongly that art and culture are as necessary a survival tool as food and water to a collective society and an individual personhood, art is not, in fact, food or water.

And as hyperbolic and cliché it is to say that there are people who do not have this privilege to sit here today in this room buzzing with interesting ideas and weak coffee and no threats of bombing on our streets or other attacks on our physical or psychic safety, it is, nevertheless, true. Which is of course not to say that we should all stop writing and give up our jobs or that I am even attempting to coalesce a manifesto. But only to say that for me it is hard sometimes to sit with the privilege of sitting here.

So how does this all relate to my writing? I will say this:

I feel lucky. I feel grateful for this life I never imagined possible. This life full of reading and books and opinions and ideas full of interesting people that I meet through both of my jobs who seem to care what I think and who also have attractive brains that matter to me.

And so when I get the very very rare focused time to sit down to write, which is these days honestly is only when one of you has asked me to do so, I feel responsible to acknowledge this privilege by writing and thinking about people and communities that perhaps don’t enjoy these same luxuries. So the bulk of my writing projects have concerned the people who have been killed on the streets of my town and the people who have been implicated in my country’s decision to use torture as a means of expediency along with the realities and my complicity in this.

And I don’t know exactly what I am trying to reveal or incite by telling you this other than it feels that I have no choice but to do it. To forge some kind of balance and light, however complicated and fraught, on the unseen and seen outside of this paradigm of me and you and us and them.


deputized by Stacy Szymaszek, read by Alli Warren

George Albon is a poet and bookseller.

Alli Warren is a poet, administrative assistant, and co-curator for The (New) Reading Series at 21 Grand.

Stacy Szymaszek is the author of Hyperglossia (Litmus Press, 2009) and the Director of the Poetry Project at St. Mark's Church in NYC.

In 1961, Robert Duncan was asked to contribute an essay to Journal for the Protection of All Beings, a journal whose name was originally going to be The Protective Association for All Beings. Aiming his essay at the original title, Duncan challenged its assumptions. Privation and adversity, he suggested, weren’t to be avoided at all costs; they may even be engines of creation. Using a Manichean language to comment on the socially well-meaning presumption he heard in the language of the request, he wrote, “I strive to realize the Good, not against the Evil, but in order that there be Good in the Gift as well as Evil.” The journal’s editors were doubtless thinking of protection as leftist concern over the wars of the moment, ideological wars as well as actually deployed ones, and their new atomic face. Going to the root, Duncan saw “protective” as paternalistic at best and state-managerial at worst. What would a “protective association” be if not coercive? Duncan’s devotion to “the orders of a household” may have given him a measure of psychic stability that other poets lacked, but his poverty was as real as anyone else’s. “This writer has no steady resource,” the essay began. “He is as likely to run thin as to leap his channel; he must run his course where he may.” For Duncan, economic insecurity was a hardship that contained aspects of freedom; it pointed toward the opening of the field as much as anything else. Security, on the other hand, was chloroform—it disabled the active imagination from encountering those glimmers in a precious and uncertain life that are its most acute testament. “Wasn’t vulnerability,” he asked, “the very quick of the light?”

Along with checks from home, and with no dependents, Duncan got by as a typist. There were other people, and other ways, to consider the problem. Talking with David Meltzer in 1969, Kenneth Rexroth (an early avatar, like Jack Spicer in his own way, of Pacific Nation) told his young interviewer: “People on the West Coast work.” “People” meant male poets. Poets in the West can make physical labor play their way. Rexroth offered a counter-example in Hart Crane, who “spent all his time fretting about his economic problems, but if he had been a Westerner, he would have gone out and gotten a job in the woods or at sea or something like that, and he would have made a lot of bread. A hell of a lot more bread than he ever did writing advertising copy for candy.” When Rexroth talked about work out West, he was emphasizing outdoor jobs as opposed to white-collar office jobs, but there’s a factor here which is not spoken. The work in the West was seasonal work. Harvesting, summer lookout posts, Merchant Marine tours, non-union dock gigs during high periods—these were ideal for poets who were physically able to do it, because they could make “a lot of bread” and then have stretches of time off for poetry.

As it happened, Rexroth was talking about a seat-of-the-pants personal economy that had worked for canny individuals in the recent past and which gave the promise of crossing over to a present moment of the collective and the tribe. No doubt the Rexroth model worked for some, and was impossible for others. “Seasonal” work is also one season in a life—how long it is sustained will be up to individuals and circumstances. In 1964, five years before Rexroth told his interviewer that “people on the West Coast work,” a symposium was held at the Old Longshoreman’s Hall in San Francisco, on the subject of “bread and poetry.” Advertised (and maybe organized?) by Lew Welch, the symposium featured Philip Whalen, Gary Snyder, and himself. The question that night was how to live as a poet. The three poets, who shared much common ground in their poetics, revealed three different temperaments that evening. Snyder, with some trade-in skills under his cap, had the most equanimity. Besides working in forestry and park services, he was also among the first wave of Americans to earn money by teaching “business English” overseas. The Rexroth model par excellence, his self-sufficiency in this context was enviable. Forward-looking, “progressive” in its view of limits, it had one foot in the archaic small society and the other in the federally funded conservation job corps developed in the 20s and 30s. Writing poetry that was often about the process of staying self-sufficient, his approach had some calm in it: “Whatever work I’ve done, whatever job I’ve had, has fed right into my poetry, and it’s all in there.” Whalen, with a physique less suited for physical labor and a poetry requiring endless dredgings of the unseen, has a harder go of things, but “I don’t mind a part-time job ordinarily.” At the time, however, he no longer had his half-day gig washing laboratory glassware at UC, “and it’s a great burden on my nerves. Right now I’m sort of getting by on my pretty face.” A classic Whalen attitude: humor as resilience, giving the Neapolitan razz to hardship.

The most poignant is Welch. The one with the greatest variety of job work under his belt, he’s also the most unstable. Cab-driver, salmon and crab fisherman, post office worker, even a stint in advertising (where, as legend has it, he came up with “Raid Kills Bugs Dead”), his back is to the wall. He’s getting by on “any kind of left-handed job that’s left over, that nobody seems to want.” He was just back in town after a breakdown and an extended stay in a CCC shack near California’s northern border. (CCC shack…Old Longshoreman’s Hall…were the mid-60s the last period when totems of labor history like these still had a living ambience?)

Welch’s quandary—his sense of choices—may be conditioned by alcoholism. But he has a strong pull toward the Poet as Being, rather than just part of being. “While I was growing up my job always seemed to me to be to get myself into the kind of person that would have something interesting and accurate to say about things. And in order to develop into that kind of person, I always found it exciting and interesting to change jobs a lot, to do a lot of different things, and I always like working with my hands—just labor jobs.” Now, at 37, the scene is different. (None of these poets are young. Snyder, the youngest, is 34, and Whalen is 40. And at the time of his essay, Robert Duncan was 42.) Welch’s horizons are shifting, though he would also embrace the tribal consciousness blooming in the Bay Area, and its realignments, in which the Poet was a benefice to the community and thus accorded a living. This was the era when some poets wanted to put “poet” under “occupation” on forms. (I wanted to, too, if I’d been old enough to fill any out.) It’s hard to imagine poets doing this in the present—either it was a silly idea all along, or poets now have a more horizontal view of what they do and don’t choose to privilege the “poet” part. (Or they’ve internalized the skepticism of the clerks.)

These three poets are optimistic, each in his way. Snyder, cohesive and integrated, simply says, “I’ve had no problem at all.” Whalen acknowledges a split between crummy jobs of the past and his vocation “that I had a hard time sewing up but I’ve gradually, I think, fixed it up. It’s all evening out slowly.” Welch wants to forget the bad jobs and embrace the new tribes. “First I have to solve my problem. Without in any way causing a strain on my community, without begging or conning anyone in any way, I will pay my bills entirely by doing my real job, which is Poet.”

These optimisms were healthy personal convictions, part of the bodily optimism of any moment, but in the ambience I can feel the vibration of a particular few decades, a grace period floating inside the mythic boundlessness of the American Sublime.


Sara Larsen is a poet who has worked as a bar waitress, grocery check-out girl, record store clerk, clothing retailer "personal stylist", office receptionist and, most currently, as an executive assistant.


every day i travel between the poles of commodity.

the BART train i ride to my executive assistant job in the city travels underground between the two money centers of oakland and san francisco - that is, the port of oakland and the san francisco financial district. at these locations twice a day, every weekday, i disappear underground and underwater and reappear in two distinctly different spaces of capitalism: from the fourth largest container port in the US, where all of our goods ship in and ship out for distribution in the global maze, to the financial power center of our major cosmopolis. under the bay, under the approximately 15 feet of salt water and fish and crustaceans, as well as pollutants and oil and trash, shooting through a semi-lit tube, i flicker in and out of monetized culture (yet still permeably abreast of ipads, ipods, iphones, kindles, blackberries, etc), on my way to work.


over dinner one night recently, i asked david if he knew of any good books on the subject of vocation. although david said that he wondered the same thing before, really, he said, to his knowledge, there aren't any.

vocation is a religious word at it's core, vocat in latin "to be called". in greek, the term kletos means "calling", and is related to "ekklesia", meaning to be called out from the crowd and into the body of the church.


i tend to experience poetry as a vocation. it is a calling that i must answer. it is not related to goods or services, and it's certainly not related to paying my bills. it is not related to possession. it simply MUST HAPPEN.

in our conversation about vocation, david pointed out something obvious about it, and yet something that i hadn't really given much thought to: that the calling - in this case, poetry, if we accept it as a calling - begs the question: who or what calls?


this is not the case in employed life. i'm am not called to show up in front of a bunch of emails and meetings everyday. not at all. but, as a friend related that ezra pound once said, and this is somewhat out of context, "a poets gotta eat".

i decided a long time ago that i never wanted to function as a poet with a capital "P" in an institution, that this would be problematic for both my work and my disposition. i've always preferred my poetic work to take place in what i fancifully imagined could be a radical space, outside and against the hypocrisy, demands and expectations of dominant culture. for the sake of time, i will take for granted that most people in this room can imagine, and doubtless have experienced, the many things i'm referring to here when i talk about the hypocrisy, demands and expectations of dominant culture.

hence, up to this point in my life, i've always taken to a personal philosophy that dictates that the work that i do for a living, which i considered for a while as "unrelated" to my writing, would be secondary to the work that i do as a poet and culture worker.

employed labor, after all, is most often dominated by a strict hierarchy in which, admittedly, one can find moments of permeability (the WIG is one of them). most of us in employed labor have a "boss" that we answer to, most of us must dress, act and manipulate perceptions in order to stay employed. employed labor is often not creative or innovative, it's about following basic social and institutional rules.

the majority of us aren't employed in a "community", whatever multiple definitions or problems that word may connote, and the majority of us, unfortunately, are not working as part of a cooperative. the majority of us work in institutions and/or corporations.

despite my employ in an institution, that labor i must enact in order to feed, shelter, and clothe myself, to go out to dinner, to have drinks after this event, to dye my hair, to enjoy a cup of coffee with my book on weekend mornings - despite my employ in an institution, i can still say FIRMLY, i despise institutions and especially corporations, in general, and absolutely prefer the communal radicality of whatever it is that a subculture community makes.

to be a poet in our culture is to do work, which many of us often refer to as our "second job", and that work is done "underground". i think of this when i am literally underground and underwater, transtubing between the port of oakland and the san francisco financial district.


ekklesia: i know that what i am part of here is an ekklessia, a calling out from the crowd and into the poetic body. the poetic body includes the poem itself, but it also includes this room, what we all, with multiple addendums, call "The Community". although i agree that it's important to do so, i'm not going to spend time right now interrogating what the permeable borders of community means…we will do this together later, i'm sure, as we have in the past…i just want to say, there is a body here, a communal body, and in addition to the lone, private work of much writing, and in contrast to the necessity of employed labor, i feel called to it.


i find my work life and my writing life in a subtle yet overwhelming dialectic. this dialectic reigns over my waking life, and sometimes in my dreams as well.

i mentioned that there was a time when i considered the work that i do for a living as secondary and separate to the work that i do as a poet and culture worker. now i can see that is not the case, that it is never the case. 40 hours a week at a business desk is 40 hours a week of consciousness. 10 hours a week commuting is 10 hours a week of jostling my solo interrogation into the body of this poetic ekkessia with the bodies of commerce, the bodies of poverty, the bodies of necessity, and the very real, tender bodies of everyone around me.


on a daily basis, i ride through that dark tunnel between the port of oakland and the san francisco financial district. i disappear there for approximately 4 minutes. this is poetry. the motion through the interstice, the underground, the dislocated place.


Andrew Joron’s most recent book is Trance Archive: New and Selected Poems (City Lights, 2010). He makes his living as a proofreader and indexer.

In response to a request for Joron's text version of his Labor Day presentation:

Thanks for asking about the text of my Labor Day talk. Alas, I spoke using only some hastily scribbled notes which I then discarded. So the recording is all that remains of my contribution!

Best wishes & best of luck with this worthwhile project --



David Brazil is a writer, bookseller, editor, and translator.

I wanted to present some reflections on the question of vocation, and to introduce this concept I'd like to cite a verse from Paul's first letter to the church at Corinth -- chapter 7, verse 20 :

εκαστοs εν τη κλησει η εκληθη εν ταυτη μενετω.

[Hekastos en te klesei he eklethe taute meneto.]

In the Latin of Jerome this is rendered :

Unusquisque in qua vocatione vocatus est in ea permaneat.

(In which, even if you don't understand Latin, you can hear the precursor of our word "vocation," which as far as I can tell first appears as a noun in the Vulgate.)

If I were to render a very literal translation of the Greek I might venture : Each one in the calling in which he was called, in that same calling let him remain. (It's a kind of impersonal imperative in which the verb, "meneto," commands the remaining of "ekastos," Jerome's "unusquisque" -- each and every person whatsoever -- a kind of axiom governing how anyone ought to respond to the event of a call -- a kind of applied phenomenology.)

I've often thought of this gnomic utterance in the course of the my vexed progress through my factical life, as someone who understood their purpose (as coded by the word "vocation") to be at odds with the necessity dictated by prevailing ontic terms, which admitted no place for this vocation -- which moreover denied it any meaning, and place at all, insofar as it has (vocation, I mean) no ontological standing in our episteme -- which in the first place does not admit of any meaning inhering in premises outside the physical / material, and in the second place holds to the notion, a hangover of Puritan theology, that what is righteous will be granted due appearance through the operations of the law of the market -- in the pithy formulation of Guy Debord, "What appears is necessary ; what is necessary, appears" -- meaning, implicitly, of course, that if you're thwarted from appearing -- if your appearance was foreclosed -- that nothing about that appearance can be deemed necessary.

This is the ideology of a secularized providence which always however seems suspiciously to show its manna on the preselected, making its preterite parts wonder (or more than wonder -- assert) that something's rigged in the preestablished harmony of this particular pachinko machine.

But what the preserved saying of Paul seemed to me to address is precisely the problem of how one ought to comport oneself with respect to the experience of vocation. (This is also why I see fit to gloss writing best known through its situation in the corpus of canonical Christian texts, to a non-religious gathering -- because so much of Paul's writing deals with a phenomenology of human response to overwhelming facts, as Heidegger knew quite well when he presented his 1920 seminar on religious life.)

(I might also digress for a moment to observe that if we accept the customary etymological tracing of our word "religion" from the Latin "religare," to bind back together or to rebind, it would be quite possible to speak of our present occasion as, not a non-religious gathering, but as, perhaps, a non-non-religious gathering -- depending, of course, on an expanded account of what we will say the religious is, for which I would like to argue. But I anticipate myself.)

We know that we experience the call (the κλησιs [klesis], from the Greek verb καλεω [kaleo], to call, which becomes in Jerome vocatione, a Latin noun constructed on similar principles from the verb vocare, and from which Max Weber fashioned a theoretical term for sociology in his essays on politics and science as vocations -- and which we all know as a word and effortlessly use ignorant of its history, in a perfectly eloquent illustration of the way in which we're all walking around with theology in our mouths) -- the call, but in the era that we imagine to be secular, this call turns out to be ungroundable, since we can't postulation with any dogmatic certainty the source of the call.

(A similar problematic underlies the historical vicissitudes of the Greek word χαριs [charis], gift, on which I co-presented a seminar with Brandon Brown earlier this year. From a pre-Christian usage in Greek writers it became a technical term in the letters of Paul for the gift from God that man can't earn (otherwise known as grace), and at the beginning of our century is refashioned, again by Weber, in his concept of the charismatic leader -- thus begging the question, if there is a gift then who gave it, or as Heidegger might say, "What gives?")

(Although I believe there is a valuable lead in Dana Ward's observation that Jack Spicer's "Outside" can also be the social -- a perception that warms my gnostic-Benjaminian-Feuerbachian heart!)

The problem of sourcelessness and ungroundability, which defeats the possibility for this subjective experience to appear within the laws of the frame of reading that this episteme is, is also of course the basic structure of Romanticism from Blake to the present -- the assertion by artists, in their artwork and otherwise, of the reality of what escapes the continually encroaching mensuration of the physical world and the concomitant enclosure of the psychic world.

The singularity of the experience of vocation, which structures everything about how some of us make our decisions to act in the world and how we live and have lived our lieves, is a subset of the movement of the spirit that prior antinomians, our forebears and elective ancestors, could appeal to against tyrannous orthodoxies -- the assertion by Anne Hutchinson, for example, that she and other women had the right denied to them by the fathers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, to read and interpret Scripture. Better to defy the Church, she said at her trial, than to deny Christ.

And if we undogmatically understand Christ to be the inward principle of inspiration that vocation codes, and to which we are obliged to be faithful, we will see what I think is another basic axiom of the phenomenology of vocation. We'll see how this subjective experience opens out into a dialectic with the social -- at first, antithetically, as the refusal of all of what cannot be reconciled with the inward demand ("Better to defy the church ..."), and subsequently, in a necessarily more nuanced and implicated fashion, how the experience of a writerly vocation interacts with the obligations attendant upon a proletarian life -- how the opposition of proletarian & writer, which was the point of departure for my thoughts on vocation, can enter into a more complex relation than as mere antinomies, and how they can also help us imagine formal means by which to present and thematize in our writing work the injustices, aporias and invisibilities we are consigned to experience as proletatians.

I use the word proletarian advisedly, in order to assert its continued analytical usefulness within our social order and speech domain. The proletarian is simply any person who has nothing to sell but his or her labor -- "who has to sell his labor in order to eat," in the words of the anthropologist Sidney Mintz. Reverting to the verse from Corinthians with which I began, to be a writer is a calling, but to be a proletarian is the state in which we are called.

So once we cease to treat these terms as mere opposites, and cease to act as though our proletarianism has nothing to do with our "real work" of writing, what kind of dialectical sparks can be seen to fly? What can come out of our perception of "the contradiction which the essence of objects has in itself," to quote the definition of dialectics arrived at by Lenin in his philosophical notebooks? And with the special caveat that the object under consideration is ourselves?

First, perhaps, that we are, ourselves, not merely or not only "ourselves". Insofar as we are proletarians we belong to a class of persons, which in this society largely fails to recognize itself as such, as a class. Therefore any wrong done to me by dint of the fact that I belong to such a class is impersonal, and only befalls me insofar as it befalls a class of persons of whom I happen to be one. "Nothing personal," as Michael Corleone says.

But as writers we work among other things in the field of representations -- and the recognition of the applicability of that collective noun "proletarian" is what permits us to perceive the inadequacy of our present social representation as atomized subjects -- a division created first in imagination, and according to which we subsequently conceive of ourselves -- and which is perfectly in keeping with the needs of a capitalism that is happiest when we are lonely, guilty, needy, indebted, and most importantly not working together in the recognition of our commonality, toward the revision, or the overthrow, of the imaginative regime that consigns us to this sundered form of life.

("The only war that matters is the war against the imagination," writes Diane di Prima in Revolutionary Letters -- "all other wars are subsumed in it." And she's right. And major combat operations have not ceased.)

The singularity vocation is may well encounter in its peregrinations other singularities of like constitution, and it's in this connection that I'd like to mention another noun derived from καλεω [kaleo], to call, and that's εκκλησια [ekklesia], from which we get our word "ecclesiastical". In Thucydides and other writers, ekklesia is the legislative assembly -- etymologically "those ones called out from" the larger body of the citizenry, for the purposes of making law.

In Paul this becomes the name of the church itself, the mystical body of those ones called out, as Israel was itself called out from among the nations, to heed the call. In our secular-phenomenological account, I postulate the ekklesia as those singularities, have experienced the call, volatilized by its seeming irreconciliability with their worldly station, and therefore affined to those in whom they recognize a kindred predicament. In the words of Alain Badiou, the ekklesia should be envisioned as "a small group of militants."

(The conservative philosopher Eric Voegelin, criticizing modern thinkers in whom he detects a gnostic streak, decries them as "mystical activists," which is as good a shorthand for my vocation as I understand it, as I have found so far -- and with an even better flavor for having been seized from an ideological enemy.)

Without aiming to be formally prescriptive, it may be the case that vocation, and and its social concomitant, ekklesia, can serve as a bridge between the individual subject, placeless in this social order because governed inwardly by a placeless fact, and the collective being that is "dying every day" without a new series of representations by which to understand itself, the injustices being done to it, who the adversaries are, and what the scope of the problem is -- which is well-nigh apocalyptic at this point.

But we may do well to remember, in these apocalyptic times, that the literature of apocalyptic in the Jewish pseudepigraphia, of which the Christian-canonical Apocalypse of John is a belated successor (a johnny-come-lately, if you will), that this literature succeeded the prophetic books of the Old Testament and was authored under the same pressure -- αποκαλυπτειν [apocaluptein], as the Greek verb from which our word is derived has it, to unconceal -- to show forth a hidden thing. In this world, governed as it is by orchestrations of amnesia and the electrical coercion of the imagination through forms of appearance always in the hands of archons executing some sick plan or other, the experience of vocation, individually and collectively, may well be a program of responsibility, to transmit saving counterblasts from elsewhere.

"For we fight not against flesh and blood,
but against principalities and powers."

Thank you.


Laura Moriarty’s books include A Tonalist , Cunning, Ultravioleta and A Semblance: Selected and New Poems, 1975 – 2007 came out from Omnidawn in 2007. She is the Deputy Director of Small Press Distribution.


[Poetry] makes a lot happen in terms of the reflection of the order or the agency or the, quote, experience it gives people involved with it. People who are affected by it are paradoxically affected forever. It brings relief or a recognition in situations where almost nothing else can. It reveals aspects of language that, again, nothing else quite serves to measure or even to apprehend. So it’s powerful.
Robert Creeley, Interview With Robert Creeley (by Brent Cunningham) Hooke Press 2007




Early on, I thought that whatever constituted one’s art practice – words, lines, images -- emerged as the result of something like fate, rather than because of the will of the artist. Your life (I thought) made your writing inevitable. To some degree, I still think so. The challenges of how to do the work, get it out and allow other people to get to it in the context of this fated, difficult life are the problems to be solved. The activity of coming up with these solutions is what I am calling logogistics -- what it takes to write and live in a world where a writing practice can be nurtured and sustained.
When I was in Tom Parkinson’s class as an undergraduate at UC Berkeley, he brought in Robert Duncan who took that opportunity to rail passionately against academia in a typically wide-ranging talk about poetry, the war in Vietnam , the government, one’s ways of life and how to write. Parkinson just laughed off the attack, not bothering to argue. Duncan went on, drawing on the board, talking about “the field,” military strategy and poetics. This tiny exposure to the Spicer/ Duncan Circle was transformative for me, causing me to make decisions -- like not pursuing any formal graduate studies -- whose implications would ripple through my life forever. Here was a real poet – this was during the time of Duncan wearing a black cape – stating very clearly that the academy was anathema to poets. Duncan identified problems in one’s own life and the life of the state and found solutions to these problems in the activity of the writing and thinking about writing. I resolved to do the same.






At this point I hadn’t heard of the Death of the Author or Language writing and didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to tell little stories -- which I occasionally did and occasionally still do or now they are bigger stories – but I was very interested in how what I did would determine what I wrote.

I wanted to be independent or, more precisely, I wanted to have independence of mind. Autonomy. My idea was that I would have this independence of mind if I took a part-time job that consisted of mainly physical work. (Bare with me here.) Such a job, I reasoned, would not require me to think a certain way. It wouldn’t be an identity, leaving my only identity to be that of “writer.” I didn’t have any money and few resources in the form of family or contacts who could find me a job or, at least, wise me up to the ways of the world. I didn’t feel entitled, inclined or able to be supported by anyone else. I wanted to come up with the nut, the cost of doing business, every day of my life and did. I wanted this even though I was bad at it. It is possible that I believed I needed to be an “outlaw.” Actual crime seemed counter-indicated because then any storekeeper or cop had the right to interfere with my autonomy. However, I did want to be outside of the academy and I was. At the time, there were a lot of people out there with me. My anti-academic notions were common.

Events were occurring all around. Readings, publications, talks, performances, goings to the bar after. Eventually I became aware of New College of California and the classes in the Poetics Program there, none of which (blessedly) were workshops. You could go without signing up. I thought I might eventually earn my keep by teaching in such a place. Sometimes, I still think so.






Meanwhile the service industry jobs I was doing wore me out. I admitted to myself that they were boring and that I wanted a job with more meaning. I liked the random personal interaction and the practical physicality of what I was doing and the money wasn’t bad. Still, I decided to quit and, fortuitously, got a job that had been passed among various poets running a rug business. This “management experience” allowed me to get hired at the Poetry Center at San Francisco State University to manage the video archives. I almost quit when I got my first paycheck because it was so ridiculous but then my salary was adjusted slightly upward so I stayed. It was still ridiculous but at least I had benefits for the first time in my working life. I was 34.

There was a lot about working at the Poetry Center I liked. It became the thing I was doing for the community besides my writing. It was illuminating to meet writers from many communities. I helped to run, record and catalog Poetry Center readings, sold the video and audiotapes, edited a newsletter, and put together a catalog. The videographer, Jiri Veskrna, and I, produced several videotaped anthologies of readings. We made a short tape ourselves called Before the War. I enjoyed saying I was an archivist. The job appeared in some of my poems, especially L’Archivist. A cacophony of voices and an array of talking heads surrounded me every day in the archives. The sense of what was left of the performances of writers who were dead and what comprised the history of their times was important to my work and to my thinking.
When my job as Archives Director was defunded I was intentionally unemployed for about eight months. It remains the longest period of not having a job in my adult life. I got a lot of writing done but was surprised to find I wasn’t that happy. Later when I began at Small Press Distribution and was working very hard, as often happens at the beginning of a job, I realized in retrospect that I had been happy but just didn’t know it.








My job as Assistant Director, Sales & Marketing Director and finally Deputy Director of SPD has been chock full of logistics from the get-go. After all, it is all about distribution. The position has been rife with logogistics as well. Following the book from the first idea to the final product and then being aware of the life of the book once it is produced, including all of the economic aspects, has been illuminating. I am happy to be working with readers, writers and producers of books, along with those who facilitate access to books whether they are booksellers, librarians, teachers or programmers. I am lucky to be very fond of the people I work with. However, sometimes the job is repetitive and exhausting. I find most of my intellectual satisfaction in writing itself and in related activities like writing essays, reading, blogging, founding literary movements etc. I have retained, in all this, a fair amount of independence of mind and have written a few books. How poetry can be used to carry ideas, things and people forward is the focus of my science fiction novel Ultravioleta, a book which can be said to be very much informed by my experiences at SPD.






What it takes to write and live in a world where a writing practice “can be nurtured and sustained” (the last part is a steal from SPD’s mission statement) is the opportunity and then the determination to make work and the desire to find or create a structure, frame, stage, launching point, context, conduit, platform and/or a power supply that allows you to get the work out, share your ideas and find readers. Lacking the built-in structures that exist in the academic world -- which can, should be and are, occasionally, but not always successfully, appropriated on behalf of writers -- we must (and do) create our own structures. Small presses, including print and on-line journals, are excellent examples of such structures. Classes outside of the academy are another. They can be hard to find unless you are already in the know but many of us have taken and taught them. They are not better in any way than college classes, the point being simply that they exist. Convocations occur less frequently but are occurring now (thank you) and could usefully occur more.

It’s part of our independent thought, part of our autonomy, that we can characterize the work we make and these presenting structures as important and central -- “powerful,” as Creeley said. This action of taking them seriously helps to mitigate the problem of non-institutional achievement being seen as having less value than achievement within the academy or any other part of the mainstream. You could worry here about exploiting yourself and others with a culture of volunteerism that takes advantage of those who participate, who are often those who can afford to. Or you could go out there and do it without whining.

But why do it? What’s the point? What do you do with all this expensive, difficult to maintain, laborious autonomy? ” According to Bob Creeley, in the passage quoted above, poetry (we could call it writing) “makes,” “gives,” “brings” and “reveals.” The most important part of the logistics I have been talking about, the logogistics, is what the writing does for both writer and reader. The wildy speculative dissonant thought engaged in by our community questions many systems on many levels. The work we do enacts this questioning in the writing and in the actions we take to make and support the writing. The work works. All we have to do, and this is a problem that has to be continually figured out and refigured out, is to find a way to do it.


Dana Teen Lomax is the author of several books of poetry and poetics. She teaches at San Francisco State University and lives in San Quentin with her radical family.



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
Its architecture.

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!

Thank you.


Cedar Sigo’s most recent collection of poetry is Stranger In Town (City Lights, 2010). Slivers, a small book of out-takes, B sides, translations, collaborations and prose is forthcoming from PUSH. He lives in San Francisco.

Labor Day Remarks

I have worked in the cosmetics department of Rainbow Grocery Cooperative since 2000. The insurance is excellent covering even acupuncture and massage. My hour wage has climbed steadily since I signed on at around 12.00 an hour plus we split the profits every year around X-mas time. It is run by the workers whom I believe to total around 200. You are encouraged to run for the various committees that make our store run properly, ecology, board of directors, public relations, etc. I am fortunate to have stumbled into a job that provides a many hours as one wishes to work. In order to give my writing the attention and commitment it demands I find that I can't work more than 25 hours a week.

But then the remainder of my time is certainly not spent writing poetry. I began to wonder, just what is it I do with my time. Then I came across these lines from John Wieners essay, The Lanterns Along The Wall, “I cannot imagine a single day when I have not spent dreaming or conjuring certain habits of the poet. Fortunate the few that make things surrounding the poets come true.” You almost need to be “in retreat” in constant “vision quest” to achieve this level of transparency. Wieners seems to suggest that it's the way you live between the poems that ensures there success. When I am off of work the veil is lifted. ISIS unveiled? High Fantasy. I never press myself to report back in poetry. So many conceptual breakthroughs happen through loose conversation with close friends. It's the spectacular side entrance to writing you had for some inexplicable reason been ignoring. You stumble onto these concepts sort of jokingly and you find the poem is waiting there already written.

Bernadette Mayer wrote something along these lines in a lecture she delivered at The Naropa Institute. She is discussing the form of her book Moving, “I set myself the task of not writing as much as possible. Only writing when I absolutely felt compelled, never writing the way most of us do, well I have to write or I haven't written enough or I should write every day, not doing anything like that but only that which seems to come from something other than the self.”

Whenever there is an offer of money for my services as a writer my energy and my abilities seem to rise instantaneously. I don't mean money made from readings, but rather from the writing of new pieces. It's funny but somewhat real to think of it as building a brand, like Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel, where a tailored poem like something slight ( a blouse ) goes for three thousand dollars, “and they clock me and watch me diamonds shining looking like I robbed Liberace.” That's been the fun thing about collecting all my unruly works into a book, when they are finally laid side to side I just see dollar signs, to the point that I think I could even write a novel if the money were right. There is a poem by Ted Berrigan & Alice Notley that I had so much fun searching for the other night. I found it in A Certain Slant Of Sunlight, the poem is dated Feb. 20th 1982 , “You'll do good if you play it like your not getting paid, But you'll do it better if the motherfuckers pay you.”

I don't think my line would be as heavily set into each page had I pursued a masters then a teaching position, grading papers, being patient. giving feedback. I think I could teach one course every few years or so. But I never want to get sick of writing by doing a lot of chores that come with making it ones occupation. I worry that it files great poets down into narrow ones.

It finally taken all of this testimony to finally get to the mother lode of my professional history, beauty products. Its like how a good make-up job is the one no one notices. What I am really after is balance. My skin is extremely sensitive and can turn feral, red, and angry at the least provocation . If I didn't work at Rainbow with such access to my favorite products, I would probably look about 5 years older than I do now. As with poetry its not just the products (or the content) it's the order and the timing of the ritual, To wash my body I use Natures Best Vitamin E bar soap its almost all glycerin, I use no cleanser on my face just hot water in the shower, so many cleansers blindly strip out the oils that keep my skin balanced. Every other day (the ones on which I shave) I use 100 percent pure carrot facial scrub. After stepping out of the shower and drying off I use Juice beauty hydrating mist. I spray it directly onto the face, I never drag the cotton ball, again its too dipleating. Onto my hair I spray organic bulgarian rose water for further long lasting conditioning. While the skin is still damp from the mist I mix Abra phytoserum cellular gold into Aubrey organics collagen TCM therapeutic cream moisturizer. The serum gives the moisturizer legs so I never have to think of reapplying. I apply it is slowly in a circular motion careful to leave plenty of the cream still visible on the surface of the skin. I sit around the house for ideally 15 minutes while the moisturizer vanishes into my pores on its own. I return to the mirror and rub in the final excess, mist once more and leave the house. My more occasional treatments include Desert Essence Blemish touch stick, 100 percent pure red wine resveratrol scrub and mask and a green apple stem cell serum.

Most of my co-workers have no idea that I even write poetry or if they do they they think of it as knitting. It's kind of embarrassing having this book come out. Telling someone you're a poet is like saying your religious. You never know what they are thinking privately at that moment. I defend a lot of my recommendations to customers at Rainbow saying, “Im just telling you what works for me.” This whole paper started or I should say I knew that I could write it when I read Robert Creeley's introduction to The Holy Forest: Collected Poems of Robin Blaser, “What is realized is what has always been, that our words are literally our world, that their permission, what they lead us to, is all we have.” My mind is constantly on language. The possibility of being permitted to do more in the language. I see my job as the means to continue this engagement. The job is really standing around, playing around at a giant vanity, improvising possible remedies for mostly strangers. all the products surrounding me are natural or being disguised as natural. It's really all or nothing. Lately my beauty ritual has been just hot water, my skin has been that balanced.


Brandon Brown has a day job, publishes small press chapbooks, blogs for the SFMOMA, and writes poetry.


Lauren Levin grew up in New Orleans, lives in Oakland, and has worked/temped at/for: one SAT prep company, one university press, two law firms, three banks, four temp agencies, five schools, six nonprofits, Escada, and Manischewitz.

1. The Headless Woman

-Thanks to the organizers, presenters, everyone for being here. I’m so happy to think and talk together.

-So, I recently saw the movie The Headless Woman…It’s this amazing sort of detective story movie by Lucrecia Martel, about an upper-class Argentine woman who may or may not have killed someone (possibly killed a kid in a hit-and-run accident). She both does and doesn’t want to know what happened in the accident, it seems like, and her family (who’s also the power structure in the town) is gradually covering it up, “vanishing” the evidence. And eventually she seems to be colluding, or acquiescing (or maybe just distracted?) in that vanishing. She’s also a sort of strange diffuse fantasy object of projection for all the other characters, and there’s a Vertigo thing – anyway it’s a great movie. Cynthia is screening and talking about it on the 18th, we should all go.

2. Meaning is my Mystery/Crime

-There are lots of possible readings of Headless Woman: in reference to the disappeared in Argentina, the class/economics of the cover-up and family relationships, feminist readings. You can also look at it (like the movie The Conversation) as the search for an elusive center…both Vero (the main character) and her possible crime play this role of something elusive that attracts and repels, that the attention slides off, that’s always over your shoulder. Like, “I know there’s something wrong, how did I fuck everything up?”

-Well, to circle to a point, as I’ve been trying to think about my work life, I keep thinking about the Headless Woman. In my jobs, I’ve always operated by the basic principle of wanting to put poetry first – to have time for it – so I’ve mostly worked part time, to the extent I could afford it, or make an hourly wage that allowed it. But in addition to that, I’ve oscillated between wanting to care about my day jobs, and not wanting to. In fact, as I was tracking my job history, I realized I’ve really bounced back and forth between the poles of the job I invest in, and the job I don’t invest in (to use a money metaphor). And, as I spoke with Sara and Tony and other people about it, the term ‘meaning’ kept coming up. The ‘meaningful’ job and the ‘meaningless’ job, which sounds horrible, to judge in that way. But realizing I kept using that shorthand, I’ve become fascinated by the this search for something called ‘meaning’ in my day jobs, or this running away from something called ‘meaning’ in my day jobs. Why do I do this? What does it say about the choices I have and that other poets have? So, I’m fascinated by the search for something called meaning as my Headless Woman style mystery, or crime. The thing I want to look at and can’t look at.

-I do want to say that what I’m talking about is my own construction of this category, meaning, and the way it has affected my job decisions in different realms. Not to say, oh this kind of job is better than this kind, but more to ask you all if you have thoughts about why I have this problem, or if any of you share this problem with me. (I think it might be a Pisces problem.)

3. The “Meaningless” Job

-I’ve done a fair amount of temping. So in my mind that’s the paradigm of the job I don’t invest in. Those jobs have had their virtues; when I run toward them, it’s because, well, there’s no competition with poetry. No worries about putting down roots. Also, during the dot com era, I could truly siphon off money for doing nothing, and since I didn’t usually work at the most scrupulous places, I could say I was just diverting money that would have been spent on something worse than me.

-Temp jobs. Sitting at the back of some office at a desk with no work to do, and eventually getting fired for asking for work. Getting fired for making 300 copies for a binder one by one (because I didn’t know how to use the copy machine feeder). In my two poles of job life, the so-called “meaningless” job is I think about a fantasy of freedom; autonomy; the lack of responsibility for anything but poetry. And a love of getting fired, or at least moving on…

-When I’ve run away from those types of jobs, it’s for a couple of reasons. One, loneliness and isolation…not feeling rooted in a context. (At the time I was temping a lot, I was also writing by myself, deliberately isolating myself because I thought I would have a purer focus on poetry. That didn’t work very well.)

-A second reason was feeling guilty about how much that fantasy of autonomy really was a fantasy. I felt conflicted about the fact that I wouldn’t have chosen to work at an investment bank if I were actively choosing, but I was okay with it if a temp agency put me there. To put it in terms of Headless Woman, if my tracks keep getting erased, and if I very much don’t think about what I’m doing, is there no crime? I might not have felt serious about the work, but I kept washing up on these investment bank, law firm, etc, shores. (And this also became more of an issue as I got less incompetent at office work – these jobs were getting more value out of me.)

-Another reason the meaningless job was a fantasy – my class background gave me access to education, and my education gave me access to putting my education on a resume, and my resume gave me a way to explain away the fact that I kept moving around or getting fired. So the meaningless job was a fantasy even while I was working it, because I never really had to face facts – I could keep moving, keep circulating.

4. The “Meaningful” Job

So, predictably, I always seemed to find myself swinging to the other side, of the job I can invest in. The “meaningful” job, by which I don’t mean a professional job, but the one that tempts me to put down roots, to care. Right now I’m about as far to that side as I’ve ever been – I work 30 hours a week as the Development and Marketing Manager at a Berkeley nonprofit. I have benefits. I’ve been there 3 years, so I’ve had to take a good hard look at my crime.

-When I’ve fled meaningful jobs in the past, it’s usually because of the competition with poetry. The loss of my vocation, either to a competing emotional involvement, like with kids in a classroom. Or the loss of my vocation to a creeping professionalization that leads me to speak in nonprofit jargon and wake up in the middle of the night worrying about board development.

-I also worry about a type of fantasy that goes along with the meaningful job, a very Pisces, spiritual pride type fantasy of wanting to help people, or do good, but in an insulated, abstract way. I worry that that fantasy is a mask for accruing cultural capital – amassing tokens for a resume, or wanting to be branded as a ‘good person’. (Unfortunately all the jobs I’ve had involve sitting at a desk, not sudden transfigurations into goodness.)

-My current work is basically nonprofit fundraising. So I’m in a position to see how the sausage is made – how nonprofits are hooked into the money system at various points. That can be disillusioning, and leads me to the biggest problem with constructing this binary around meaning, then jumping from one side to the other: that the whole thing collapses. Everything, from the nonprofit to the temp agency, becomes a big capitalist blob. I can get myself into despair that way – that I’ve spent all this time worrying about what meaning is while I could have been making rent and writing poetry. The gold of time past turns into dust in your hands.

5. Not About Meaning At All, but Structure I Found Myself In – Isolation vs. Community

-Luckily while I’ve been spending all this time freaking out about meaning, something else has been happening in my work life and poetry life.

-Right now, I work with a bunch of people who are incredibly passionate about bringing what they care about into their work. Whether that’s about new definitions of family, about opening up access, about art education. And I’ve seen that passion have an impact, even on the relative conservatism and don’t rock the boat-ish-ness that nonprofits/institutions can have. It’s had an impact on me. Every Friday like clockwork I have an unplanned but intense conversation with my coworker Hilary about some aspect of our work and I go out vibrating from those talks wanting to change what I’m doing. My organization does have hierarchies, but it’s also small enough that my coworkers and I can have some impact on how things are done, especially if we throw our weight together.

-So, I don’t work by myself. And I don’t think that I write my poems by myself anymore, either. And investing in these groups of people – with whom I work, with whom I write poetry – has done more than anything to change my thinking about work and about meaning.

-As I’ve been putting this together, I’ve been thinking that, it’s not really about meaning. That’s not the mystery. Despite all the turmoil meaning has caused me, I can’t believe in it in the same way, because I don’t believe anymore that one person makes meaning through his or her choices and judgments. In Headless Woman, Vero’s actions were given meaning through the context of the group and through class structure. So, the question I’m left with is, what the group means, what taking responsibility also for my role in the group means.

6. Group Character

-I thought I would end with a few questions about that issue of group character, and gift economies, and two quotes that are in the process of being helpful for me.

-How do the small groups I belong to by choice, and feel I can affect, fit into larger structures? Do they affect larger structures? Do they help us imagine what larger changes would look like?

- I’ve been trying to think about the two communities I’m invested in, the small organization (nonprofit or collective) and the poetry or arts community, as two types of gift economies. This is probably too schematic, but I think of the small organization as less of a community, because there’s a separation between those who give gifts, usually, and those who receive them. Also a separation between those raising the money and those doing the field work. The organization is more anonymous, but on the plus side also might have an easier time reaching toward an idea of access, of permeability.

-I think of the arts community as tighter-knit – because the work is of and for the same group. Gifts circulate through the whole group. Love and tension are not idealized and abstracted, but involve actual people.

-At the same time, arts group could be seen as more closed, less permeable, more inward-looking. Zealously protecting access – all those questions (or maybe clichés?) of coterie.

-I’m wondering if it’s possible or even desirable for the characteristics of those different groups to interpenetrate. Could the organization become more a community, less transient, less abstract, not separating out givers and receivers, planners and actors?

-Can or should the poetry community be more permeable, outward looking? Could it do that and remain personal?

Here are the quotes I want to end with. From Lucrecia Martel, director of the Headless Woman:

Q: Are you saying that individuals refuse to engage with large-scale social problems because they feel overwhelmed?

A: I think that in the film I show a social mechanism, which in itself could be really beautiful and fascinating, but at the same time is really frightening. And that’s the mechanism whereby a social group as a whole tries to alleviate the suffering of one of its members. They gather together and cover up what happened in order to protect one of their own, even though it is possible that the person has committed a crime. On the one hand, that is beautiful in terms of human support, but it also contains all the roots of what’s evil about a social class: hiding facts…

Quote from David Brazil:

“It may be the task of the present to recognize imagination as the place out of which we build responsibilities, which are after all sympathetic engagements to others…”


Jason Morris’s poetry & essays have appeared in TRY!, Jacket, Mirage #4 Period(ical), & elsewhere; Spirits & Anchors was published by Auguste Press in 2010. He lives in San Francisco, where he edits Big Bell & works as a bartender.

Writing about work is like work itself, it leaves me with everything and nothing to say. I work at my job—I’m a bartender—because it’s one of the few that pays the rent and allows me 4 days off a week. I’m definitely not saving anything, but time trumps money and as Ed Abbey says “growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.” I like to maintain a low overhead.

On a certain level, there’s nothing to it. A trained monkey could make a martini. Then again at times you feel totally exposed. As in writing, anything could happen at any time. Here the description of flying is apt, it can be hours and hours of boredom punctuated by seconds of terror (revelation). Good humor is crucial, but never at the expense of confidence. Mirrors are kept behind bars so the bartender can keep his eyes on the clientele at all times.

In writing I find overstimulation is key. Like that scene in “You’re Gonna Miss Me” where Roky Erikson has 4 TVs going plus the radio all at once. You have to turn everything up to full blast then listen hard for relevant material between the blinds of advertising static & hiss, all while writing with your left hand, out the corner of your eye. Reading Proust with the internet open to a page of criticism on it, with the Giants on KNBR while a notebook is open in front of you.

As at any job, it’s easy to get it twisted & forget the main purpose. Pour whiskey and take money, is how one of my favorite regulars put it. I don’t lift hammers, plant trees, or teach kids. Sometimes I prefer to believe I’m getting everyone high on the music I put on the jukebox. I remind myself priests also work for tips. To tear the fabric of the illusion would always be the only taboo. Often I feel like a zombie, and always when I leave I want to run screaming in the direction of my other life, which I see everyone here in, the healthier life of creative production.

But another thing this same guy said to me: just because you meet someone in a bar doesn’t mean they’re full of shit. It doesn’t, and the artifice of the community at a bar certainly doesn’t change the fact it is a community. Any community has its share of artifice. I want to talk about that difference, the difference between the community at the bar where I work versus this community of poets.

The bar is a community centered entirely around consumption in a weirdly fixed, unchanging atmosphere. As such I see it as the apotheosis of any job in this culture at this point in time. Post-industrial late capitalism, we’re basically all selling one another cheeseburgers in a giant mall. Writing, never mind fighting to keep alive a small press or a little magazine, is to immediately encounter the weight of the resistance this monoculture sets against this other community, the life I run toward when I leave the bar. I inscribe mine, anamorphically, as the boss does.

The ideal community of writers and artists is centered, instead, around wildly varied, densely diverse creative production. A community in which (to quote John Landry) both retention and resistance are built-in. Never too much permanence, & consumption only in aid of production.

Should a day job be like that, inverse, a waking dream? A photographic negative of the creative process? If so is Wallace Stevens the ideal? Is a day job a second skin you shed, something with nothing to do with the writing? Stevens went home from his job as Vice President of the Hartford Accident & Indemnity Insurance Company, shut the door of his study, and wrote “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour.”

How separate does that paramour—the imagination—remain from the workday? I don’t believe for a second that there’s such a thing as a job in unison with the creative process. In fact I question what’s meant by the idea of “a steady job.”

Then there’s Williams, the pediatrician, who says that the language of his poems comes from the “mouths of Polish mothers.” Things that seem like the liabilities of our public lives prove necessary to our lives offstage. Even in the midst of it, there you are, able to slip back into the real situation.

It’s the same mind that works both jobs, in other words.

You try & stay where the contours of the creative process remain only dimly visible. Turning up the volume way too high, then filtering out the interference. You get up and do the same thing again, sit down to write & each time it’s your first day on the job.