BRITTANY BILLMEYER-FINN is a poet living in Oakland. She has worked at various small retail businesses as a vintage, DIY & consignment shopgirl. She has worked in various volunteer, unpaid & stipened jobs in community organizing, teaching assistantships, research assistantships & high school creative writing workshop facilitation.
The Poethical Shopgirl
The kind of agency that has a chance of mattering in today’s world can thrive only in a culture of acknowledged complexity, only in contexts of long-range collaborative projects that bring together multiple modes of engagement—intuition, imagination, cognition…The more complex things are, the less certain theoutcome but also the more room for the play of the mind for inventing ourselves out of the mess.
-Joan Retallack, The Poethical Wager
When my friends and I discuss our utopia I imagine land and clean air, making clothes from curtains, reading in the chicken coop and swimming with the pigs like the stories my grandmother has told me of her time as a young girl in Indiana. This desire is fleeting and then returns. The dream doesn’t match our skill sets. It lives inside ourselves separately and then closer to one another as we react to the things that are hard about being present, here.
In reality, we live in little apartments under highway overpasses where trucks shake our homes as they rumble overhead. We share homes that have gardens or don’t, or have cranky neighbors below us that bang their ceilings to shake our floors, or queer friendly homes with vegan kitchens, green and pink swirls painted on the walls. Many of us moved here from various places, myself from Michigan, to go to grad school, to get our MFA. We have all graduated now. Our homes at times transform into community sites where we host readings and workshops, healing spaces of friendship, collaboration and magic. Our homes too are places where we hide. We hide from each other, from poetry, from micro aggressions, from poor time management, from our desires and failures.
Often, our hang outs are really meetings: editing each other’s books; planning our next reading; unpacking our dissolving community projects; creating new ones. Most of our jobs fall under the category of customer service: working the front desk; slinging brunch; coffee; pizza or myself, resale clothing. We talk often about work, about our writing practices, about how we wish for more time rather than more money and how this isn’t always true. I cannot write their embodied reality how love, inspiration, improvisation, passion, care, tenderness, arousal, anger, regret, resentment, anxiety, stress, trauma, healing and hope exists inside each one’s body presently or in an embodied history. I write “we,” to remind myself that I am not alone. That my work intersects with them and theirs. That part of my poetic labor is imagining the utopia, building it on site, being where we are together as people, friends, collaborators, community and dismantling it again and again.
To get to work, I take the 24 to the 13 get off at Park turn onto Mountain Blvd. and find myself in Montclair an affluent town in the hills of Oakland. It is 10:45 a.m. I count in the cash, windex the counters as women cluster outside eating cookies from the bakery next door. They wait for me to flip the open sign and let them inside the store. I feel simultaneously resentful of their waiting and just a little bit powerful watching them wait for me to let them inside.
I know what the customer wants from me. It is a familiarity. They want to know about my “bohemian lifestyle,” they want to ask questions about my “lesbian relationship” and “poet identity.” I become a character in their daily life that dresses them and give them a “retail experience.” They ask me questions about what queer means…and it is safe to ask because I am cis gender because I am white, my hair in a bun on top of my head and because of my passing the dirt under my fingernails, the hair in my armpits and on my legs becomes part of the performance, which is simultaneously me: the poet; the queer; the approachable shopgirl…how I can be their favorite by difference.
I have workshop with a group of writers once a week, most of whom I graduated with from Mills. The workshop grew out of our desire to have a non-institutional space in which to structure our work /our selves inside of the thing. It feels easier on my body somehow.
Sometimes we workshop each others’ works in progress, usually we eat, occasionally there is beer and wine, sometimes a puppy dog, sometimes we write together doing a warm up exquisite corpse or pulling a tarot card from The Collective Tarot deck to write through. I pull Strength, “We live in a broken system, and we frequently have to use broken tactics in order to survive. If we don’t want to acknowledge we’re compromising our beliefs, we usually pay, in some form, to let someone else compromise for us.”
Unpacking “the mess” and writing my poetic labor becomes mundane in its day to day relation to immaterial definitions of work. My agency is something inside of my circumstance first. The various names I might give it hold mostly privileged categories or perhaps a mobius strip of privilege: white; middle/upper class upbringing; cis gender; queer; femme; feminist; institutionally educated; monogamous; midwestern; community organizer; ally; shopgirl.
How part of the immaterial work I uphold in my heart and at times in my hands is that of mundane subversion…maybe. A friend writes, “I have blind spots, but I am working to sweep out that internalized oppressor everyday.” Perhaps, “the mess” of which we might invent ourselves out of is inside the body. Perhaps it is an intangible currency. Perhaps it is the various categorizations and assigned values of capitalism. Perhaps it is the abject identity. If I am the/a mess I carry it inside my body to each home, to each site. This embodiment works to create something with skin. Something for the work to live inside of during daily encounters of which I am on one side of its trajectory. It is the unknowability of what happens next even inside of the messy sameness the both-ness at work, here.