For the sake of spurring further discussions, I will take off here from two slippery moments of impulse: one, my first hearing about PLP from Steven Farmer over nouveau VietNamese food; and, two, from the “Jobs are jails” sentence quoted by one of the original contributors in a larger borrowing from a friend. These impulses were, I think, both toward the same end even though one was a positive misunderstanding and the other was a dialectical angle of indirect opposition. I’d like to think both may have been what I’d call “creative mis-takes” à la Philip Whalen’s funny pointed mis-hearings like “adipose muchachos, compañeros de mi vida.” I hope you will indulge me a bit as I adopt a voice that imagines itself speaking. In the long run, I will answer PLP’s six questions, maybe raising a few more along the way. I look forward to any form of Q&A. Dialogue is the natural dialectic.
Talking with Steve, I took the original question to basically be: “What does your job teach you about your work?” Once I saw some of the original talks and the response pieces, I thought I might have gotten that question wrong; still I asked myself: “What would this look like if I did it according to that question?” That was my positive possible misunderstanding.
My dialectical indirect bouncing off of another impulse came from reading one of those talks. In that talk, a poet offered an idea from a friend that "jobs are jails." I made a leap glancing away from this interesting idea because it seems to me that maybe jobs are more like schools, not in the most positive sense but in the way we can learn from them. My own experience as a student and as a teacher tells me that schools teach mostly in ways obliquely angled off of what is “required” or called for in standard ways. It’s not in what our bosses require of us or the standards they apply, but the very fact of requirements and standards can teach us a lot for our writing. Our jobs can show us a lot about the structure of the world in which we do our work. A job of any kind puts you in relation to things and people and a system of values: this in itself is an education—that it exists, that is, this system in each job a little different but there. Jails are just a power racket cog in such a system, depersonalizing. Any job webs out wider than that, and you can make it show you stuff.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak from a position that gets lost too often between the university academics who get the podium fairly often through conferences and publications and the wide assortment of otherwise working poets who have presented so far at last year’s conference and on this blog/site. I work as a contract instructor for a community college district. I have a contract that emphasizes a load of teaching units, a load of office hours, a set of “shared governance” obligations, and participation in a structural hierarchy administering a hierarchized structure of educational achievement. That is not just a casual list; it is my attempt at a concise full description of the factors that rule my job. That list is the beginning of my “what it would look like” answer.
What a job is about, mostly, is expectations, and a job is a good situation for learning about expectations. At my job, it is what is taken for granted as expectations that has enlightened me a little. We are expected to fulfill our contractual obligations regarding hours in the classroom and office, paperwork on paper and not, taking a position in the hierarchy, and taking part in the systems in place. But there are unstated expectations too. We are expected to help students learn. We are expected to have expectations of them. We are expected to act as though the whole thing can and does work. We are expected to act as though we believe that we have academic freedom and that it is being fulfilled in the systems in place. As with any job, a moment of stopping and looking can provide an outside perspective. As with any job, once you have taken this break, the whole game of expectations becomes a farce. A farce is not not worth playing out. That’s where what I call the “gas” factor comes in.
“Gas” stands for “giving a shit.” I see that we are prevented from fulfilling all those expectations by the structure of expectation itself. My own expectations have revealed to me what I have to call the “unteachability” of my students; this is their sense of certainty, of knowing already just like the bosses do. Instead of tossing up my hands or my lunch, I meet this with a dialectical complement of teaching “uncertainties.” I have the good luck and the tough luck to get to work on writing itself with them. Their certainties about who they are and what they know provide a resistance that is both good and tough. I then get to act as if I care to help them overturn their over-determined individualisms. Held within the system, still I try to create assignments with requirements to see meaning as being built, in flux, momentarily determined, not hard wired, never forever. I play this inside the farce of the larger play I’m paid to be part of, and it gets me gassed.
The other thing that gives me energy and even ideas for my works is what my students teach me. They inspired me to succumb to Facebook and to find a way to let its form teach me what I could write there. I saw that FaceBook would allow me to post a “status” statement or to “upload a photo” and add a comment on it. I saw that these choices were both strategies of illustration: I could tell how I am doing OR I could show something and tell you about it. Having been through a thirty-year history of toying with illustration as the relation between words and photos (by doing slideshow poetry readings at D.G. Wills Books in La Jolla or printing poems on postcards or any number of other tricks), I saw an opportunity here. I started writing pieces where one rule for composition was that there had to be a photo that responded off from something in the lines, that it itself acted like a line does in the best Ted Berrigan poems—that it both “fit in” and go somewhere else, somewhere new.
I found some more guidance in thinking about putting these pieces on my wall as an inverse form of filling in the space where I was asked to “say something about this photo.” One rule for these poems now is that they be dependably readable for any one of my Facebook friends. Another two come from my students’ ways of thinking and reading, too. They have shown me that they are oddly numbed to image, probably from living in a world with so much of it that it has become what words already are for so many people, transparent. They are also transparently dependent on the concept of “person” as a crutch; so, these poems start with perception rather than person, though they let it in as a place to sit down now and then. From all this, I have composed a book called Post Language, all made out of posts from my Facebook wall. It will appear as a blog book one of these days, avoiding the paper page.
That idea came from a goofy play on a couple of truths from my students’ lives. Working with my students led me to see that one of the most important things for them is getting away from treating the world around them as Mom & Dad. Another big thing is that tests and textbooks suck wind. Looking for the humor in this, I decided that I could talk about tests in terms of the Documentable Achievement Deictic thingie (D.A.D.) and that the textbook fit in with this when I saw that poetry also held onto a security blanket that could be called the Marketable Object Manifestation thingie (M.O.M.). Perhaps, I thought, I could get away from M.O.M. and help them get away from D.A.D. too.
My job has shown me that people have forms they inhabit and that you can’t simply talk them out of those in most cases or maybe even never in any case. They must be e-duc-ated, led slowly out from where they are through what they already know to what they hadn’t yet thought of, to the new or at least to the looser. Both students and my colleagues command and subtly demand such a respect for what they think they already know, and sometimes, often times, they won’t budge unless it is along the bridge of what they think they recognize. “Illustrativity” is just one of those things. There is a whole world (rather strongly represented on FaceBook) that depends upon it, just as Cabrillo College depends on its structural hierarchies of administration and its structure of what it calls education. The poets’ answer is, “Look; it doesn’t have to look like that.” But to get to that work from the job is the proverbial trick. I suggest that we can do it by taking the energy that exists as something like an electrical resistance within the job and its forms; I have tried here to describe how that works for me with the needs and tensions in the charge I have been given.
That energy creates the space where I nervously await the shut down that inevitably comes, from an attitude, a need for a grade, a term termination, whatever. I think my answer to half dozen questions lies right there. The form of my work comes right from my job of meeting people in this space. The constraints of my job life are the energeia of my poetic life. The classes I confront (and I mean social classes, no joke about school classes here) are really just two: the sure individualists who corroborate their own positioning by the haute bourgeoisie and the aristo-owners, and the structural collaborist who sides beside labor by building. One has made the known; the other makes thinking. It gets shut down eventually, but we will have gotten to give a shit along the way. These two classes are the same among poetry readers & listeners. I work with that. I work at a college too. You would have to say that I am not “institutionally unaffiliated”; however, inside the institution I strive to be. Financial reality requires me to stay there. I dig the “wig,” and flip it. In the poem, I collaborate with what I can expect the readers to think they know; I work simply with that. I trick us both into stealing something from our own unsureness though. I let the poem close, and maybe they walk away thinking they know something, even something new. That’s OK. The moment, though, was there when they didn’t know for a moment while they had to think their way through a turn of phrase, a repeat of a word that shows it different from itself, an image that is not quite illustrative, for example. They labor.