LINDSAY TURNER’S places of work have included a travel guide office, a winery, a French high school, a few restaurants that serve mostly brunch, and many trains. She currently lives, teaches, reads, writes, and translates in Charlottesville, Virginia, where she is a PhD student in English at the University of Virginia. Her poems and prose have appeared in Lana Turner Journal, The Boston Review, Drunken Boat, WebConjunctions, Harvard Review Online, and elsewhere.
The first real conversation I can remember having with my father was about work and art. I think I wanted to ditch college and run off to play the fiddle in a rock band, and I think I quoted Frost at him: “But yield who will to their separation / My object in living is to unite / My avocation and my vocation / As my two eyes make one in sight,” etc. I didn’t want to work to work, I told him. I wanted to do what I loved. Art wasn’t work, I told him, it was passion.
Now I’m a graduate student. I read, I teach, and sometimes I write poems. I’ve never had a salary, a retirement account, or an office. If I had to report to a “real” job tomorrow, I probably couldn’t: I don’t have anything to wear. But I do work, and if I’m going to admit that what I do is work even if isn’t supposed to be, I want to think about what kind of work poetry is. Why? I’m not speaking just in terms of my “work” as a graduate student instructor, although—as Catherine Wagner reminds me here —the place of this work is uncomfortable and unstable and needs, well, work. It’s important for me to be able to incorporate the work of poetic production into my thinking about my work within and for the academy because I don’t believe in a radical separation between these things.
So. Poetic work, teaching or writing—isn’t it sometimes called a “labor of love”? Here’s a place to start. I think “labor of love” is supposed to mean “not labor.” A familial duplicity: “labor of love” is how my mother, a fierce worker, refers to motherhood. Neither poetry nor care-giving is work, it’s love. I don’t question the “love” part, but I’m not doing anything very new by questioning the part where motherhood isn’t work. (See: Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, see—two examples among many—Silvia Federici, Nancy Fraser. See: my mother.) I’m not writing this because I’m particularly interested in motherhood. But the repeated, repetitive, stories of women who have been—or risk being—told that their choice is between work and love haunt me. Do the decisions often foisted upon those who choose work as poets, or as parents (or who choose between these occupations) begin to look different considered in the light of work? There’s a productive analogy and / or solidarity in here somewhere: one thing we face—as teachers, women, artists—is the necessity of seeing beyond the false choice between work and love. It’s work and work. A vocation and vocation.
All of these preliminaries open out onto worlds of speculation and thinking, webs of connection between forms of labor and those who carry them out. At this point I suspect that obscuring poetry’s function as work is both dangerous and limiting. First, there’s the possibility that my feeling of autonomy as a writer—I’m not being exploited! I’m not alienated! I do what I want and I’m not a product of anything!—is partially illusory. This is too scary to ignore; and if poetry can change its own conditions of production, it probably has to be aware of them. Next, there’s the wall that tends to go up between those private, autonomous artists and the rest of the workers of the world, the service workers and chemists and consultants and graduate students and stockbrokers. And the mothers. I think that’s also an illusion. Their work matters to the worker-poet just as, potentially, her work matters to them. If the poet is also subject to conditions of precarity and exploitation, labor passed off as love and love spun out into labor, shouldn’t she be able to write them? I think maybe she has to.