Mary Austin Speaker is a poet, curator, blogger, book designer, and teacher. She founded Triptych Readings poetry series in New York, blogs for the Bryant Park Word for Word series, and is currently an art director for HarperCollins Publishers. In August she will begin teaching composition and work as a freelance book designer.
A few weeks ago, I gave notice at a job where I have been paid more than I have ever been paid in my life. For the past twelve years, apart from three years off to complete my MFA in poetry, I have worked as a book designer at a major publishing house. On Monday of this week, my upcoming departure was finally made public, and two of my colleagues were laid off in addition to my own position being eliminated after my departure. When I informed the publisher for whom I work that I was leaving, he was disappointed to see me go, but encouraging and happy to see me pursuing my writing in earnest.
Everyone I work with has agreed that this is a good time to leave the business. Ebooks are beginning to eat away at print budgets. Corporate publishing might be imploding in their rush to make cheaper and cheaper books. "All books should be free!" said a friend recently. I flinched, and saw the book industry vanishing in the same digital act of disappearance as the music industry. Yet I'm inclined to agree, and take some solace in the fact that the book-as-object is gaining in value as quickly as the book-as-information is losing it. Letterpress shops are becoming increasingly common. Small presses abound. Quality seems like it's beginning to matter again. Artistry. I have made my living working on objects—inexpensively made printed books— that are becoming increasingly less valuable, but as this happens, my conception of value is beginning to change anyway.
When I was 23, I became active in my company's union, a local of the United Auto Workers Technical and Professional sector. The collective bargaining agreement covering about 350 employees was about to expire, so I joined the negotiating committee to renegotiate our contract. This was the same year that the MoMA workers (members of our local) struck and picketed. The economy was flush with tech-boom dollars, and our paltry wages had come to seem antiquated. When I argued that our labor was worth more than we were being paid for it, I was told that people work in publishing "for love." Love as a currency deliberately used by one of the largest media companies in the world was a disturbing notion. But to some extent he was right. We work in publishing because we like the air— there is a shared value system at work that recognizes the worth of writing. But we are ultimately making a product declining in value, we are made to be more and more productive with little compensatory rewards, and this gets more and more heartbreaking the more you're doing it "for love." I resisted the proclamation that love should be an adequate compensation for wages we felt we were owed. We received, in the end, significant raises. We felt triumphant, though we were still paid relatively little.
Years later I would find myself setting a line of type by John Ashbery, or designing Werner Herzog's film diary, or working late into the night with Patti Smith as she fretted over word choice, and I would think, "I can't believe I get paid to do this. I would do this for free." They were rare moments, but they cast long shadows. And I was paid well to do that work. In love and in money. Each are valid currencies. But I think it's appropriate to designate certain spheres for those currencies to be acceptable as payment. Poetry operates in an economy that is barely monetary. Its currency is much more abstract— an alloy of music, seduction, relevance, performance, artistry, hype, bravado. Some of it might be love. That is what has started many a press.
I am looking for an economy that understands value to have many iterations, money being only one among these. In a few months, I am moving from New York to Iowa, where things are much cheaper, and I have more room to be naïve, or at least experimental. I have never gone off the beaten path before— always I have been employed by a major corporation or living on fellowship at a university. In the fall, while my husband attends graduate school, I will enter a new economy, and I expect to be paid in love as much as in money. I am already grinning stupidly when I read about the course text for Argumentative Writing, the comp class I’m teaching in the fall at the local community college in Iowa City. To teach argument! To discuss corporate responsibility and the abstraction of family in class with full-grown adults!
When I was hired to do this, I received an apology regarding the pay. I know that full-time adjuncting is not a sustainable kind of employment for me, but a class here and there is enough to keep my enthusiasm up and my energy focused on a service that I think is necessary, helpful, important. This is part of the economy of labor that I would like to recognize more: What is necessary? What is helpful to create a world I would like to live in? What kind of labor can draw me closer to the kind of community that I want to be a part of? What kind of work can provide the most fertile ground for writing poems and making art? Working full time in the service of others has not, thus far, been terribly fertile ground for this— the poems arrive, but the sustained attention required to put together and publish a book is always cut short.
I expect my values will change over time. Already I feel a bit conflicted about teaching. Am I diluting the negotiating power of full-time staffers by offering my occasional services? Should I value that concern above my own need to do good, worthy work; or the education of full-grown, dedicated adults, who might become more responsible citizens as a result of my labor? Where, ultimately, is my labor most valuable? Who is responsible for the value of labor? These are questions I would love to see explored by others.
I will need to eat, of course. And have health insurance. For that I will lean on my husband as he has leaned on me. For other expenses: thrift, invention, freelance. I am young enough to afford to do this. I have no children and no debilitating medical conditions. I realize this luxury, and the luxury of mutually supportive partnership. And I feel beholden to exploit these things, these two years of no expectations, for the brief time it's available to me.