Glad to see you all again after a long but busy winter's hiatus. . . . With April's days leading up to Workers Day (May 1), the legacy of our collective season returns, Spring and All; sure to bring with it more community action, reaction, mobilization and responses to the global/local powers that limit our lives. The Mayan calendar says so! Within that context, we're thrilled yet again to offer this season's contributions from Carlos Soto-Roman, Jen Benka, Chris Sullivan and Nathan Johnson. 

As editors of the PLP, we feel we have the best pro-bono job around: reading and publishing this marvelous work! 

(To download a pdf of this season's offerings, click here.) 
Yours in solidarity, ppl of the PLP
CARLOS SOTO-ROMAN is a Chilean pharmacist (químico farmacéutico), and poet. He holds a Master of Bioethics from the University of Pennsylvania. He has published in Chile La Marcha de los Quiltros (1999), Haikú Minero (2007), and Cambio y Fuera (2009); and in the States Philadelphia’s Notebooks (Otoliths, 2011). His chapbook Con/Science is forthcoming by Corollary Press this summer. He is also a translator and the curator of the cooperative anthology of US poetry Elective Affinities. He lives in Philadelphia, PA.


I find it extremely difficult to talk about work.  I’ve always seen work as something negative; or rather I’ve always made a clear distinction between work that is supposed to pay the rent, the so called “productive” work, and creative work, which is the one that feeds my soul. For some reason I can’t explain, I just can’t mix them. The work that pays the rent will always be a sort of imposition, a bitter responsibility, a divine punishment, and a burden. On the other hand, creative work is always idyllic, challenging, rewarding, satisfying, full of joy. Perhaps as a way to protect that dream bubble, I’ve never wanted to put those two worlds together, never wanted to mix pleasure with business. Maybe my Judeo-Christian background has something to do with it. Maybe not. The fact is that those two worlds coexist in me in parallel and in confrontation. There is no conversation between them. No truce either.


In order to talk about work, I must first define work. I look for the marrow and this is what I find. The Spanish words trabajo (work, job) and trabajar (to work), both from the Old Castilian word trebejare (effort, strive, to make an effort) are not derived from the Latin labor. They come from a torture mechanism used in ancient Rome whose name was tripalium (tres palos, three stakes), and from the verb tripaliare (to torture or self-torture). This partnership between work and suffering (or between work and pain) is also reflected in the English word labor, which also refers to the efforts of childbirth, experience that is recognized as one of the most painful ordeals that can be handled by someone. It shouldn’t surprise us then that the antonyms of a word that carries such harmful connotations are indeed auspicious words: play, relax, laze, have fun, take it easy, loaf, etc. words that are commonly associated to the second world, the creative work; the one that I like to do.


I haven’t had many jobs. Some of them were quite unusual. I have worked as a metalworker, as a seasonal worker, picking up tomatoes and corn, as a personnel officer in a juice and jam factory, as a waiter, as a Christmas card salesman. I have also been a Guinea Pig for lab experimentation and have worked for two international pharmaceutical companies. As a teenager my parents made sure I didn’t start to work soon. It was like smoking. The later you start the better – I was told – You’re going to have the whole life to do it. I quit smoking three years ago. It’s been 7 months since my last paid job.


But I do work. Domestic work mostly. I cook, I take care of my kids, I do the cleaning but nobody pays me for that. So I don’t work. At least my mother-in-law thinks so. According to her I was working when I had an office, when I was attending business dinners at fancy restaurants, when I was traveling to different countries in executive class. But now I work. Really. I do work. I write poems, I do translations, and I’m doing some visual stuff now. I put people in touch. I have a blog that is a kind of anthology where I invite others to show their work, a place where they can give their opinion, say what they think about their craft, about their work. Jane Sprague told me once “that thing you do is activism”. I try not to think about it. I just do what I do because I like it. And because I need to.


I don’t hate money (and certainly don’t love it either) but unfortunately  it’s a necessary tool. When I have enough it's OK. And when I don’t, well, then I have to figure out things in some other way. When I do have money I can buy good food, take my kids to the movies, buy books (which is something that I really love), drink a couple of pints in a bar with friends (ditto), and when I don’t have any money, then I just can’t. But the thing is, I don’t feel a special connection with money; I don’t feel a particular devotion to it,  nor to work as a mechanism of monetary enrichment, and even less as a manifestation of social success or status (showing off material goods obtained because of it).


I was a pharmacist once. I had to dispense prescriptions, take care of dangerous drugs, answer questions, do inventories, budgets, and deal with the (im)patients (here they are just called customers), the technicians and the worst boss I’ve ever had; a jerk who constantly pushed me to sell more and more, no matter what. I hated that job. I hated the ambiance. Working with disease (the disease of others) can be something noble but it’s also the opposite. It’s vile, dirty, tedious, and distressing. It’s hard. When people in Santiago are ill for example,  they believe the solution to their problems lies in a pill.  In Buenos Aires there are cafés on every corner. It’s like Paris. People sit in the tables outside and talk sipping espressos and munching croissants. In Santiago de Chile, we have pharmacies. Actually we have more pharmacies than sick people. And when the sick outnumber pharmacies, then we open more pharmacies.


The Japanese, another society alienated by work, have described a massive health epidemic called KaroshiKaroshi is death caused by too much work. It’s formed by the words ka = excess, ro = labor and shi= death. In 1969, an employee who worked in the packaging section of a newspaper of wide circulation, died at the age of 29 after a heart attack. He had worked more than a month without resting a single day. The case was immediately called “occupational sudden death”. That was just the beginning.


Throughout history the phrase “work dignifies man” has been attributed to several celebrities. Some people say it belong to Marx, some others to Benjamin Franklin. Others, however, state that Saint Francis of Assisi, the advocate of the poor, was the first to publicly say it. I honestly don’t care. What I do care is the contradiction the phrase carries. We all know that our time is limited. Why then, do we spend time doing something that we don’t like? Is it possible to find any dignity on that? Can you imagine somebody telling a slave that his slavery dignifies him? Well, you know, I have some issues with work. But I have to come back to my distinction here. One thing is the “productive” work and another is the creative one. Borges said that the work of a poet, unlike others, is constant because poetry knows no rest, because poetry is in everything. I know many poets who work almost 24 hours a day. Half of that time, just to survive, and when they finish they go home to start their real job.


But working today is not easy. I’m reading an article published by Fundación Sol, a non-profit organization that conducts research on the labor market in Chile. According to the article there is a general lack of job security, which causes vulnerability. The consequences of this insecurity are considerable. The anticipation of job loss causes anxiety and some argue that also affects character in a negative way. Insecurity also affects the family budget and threatens the organization of vital time generating a sense of suspense and exacerbating competition for the remaining opportunities for secure jobs. There is also the gap between wages. While businessmen and owners' earnings seem to keep rising, the workers earnings remain stagnant, or even less over time, requiring additional hours per week just to keep up.


In a different life I joined a group of friends and started a literary website they named Lanzallamas, honoring the Argentinean writer Roberto Arlt. One of the first things we published was a dossier about work and leisure. I wrote a column titled “Coffee Break or the Queens of the hive”. The column began with a phrase that I had read in an anarchist tabloid: “If work were so pleasant, the rich would keep it for themselves… try to strive as little as possible, enjoy absenteeism from work, practice sabotage, put a high price to your labor’s strength…”


One day I saw a work by British artist Damien Hirst. It was a room-sized installation called Pharmacy. The installation represented a real pharmacy. I never thought I could make art with something that to me belonged to another world. I began to incorporate more chemistry into my poems. To include molecules, reactions, atoms, and elements... the periodic table, pictures of cells, cycle’s diagrams, flowcharts, spectroscopy, electrophoresis. Somehow I had found a way to establish a dialogue between those worlds. I started to write poems about medical conundrums, I reached a point where I needed more arguments, more philosophy. I left my country and came here. I signed up for a master’s degree in bioethics. I completed it. Now I’m trying to finish my book, a strange fable about two conjoined twins who were separated against parents’ wishes. I’m also getting ready to return to my country: a beaten country that is just now beginning to wake up. After a year of student demonstrations; after an earthquake and many political scandals; after so many deaths in prisons, in demonstrations; after being spit on the face by a moral dictatorship that the oligarchy wants to impose; after being able to watch all this and to meditate about it from a distance, for the very first time in my life I have absolute certainty that I have a job to do.

Maybe it was a coincidence and maybe not. But the day I saw the installation of the pharmacy… that day I went to work with a smile. That was also my last day at the pharmacy.

JEN BENKA is the author of Pinko (Hanging Loose) and A Box of Longing With Fifty Drawers (Soft Skull). Her poems and essays have appeared in publications and collections including Crossing State Lines (Farrar Straus and Giroux), EOAGH, make/shift magazine, How(2), and a forthcoming publication celebrating the work of Etel Adnan. She lives in San Francisco where she works at 826 National. Before that, she was in New York where she worked at Poets & Writers. Before that she was in Milwaukee, where she was born, and where her grandma proudly worked at the nearby Ladish factory until she retired.

My grandma Julia Benka was barely five feet tall, but she could grab any man a foot taller by the shirt collar and dunk his boozey head under a water fountain to sober him up. According to my dad, she had to do that every now and again to the men who worked on her line, so they wouldn’t lose their jobs. That would explain her sinewy arms. No one’s grandma had biceps like mine did. She could talk tough, too: “You want a knuckle sandwich?”

Nie. No. Dziekuje. Thank you.

In 1963, at the age of 60, the poet Lorine Niedecker married a one-handed painter from Milwaukee, WI named Al Millen. She moved from her cabin on Black Hawk Island near Lake Koshkonong, 62 miles east to the city and into his house.

  advised me:
        Learn a trade
I learned
  to sit at desk
        and condense
No layoff
  from this
        condensery (LN)

Millen worked at Ladish, a metal forging factory. My grandma, a proud member of Machinists Local 1862, worked there, too, in the pipe fitting division, heading up quality control.

a set of procedures
inspection of design
the adherence to a defined set of requirements

Ladish is located in Cudahy, a population 18,000 town on the south side of Milwaukee wedged between Lake Michigan and General Mitchell airport. Cudahy was named for Patrick Cudahy, an Irish immigrant, who bought 700 acres of land in the 1890s and built a meat packing plant, now a part Smithfield foods. The town was settled mostly by Polish immigrants who worked at the packing plant, and a few years later at the forging factory opened by Herman Ladish, who had bought a steam hammer and set out to become "Axle Forger to the Industry!” (Exclamation mark, mine.)

The racial and ethnic makeup of Cudahy’s residents hasn’t changed much over the past several decades. It is a mostly white and still mostly Polish community. The average household income is $50,000. Houses cost about $125,000. Many are currently in foreclosure.

Tell em to take my bare walls down/ my cement abutments/ their parties thereof/
and clause of claws (LN)

During World War II, Ladish produced propeller parts for bombers and other fighter planes. The aircraft and military markets became more and more of a focus, and in 1997,  the company sold its pipe fitting division to concentrate in those areas. At the time, the pipe fitting division’s sales were estimated at between $41 million and $51 million.

After Niedecker passed away in 1970, Millen found a note in her box of papers that read, “Al, burn these.” So he did.

In 1977, after my grandma passed away my grandpa gave me her rosary and bowling ball. “She wanted you to have these,” he said. I was nine and the ball was about as heavy as I was, but with its marbleized sky blue design, it looked like a planet.

Was enough to carry me thru. (LN)

CHRIS SULLIVAN once found two never-worn Beneficial Suggestion Award pins from the SF Naval Shipyard during a neighborhood cleanup campaign; he gave one away and lost the other to fire.  He thinks about the one he gave away and wonders in what sort of state it is kept. He fears it is at the bottom of a jar with pens and marbles in it. He should have liked to have been awarded a Beneficial Suggestion Award, if not from the Shipyard, by now. He thinks he merits many of them. Once he built a 15 gallon chemical mixer from a rolling mop bucket, added a pump with a little plumbing, and this solved a problem at the workplace.  Michael Schindler chose to memorialize the RA-4 chemical mixer at the demise of the workplace during the dot com bubble, when companies like Petopia were moving into the neighborhood.  Mr Schindler said it took what was a nasty and all too potentially messy chore and turned it into an easy routine set of tasks that were by comparison, a joy to perform. Chris did that, yes he did.


it happens you can be here decades (much) more f/u
than you know, and for this you may be called an original -

I feel shy about my writing
I've been working a bit more than I ought
and it impedes almost all sit at the table
thought posse, but sometimes when
I'm painting (this ceiling had years
of nicotine grime such that it took
two coats of oil based primer before
white paint would not turn yellow,
but the walls are Bermuda Sand and
that blends right in) I think of phrases
"like the factory scene in the feel good
movie of the year" Ry Cooder is singing
work together $25.00 an hour
seems to stimulate me unnaturally
but today I loved the backer rod caulk seam
I put on the stair landing, I rooted for it to last
Jason's taking pabst blue ribbons for lunch
and liking this job why don't they put
roach clips on paint can bottle openers

yes I admit a working class scowl
at certain things happens to me
so it is I've grown to walk
on the other side of the street
it must be known as mine by now
I have a companion, and the fence
is nicer than you

I would remind myself the three things
I could honestly say to an encounter

even-ing, I'd say, if necessary

Over time these condensed
to a quick purse of my lips
new peripheries of aversion
to did I burn my own apartment down?
asked the owner of two big white houses lady
with a stack of a/c condensers easter island
might envy, for I had left some lint
on the screen of her dryer

and that left some - thing on me
a hitch, for she was referring to letters
of mine, and a big blob of 300 vinyl records
I'd collected, to a lot of things, no I did not
burn my 3444 16th sf ca 94110 flat down but
as you mention it, on my 39th birthday
a shrug was born
obdurate as the day is long
bet the house
take it to the bank
nor whistling dixie
say that again
ain't kidding
got that right

I do enjoy the sight of fancy decals hvac service van
blocking that driveway, sure they'll move it , truck charge
plus $95 an hour and sharp overall suits they say
a lot of things and are just sooooo nice she reports / admires
imagine that and I root for their affable laconic manners
I'll get you an ace for $65 an hour
no sales of service you do not need

we liked to call work berkley farms and some nights it was like the factory scene in the feel good movie of the year I'd multiply my overtime rate too often but one friday evening some tiny dabs of a powder I took and as thursday was payday 4 pickers did not show it did not matter for 12 hours I pulled my big blue pallet jack through the u shaped warehouse maze like a train setting speed records I remember the foreman after studying the tallies looked at me disbelievingly, would you believe one of my finest moments, I think it was methamphetamine, from a nice lab, 1989.

I always felt fine, making $12 dollar an hour, in San Francisco but I forgot the whole idea was to remain a resident after a while you want to live with fields and clearings and meadows and mountains under the tree you love I did not urinate in a porcelain bowl for a year I took strolls accompanied by an orange cat named Rivers the desultory country mouser god that sound of dripping into the earth how I loved and felt right by it was at the end of the day, I wanted to tell someone about these ceilings and the gap between molding and chimney next to the stove, and what I pulled out of it and stuck to the ventilating hood, oh my god a worst thing you ever saw it made me laugh but you did not have to be there I do not know about doing this one more month
$25 an hour though

this is in and around area code 504

 NATHAN JOHNSON  was active as a drummer in Seattle from 1987 to 1995 (i.e. the heyday of ‘grunge’), after which he spent two years in New York working as a letterpress printer. Relocating in 1997 to Budapest, Hungary, where he still resides, Johnson pays the bills by working as a publications editor, but moonlights as a rock guitarist and freelance writer. He has produced a volume of ‘found’ poetry about drumming titled Rome Wasn’t Burned in a Day (unpublished), and collaborated with poet Steven Farmer for an Others Letters exchange published in 2011 on Thom Donovan’s blog, Wild Horses of Fire.

After ruling out at a pretty early age the possibility of playing Major League Baseball, I set my sites on being a professional musician. I played piano for a few years before finding myself much more at ease behind a set of drums. By the time I was midway into my college education, music―assisted by an increasingly ‘bad attitude’― was winning the battle for my attention, and I didn’t return to finish a degree, but bounced around instead between Seattle and Minneapolis-St. Paul in search of a band to play with. It was during these lean years that I was forced to find work to sustain myself, and I wasn’t very good at it. I was always broke, but I had good friends―and a killer LP collection.

Things improved in the late ‘80s when I settled in Seattle and was pretty active musically. I still had to work a day job, but was much better at holding one down. I worked mostly in the food service industry: barista, dishwasher, pizza slice dude, prep cook. The band Flop, of which I was a member, came together in 1990 and had a pretty good five-year run, and from ’93 to ’95 I was, for the first (and only) time, making a living solely from being a musician.

Everyone in Flop liked to read, and I have fond memories of being on tour and parking the van in a strange town and trying to find the nearest used bookstore. I read mostly novels at the time, but did have a fondness for poetry, and I should mention how this came about. After I dropped out of school and was living in St. Paul, I shared a house with a young photographer by way of Detroit named Peter Mittenthal (Robert Mittenthal’s brother, by strange quirk of fate), whom I didn’t really get to know until just a few weeks before he moved out. I think I got on Peter’s nerves a little bit, but he liked (or pitied) me enough to give me a really early edition of Charles Bukowski’s Burning in Water, Drowning in Flame.

So there, I’ve said it: Charles Bukowski got me into poetry. What was it that made me respond with such enthusiasm? I know now, having thought long and hard about this, that Bukowski helped me to come to terms with what I believed at the time were my deep personal failures. His writings made me believe that I could blossom late in life, and that other ‘failures’ were just people who hadn’t happened yet.

In 1993 Flop was negotiating with Sony Records. Up to this point, I had spent many hours at home drinking beer and writing hundreds and hundreds of really bad poems on a manual typewriter. Bukowski was turning into a pretty self-destructive muse, so I started reading some other people. I had just started reading  William Carlos Williams when I got hired to wash dishes and prep food at Seattle’s Beeliner Diner. The kitchen manager there was a really neat guy named Steve Farmer. We talked about baseball and poetry during breaks, and one day Steve brought me a handful of chapbooks: his own (Tone Ward, Coracle), Michael Anderson’s Vrille and spectacular Prate City, some Kit Robinson, some other stuff. These books opened my mind to a lot of fresh, exciting possibilities.

I decided I’d had enough of rock’n’roll in ’95 and moved to New York, determined to do anything but music. I apprenticed at the Manhattan Center for Book Arts and learned letterpress printing. Steve had a short manuscript which I developed into a chapbook (Standing Water), and I met lots of poets while I was there (Rob Fitterman, Kim Rosenfield, Tim Davis, Bill Luoma, Judith Goldman). It was a good time. I was doing a lot of writing as well, when a cousin invited me out of the blue to come and visit Budapest. I said: ‘Why not?’ 

I traveled to Hungary in 1997, just for a summer visit. Right before I was due to fly back to New York, I was offered a job―despite having zero qualifications―to teach English at a bilingual kindergarten. My accepting the offer led to my staying in Budapest longer and longer, getting a bit of work here, a bit there. Nearly all the work I was able to get was related to a high demand at the time for English writing and editing skills. It was a lucky situation for me, as I was able to acquire work experience without the sort of formal training that would be required in normal market conditions.

It’s now 15 years later. I’m still in Budapest and working in publishing. I’m married to a Hungarian woman, and we have a young son. Against long odds, I have achieved something close to stability, and am happy about that.


Thus there are two dominant periods marking my adult life. In the first, I abandoned formal education and a proper career path to pursue music, but during my musician years maintained an active interest in literature and writing. In the second, having moved away from a musical career while taking up residence in a foreign country, I was able to parlay my regular engagement with writing and literature into steady employment. But it’s only in the past five or six years that I have begun to develop anything like a deeper social understanding of the world, and this has come about mostly through reading more socially engaged writing.

So, what have my experiences taught me?

I’ve never been career-minded, so a job for me is really a means to an end. It’s not something I mind doing, but I always look forward to indulging the ‘life of the mind’ when I have spare time. It’s a wonderful thing when a person is able to get paid to do what they love doing, but this isn’t the case for most people. A society of people that have time to relax, reflect, converse and create is, to my mind, a far healthier society than one in which members engage reflexively in exhausting, poorly remunerated competition with each other.

Many people are obviously struggling in the United States. On my side of the pond, working Greeks are reeling from Troika-imposed austerity, and Portugal is being administered a stiff dose of neoliberal medicine as we speak. I have Hungarian friends with two or three university degrees that can’t find work, or are being paid a ridiculously low wage. Clearly, the mantra of ‘personal responsibility’ is entirely inadequate for explaining―let alone justifying―widespread economic misery in many parts of the world. More and more people need to join in peaceful solidarity across all conceivable social lines, and that includes national boundaries.

‘Democracy’ is such a frequently abused word and concept, but it might be helpful to limit our notion of a ‘pure’ democracy to as large or small a group of people as we can imagine in full control of its political and civic destiny through the full participation of each individual concerning any issue of substance to the community. Necessarily, when we expand the size of the group, the more diluted the demos is likely to become. I’ll leave it to the reader to infer anything he or she likes from this, but my point here is to suggest something about poetic production in society.

When poetry works for me, it’s because I pick up on something utterly unique in the poet’s work. I don’t often know what’s working, but there’s something on an aesthetic and emotional level that gets through. Somehow, the writer has worked toward and found an original means of communicating a ‘type’ or ‘quality’ of imagination--something extraordinarily singular. What can’t be stressed enough, however, is that work of this nature also requires considerable effort on behalf of the reader.

The popular cultural products absorbed and consumed in our ‘mass democracies’ make no such demands; rather, they appeal to manufactured consensus and seek mostly to entertain. In such an environment, something like a personal poetry is of necessity consigned to the cultural margins. But this does not speak to the inadequacy or irrelevance of the craft of writing poetry today. On the contrary, I think we can take such exchanges as one means among many to reestablish communities based on personal contact, on efforts to communicate and understand, and on commitments to freeing up greater amounts of time and space for everyone to do as they please.
Poetry, in so many words, is great work if you can do it.