JOSHUA CLOVER is a writer and political antagonist living in the Bay Area. He has monetized his poetry by becoming a teacher, sometimes.
Thanks for inviting me to contribute. As I warned you, I am sort of a skeptic, or maybe it’s just that I want more, I always want more. It is already a lovely thing and I want to throw a penny in the wishing well for some further findings.
The thing I have loved about it is the ethnographic element. I remember reading Studs Terkel’s Working in high school and finding many parts of it fascinating, while at the same time feeling ashamed of my failure to be properly proletarian (it was at this time that I planned to refuse college and go work in a gas station, which is more or less what I did for a couple of years). And hearing similar accounts of what work means and how it feels, even — especially — the flat factuality of it, from friends and peers and collaborators, is all the more fascinating because they are people I know, from milieux that I have the resources to parse. So I can feel it all much better — you know? — better than a 14-year old reading Working could. Anyway, I love that part.
The parts I want to go farther have to do with the relationship of poetry to work, and its specificity. That is to say, I could imagine the following scenario: I am a committed Yahtzee player and I have a lot of friends who are committed Yahtzee players, but we all suffer from different-yet-similar versions of this generalized problem, which is that we have to work to survive, and we also have these other obligations having to do with social bonds and carework and so on. And all of this really cuts into our Yahtzee time. And so we commiserate, and puzzle over this, and rail against it, and one of the things we do is put together the Yahtzee Labor Project. And I can imagine having a very similar reaction: the Yahtzee Labor Project is a way for me and my friends to share stories about this problem that matters to us, and it is compelling to hear about, and helps us be a community, and see each others’ struggles. All to the good.
Is there a fundamental difference between the Poetic Labor Project and the Yahtzee Labor Project? The thing I want to imagine is that there is some real relationship between the category of “poetics” (or “poet”) and that of “labor” — more than the ubiquitous fact that labor, the labor of those without reserves, the labor which is thus compelled of us, steals a lot of our lives and we seriously have better things to do. And I suspect this might be the case, that there might be ways to specify the relationship. But I am really hesitant around the ways this particular puzzle often gets approached.
Some people say that the practice of making poems is a lot like labor, that they are structurally or phenomenologically similar, and I don’t really believe this. Poetry, not being compelled in that material sense, not being a source of value, will always be absolutely, qualitatively different from labor.
On the other hand, some people say that poetry is an opposition to labor, because it refuses to be useful in the measures of capitalism — that it isn’t only non-labor but anti-labor, rifted with some slivers of real autonomy. I am not really swayed by this position either, anymore than I am swayed by the idea of a gift economy or going off the grid. Poetry may not produce value but it is nonetheless entirely within the market, we do not escape those forces when we work on poetry. We monetize poetry in explicit ways, or implicit ways, or we do not monetize it and it resides in the sector of our lives that is not monetized, but which still must obey the discipline of the market — most obviously the discipline about how much time you can spend on non-monetized stuff, be it poetry or Yahtzee.
So poetry really isn’t labor, and it really isn’t anti-labor. What then can we say about it, in relation to labor, that isn’t just Yahtzee?
I’m not really sure. But given the situation I have set forth, I don’t think that poetry can intervene in the situation of labor. I think that the relationship of labor to poetry is that you have to attack labor to free poetry from this set of problems. And that attack won’t be poems. So for me the relation of labor to poetry exists in neither labor nor poetry but in a set of directly political practices that can undo the present pseudo-relationship. When we speak of “the Poetic Labor Project,” if we speak of anything beyond a community ethnography, we speak of total war on labor.