Winter 2013 at the PLP

In this the first month of the new year, amidst the theatrical and accelerated stirring of the global financial embers (the peaks & valleys, the bait & switch, the puppetry, the disparities), we bring you eight varied, relevant, thoughtful and powerful texts from the following authors: Jean Day, Mary Burger, Joshua Clover, Jen Coleman, Rachel Zolf, Tim Shaner, William Cloud, and Marie Buck. To download a pdf of this issue, click here.
MARY BURGER has held many of the jobs portrayed by Lena Dunham on TV, but she has never been the daughter of an artist from Tribeca.
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Laboradory

My parents grew food.  They grew up growing food.  Vegetable, animal.  My father’s family had a dairy farm.  In a faded picture his father leads some neighbors in a barn raising.  Bartering labor for labor.  My mother’s father was a carpenter.  He built the church steeple that still punctuates their little town.  My grandmothers kept kitchen gardens and flocks of chickens and relentlessly put their children to work on them.  Growing food wasn’t a stand against agribusiness or a symbol of the artisanal life.  But it wasn’t completely unrelated.

All my grandparents emigrated to the United States as children.  They came with their families from the upper Rhine Valley—Switzerland and Luxembourg and Alsace—in the late 19th century.  These were farmers, craftspeople.  Catholics.  They left Europe because population growth and the spread of industrialization made it harder to own a farm or to practice an independent trade.  Because anti-Catholic policies and forced military service threatened their lives.  They didn’t want jobs in coal fields or steel mills.  They weren’t likely to attend university.  There wasn’t much farm-to-profession mobility.

They settled in the midwest in communities of farmers and craftspeople like the ones they’d left.  And for about a generation, they carried on the lifestyle they’d brought with them.  Their migration was as much retreat as exploration, maybe, though they weren’t anti-modern.  They took to electricity and telephones and automobiles and air travel and all the chattels of manufacturing as those things came along. 

There’s a dim story from my mother’s grandfather about taking part in frontier timber harvests—what amounted to the wholesale deforestation that preceded the settlement of the midwestern states. The cleared land and harvested lumber laid the way for the barn raising and church building of my grandfathers’ days, and the cities and freeways and so on that would follow.  In the scant remnants of my great-grandfather’s story there is no trace of the aboriginal populations that had been decimated before he got there.  Before the forests were removed.

My parents when they married set up home a few miles from my father’s family farm.  They ran an independent dairy for 25 years. It was a single link from farm to table: buying raw milk from farmers, pasteurizing and bottling it, selling it from their storefront or delivering it in the early morning to front doors.  They made ice cream, which still gets loving reviews from anyone who was there to taste it. 

Their business was commonplace.  Every town in the midwest had a dairy.  They ended the business the year I was born.  The timing of this seems wrong, I realize: my parents were working adults, with a business and ever more children, for decades before I was born.  This elongated storyline is another family artifact, commonplace in my parents’ world but exotic or outlandish in mine.  Like their parents and grandparents and doubtless every generation before them, my parents had as many children as biology allowed.  They married in 1937 and had children for 26 years, ending with me.  My mother went through labor seven times, which is unremarkable only when compared to her own mother’s 13.

After the dairy, my parents bought another business in a nearby town and we moved there when I was six.  One of the best things for me about this little migration was that the nuns in the new school didn’t hit kids as much.  Nobody knew this was going to be an outcome of the move.  I was just lucky.

My parents bought us boxed cereal and fresh-frozen vegetables and plastic-wrapped bread, and milk and ice cream from the consolidated regional dairy, and countless other conveniences, because they wanted us all to have lives of less labor.  More leisure.  But still they grew a kitchen garden all their lives.  My father coaxed his rototiller to life every spring to turn the soil.  My mother relished summer tomatoes, sliced with a little salt.

I’m taking the long way around.  So long that it seems I may not get there.  Trying to identify the pivotal labors of my progenitors, as a way of understanding my own.  If this mannered narration of a century and a half might stand in for my floundering, flummoxing efforts to be a part of my time.
JEAN DAY has been paid to work as an amanuensis, waitress, member of a demolition crew, cook (short order and live-in), hospital attendant for mentally disabled adults, administrative gopher, warehouse clerk, acquisitions manager, executive director (these last three at Small Press Distribution, where she happily toiled for 14 years after finishing college), copywriter, teacher, marketing editor, and academic editor—almost entirely in the nonprofit sphere. For the last 18 years she’s been employed by day as associate editor of Representations, a scholarly humanities journal published by UC Press and administered through the Townsend Center for the Humanities on the UC Berkeley campus. She’s also written seven books of poems, the sixth and most recent of which to be published is Enthusiasm (Adventures in Poetry).
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Day Job

When Bill Cosby observed in 1964 that he “started out as a child,” he was working.
Both of my parents worked. My mother as a teacher and my father as an engineer turned unwilling executive. At the end of the day they drank Manhattans, and I’m certainly a dividend of their first-world, postwar bounty. In college I (and every other student at Antioch) worked alternate semesters, for credit, though we English majors were a little hard to “place.” After that there were enough low-level jobs in San Francisco for eager young graduates like me, and one didn’t have to work too hard at them to support a second life as a writer on the cheap.

Thus began a long-nursed habit of divided attentions.

And competing impulses. The attraction/resistance to a through-line is practically the story of my life. In writing I’m drawn to messes and motivated by enthusiasms. I’m as interested in “unmaking” as “making.” Add “recycling,” and you have a perfect working system—until you try to make it a system. “Do what you love,” then, by definition, means “the money can’t possibly follow” (if only because we know money refuses to follow this neat circuit). That is, in poetry I’ve set myself in a groove where it’s unreasonable to expect serious compensation, if making poems includes its own opposite and overflow, its own super-egotistical critique. Negative capability may be unchampionable as a work ethic; in art—that’s another story.

If capitalism (the realist side of production and decay, about which I know far too little, absorb too much), is destroying individual lives, ways of life, species, then one’s work in the present, whether vocation or hobby (as the IRS calls the “nonprofessional” pursuit of an art that doesn’t pay) is undivorcible from its dark movements. We are its specimen and side effect. The question forever raised is what resistance to its machinations would look like. I’m not the person to ask, but, as implicated as anyone else, I (too) have been at work for the last couple of years on a book in which the destruction of life as we knew it figures both topically and procedurally. Everyone’s writing some version of this; mine’s called Late Human.

You might think of it as an exhortation to hobbyists (and species) to unite. The idea that the certified professional has a greater claim to a good life is after all a fiction of the money economy. As an “English major” (Garrison Keillor’s pathetic whipping post) without an advanced degree, I have admittedly wasted a few brain cells finding myself Insignificant in Academia. If you had 29 bosses (the professors who sit, in person, on the editorial board of the scholarly journal that employs me as its manager and editor, all of them at the top of their fields), you would too. Yet I am and identify by day as a “professional” in my own right—the University of California payroll system concurs, and my membership in the University Professional and Technical Employees Union shores up the idea. Both comical and comforting with its plosive p, “professional” has a whiff of the pedigree about it that can be put to good use. Like Lucy in Peanuts, we could all do with a little “Doctor” before our names. (It’s my father’s favorite term for a jackass: “Nice work, doctor!”)

But I digress.

I came to the union late, but through that professional door: the recognition of and by my daytime peers, and at last myself, that I perform a skilled job. Caught up in a surge of activism around the disastrous effects of privatization on UC in 2009, I suddenly found myself ready again for solidarity and action, and the union was the logical vehicle. (The Berkeley local had the infrastructure, the vision, and the leaders.) So, for much of the last three years I’ve been involved in organizing my fellow “administrative professionals” (UC’s term) for the right to bargain a contract. And with this accident of history, I seem to have acquired an expanded identity: something somewhat more, I hope, than a pin, a t-shirt, and a hat. Most of my life (since the wars in Latin America and Iraq, anyway) I’ve been a lazy activist; now not only do I always have an agenda but I also lately find myself “working” overtime as a unionist in the fictions of another writer. This business is decidedly “meta,” work for which I have no training and deserve no credit—though of course I’m an easy shil for my alter ego’s exploits.

A favorite Seinfeld episode has Kramer (everyone’s alter ego?) “working” in a job that doesn’t exist, for an outfit that didn’t hire him. Loitering in a Manhattan office building, he’s sucked into a flurry of suits by the cry, “Everyone in the conference room, right now!” and is then and there taken for one of the crew. As the bit progresses, he goes through the motions (whining, “You know this is my busy time of year!”) without the slightest consciousness of—or even interest in—the job’s content. It’s irrelevant; what he aspires to is the condition of his working fellows who are, “you know, TCB: taking care of business!” His success is famous, if fleeting.

Scene: Kramer after “work” at a bar with the gang, cracking them up with the sidesplitter we can’t hear but has them all in tears.

Where some of us poets with day jobs sometimes go to decompress (Brennan’s, in west Berkeley, by the railroad tracks) has been a working-class hangout for decades. It’s a bit exotic to us bourgeois and bourgeoises, steam table and all, but there’s no bouncer to throw us out. They make a decent Manhattan.

Everybody comes from work.
JEN COLEMAN is a Minnesotan living in Portland, OR by way of DC and New York.  She currently applies her skills as a factory worker, gas station attendant, dish washer, chocolate shaver, night stocker and school bus driver to her work as outreach director for Oregon Environmental Council. Jen helps organize the Spare Room reading series and writes with the 13 Hats creative collective.

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It's okay to mourn what's impossible.

A therapist told me that once, when I wanted to conceive a baby with another woman. First, to recognize that there is this thing that's impossible.
And then, also, that it is, after all, what I want.

Poetry. Work.

***
As a kid, I wanted to be a lawyer, a marine biologist, a welder, poet and an actress. Those "jobs" make it permissible to argue, explore, discover, weld, write, act and play.

Then a "job" became selling time for what it will pay. The hiring manager at Target laughed at my job history I’d characterized as "various unskilled labor.” She hired me to stock shelves from 10 PM to 6 AM.

One night, I had a box of 1,000 plastic bags, each containing a lantern mantle. The slippery little bags had to go on a display hook one at a time.

Some poets compose in their heads. Stocking lantern mantles, I couldn't think of a thing to think of.

***
"I want"—it pleaded—All its life—

***
I'd like to believe nothing is impossible. It’s wanting to believe that nothing is impossible that makes the impossible invisible. I want my way around it, right up to the edges of it, without ever knowing it exists. It.

I want—was chief it said

***
I worked in factories. Janitor, hotel maid, gas station attendant, dish washer. I drove a school bus. I tried to write in the time provided by each job’s inefficiencies. I was  tired.

At Holiday gas station, my workmates were fired for trying to guess winners among unsold scratch-off lottery cards. Another was fired when the till came up $200 short. I saw her later working at the SuperAmerica station. My weekly paycheck was $200.

***
When Skill entreated it—the last—

At the three ring binder factory, not much happened. The break time bell was loud. The punch clock was violent.

Driving a school bus, a lot happened. Lives were at risk. I was paid seven dollars an hour: the most I'd ever earned.

***
I can't stand stifled expression. Even the crudest suggestion in a narrative makes me weep. My sinuses are inflamed for hours after watching a romantic comedy. Usually it is stifled love, but it might be stifled anything.

A mailman prepares to express his philosophy, tries, is misunderstood, I melt.

In a predictable narrative, I am destroyed before the stifling happens. A mailman prepares...forget it. I am melting.

And when so newly dead—

I could not deem it late—to hear
That single—steadfast sigh—


***
I applied to graduate school to stop driving a school bus. How did I get in? How did I get funded? I still wonder. I loved it. I wrote a manuscript called The School Bus Murders. None of the poems were about work or school buses.

***
After graduate school, I was astounded to get a job at an environmental advocacy nonprofit. I stayed 11 years. I remember an article in their copy of "Direct Marketing News" that advised against hiring creative writing graduates.

In my job, I use the same words over and over:
Critical. Health. Action. Climate. Water. Toxic. Dollars. Strategic. Now.

My job was to write, but I found ways to argue, explore, discover, act, play, and ,once, to weld. I built a lower-case letter “e” costume. Seriously. I got paid. It was awesome. My job today is similar. People ask me to do stuff, I do it, they love it. It's great. It’s great.

***
Andrew Joron suggests that, when poetry becomes work, it is a prison.

I want security, consumer choice and fungible social capital. I want everyone I meet to understand how I sell my time, and to have an opinion about it. I have those things. 

That single—steadfast sigh—
The lips had placed


***
I've teamed up with writers and artists in a “collective inquiry” project called 13 Hats. I feel embraced by the "ekklesia" as David Brazil and Sara Larsen describe it: creatives  who have "experienced the call, volatilized by its seeming irreconciliability with their worldly station, and therefore affined to those in whom they recognize a kindred predicament."

But I don't feel volatilized. I am lazy. I tell myself I am free from ambition. I write and read when compelled to. My poems work when someone reads them.

I am in mourning. What impossible is invisible here?

—it pleaded—

Or as Rod Smith writes in The Spider Poems:
In my life o this life. yes, this one. o, it.
***
Once, in high school, I told my parents that Emily Dickinson's poems were "rhyme-y little poems from hell."

At the circuit board factory, clean-suits taped up the boards to expose only circuits that would receive electroplating. My job was to pull off the tape after electroplating. It was too loud to talk. Too consuming to read. Too boring to think.

***
Toward Eternity—

***
My dad is a philosopher and laborer. Thomas Coleman. When he could no longer work for wages, he turned to art full time: carving angels, from pine, with a knife.
When Parkinson's and arthritis made carving impossible, he read Wallace Stevens, James Joyce, the Book of Mormon. He writes sonnets. Sometimes about how he is more fight than cry.

He says everything is a story: science is a story, history is a story, the bible is a story and all truths are different stories or the same story.

It has to do with story, and if you tell the story, and this is the way it is, this is not about belief, this is not about possible or impossible. This is about action.

731


"I want"—it pleaded—All its life—

I want—was chief it said

When Skill entreated it—the last—

And when so newly dead—



I could not deem it late—to hear

That single—steadfast sigh—

The lips had placed as with a "Please"

Toward Eternity—

Emily Dickinson
RACHEL ZOLF is a poet.
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In response, I think of Akilah. Akilah Oliver. She is never that far away. I think of her body, transformed, alone, dead. I think of her words, rapture and rupture…a gone time…a calculated blue. Would she have died if one of her adjunct poetry teaching jobs had provided her with healthcare? Would her 21-year-old son Oluchi have died eight years earlier if one of her adjunct poetry teaching jobs had provided her and her dependant with healthcare? Some would call these rhetorical questions.

After Akilah’s death in February 2011, the fight began in earnest to get healthcare for adjuncts at Pratt, spearheaded by some who had known and loved Akilah. At the end of protracted contract negotiations, the adjuncts were given minimal healthcare coverage, but in turn lost the right to employment security, as the number of permanent part-timers was capped. A Pyrrhic victory is the cliché that comes to mind.

As I write this, I am back in Canada, no longer in Brooklyn. In a precarious limited-term teaching job, but there is a living salary – and there is healthcare. This is my first full-time teaching job, at age 43. I’m sure people have already written here about the pros and cons of poets teaching poetry, the stupefying stupidities of the academy, etc., so I won’t go there. Suffice it to say it was easier to adapt once I realized the university’s a corporation like everywhere else. Not much different from my life before as a copywriter or documentary producer or bartender or office cleaner or crisis worker or retail worker or babysitter or newspaper delivery boy. I do wonder whether I have made a mistake, though, enmeshing myself in the academy’s impure suck. I haven’t written any poetry in over two years, since before Emily Beall, Rachel Levitsky, and I paid an Israeli locksmith 200 bucks to break into Akilah’s Brooklyn apartment, so we could find her. Almost exactly a month after Akilah died, my dad died, while I was alone with him holding his hand. We had never been close; he suffered from mental illness, had no idea how to father. But somehow it was right to be there with him, that day. Akilah helped me be there, she was with me, an arriving guard of angels. Akilah embodied presence – one of the reasons her absence – flesh memory – is so keenly felt. Perhaps the task of the poet, her true labo(u)r, is to be, and to fight, ec-statically, beside oneself and others. To the end, dust. Rupture and rapture.
WILLIAM CLOUD was born in 1997 in San Francisco, CA, the son of Quemadura Cloud and the poet Amina Calil.
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My Life in the Tush of Goats

I've been reading and writing poetry more or less since I was an adolescent living a stultifying existence in a small, central California agricultural town. Around the age of seventeen I formulated the ridiculously romantic notion that I would be an "artist" and conduct my outer, material life in a way that would provide me with ample time to devote to following this pursuit. While my peers were attending college, joining the military, or getting married, I decided to take any sort of job offered as long as it would pay for housing, food, and time to devote to writing, reading, and art making. At that time I had very little understanding of how economies work (or, most especially, don’t work), nor did I see that unskilled workers are expendable and most often get stuck with either low-paid employment or no employment at all.

I've worked as a food server in a retirement home, a delivery driver (first flowers, then cookies, and lastly mail), library assistant, used bookseller, temp worker, an EFL teacher overseas (the first time I had health insurance... in a "developing country," no less), researcher/data entry, ghostwriter, and as a clerk for a major grocery chain. While employed for this last company I learned that "the public" often see service employees as dimwitted servants to be mistreated, or worse, heart-and-soul representatives of a company that, among other practices, coerces employees into working harder for less money. I mean, why else would you be bagging groceries and stocking shelves unless you were an idiot? I quickly grew weary of being expected to shake my corporate pasties just because a bag of chips was purchased.

As for poetry and my work-life: calling oneself a "poet” seems somewhat embarrassing in any situation outside a poetry reading, a creative writing program, or in the company of other poets. It isn’t a badge of honor in the “real world.” The only co-worker I ever told I was a poet happened to have been a disciple of a San Francisco poet in the early 1960s. Talk about lucky. I have very successfully compartmentalized my life into "worker" and "artist” and never shall the twain meet. I just couldn't see the point in enthusing about The Countess from Minneapolis to uninterested co-workers while unloading a semi-truck at 4:30 a.m.

At present I've been technically unemployed for over 2 years, but sometimes find work as an "independent contractor." I regularly look for employment and do contract work as it comes available. Recently I've worked as a legal assistant, bookseller, and at an art center for disabled adults. Sometimes I do two jobs a day. I regularly apply for jobs, but I fear my resumés end up in the hands of a shady shopkeeper in Zothique. I hear there is a foot-high pile of them that she sells as recipes for disaster to her fellow Zothiqians.
MARIE BUCK has worked at various movie theaters and coffee shops, at a Michaels Arts and Crafts, as managing editor of an academic journal, and lately teaches courses in African American literature, composition, and gender studies. She is the author of Life & Style (Patrick Lovelace Editions 2009) and the chapbook Amazing Weapons (Scary Topiary 2011). You can find some recent work at Two Serious Ladies: http://www.twoseriousladies.org/author/marie-buck/
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"The only problem, then, about proletarian art... is how to make it possible, how to make life possible for the proletariat."

--Big Bill Haywood (qtd. in Daniel Aaron, Writers on the Left: Episodes in American Literary Communism)



I'm currently writing a dissertation for a PhD in English and teaching as an adjunct.

My dad worked for thirty years at the post office, sorting mail, mostly the night shift. My mom would ask him how work was when he came home every day. He would always reply, "It was work."

My brother is an actor/bartender. We both have student loans and not a lot of money. We both never wanted to spend most of our waking hours doing something mind-numbing.

Before I started the PhD, I got an MFA. The program was fantastic and my peers were brilliant. The university was located in a very wealthy, artsy area of New England. We all made things--poems, chapbooks, music. Our teaching load was only 1/1, and we could live (very frugally) on our stipends, or borrow a minimal amount of money to get by. We had a lot of time to make poems; the program brought in poets from across the country; we spent all our days together, making things.

I moved to Detroit afterwards, and the university that I am getting my PhD from is an unusual mix of research university and commuter campus. Detroit, as a place, is fundamentally working class--the city is built on industry, and even with a fair amount of that industry gone, the city remains, more than other places, built around factories. When people here make things, the things are often about how Detroit is different from other places. Or the things that people make purport to make things better--public murals to clean up neighborhoods, colloquia in abandoned spaces on the aesthetics of ruins. The Detroit poet Ken Mikolowski has a poem called "Homage to Frank O'Hara: Why I am Not a New York Poet" that consists of one word: "Detroit." And then there is Motown. Detroit is not provincial, so much as insistently self-reflective. This reflectiveness is, I think, a sort of distorted or nascent form of class consciousness.

Some students here enter their first year of college with only rudimentary literacy. And most of them work, often full-time. Some show up to morning classes in their work uniforms, having just gotten off of a shift at a big box store. These are shitty conditions for learning and teaching. University resources that might ameliorate some problems--remedial resources for students failed by the corporatized K-12 school system, scholarships, programming, and organizations for students--are poorly funded or sometimes nonexistent, due to state cuts. Because the university serves working class students, and a large number of students of color, it particularly gets the brunt of state cuts.

I went back to the New England town where I got my MFA recently. I gave a reading at an amazing space. Everyone was making chapbooks, starting presses, bringing readers in. The folks who were no longer in school were working, sometimes hard jobs that made it difficult to write and to persist in creating this culture. But also there were street lights, "help wanted" signs, university resources, and public transit.

Big Bill Haywood--who was a leader of the Industrial Workers of the World and also hung out with various modernist writers at Mabel Dodge's salon--said that art was impossible to a Pittsburgh steel worker:
         
he does not live. He just works. He does the work that enables you to live. He does the work that enables you to enjoy art, and to make it, and to have a nice meeting like this and talk it over.

When he said this, people like Mabel Dodge had access to art. And most people did not. But since then Congress passed the GI Bill (in part to avoid another Bonus March), the Civil Rights Movement desegregated southern universities, mass movements won (a small number of) African American Studies programs, women's studies programs, Latin American Studies programs. Most of us who make art are able to do it because of such things, not because we're in the sort of positions that Mabel Dodge (heiress and patron) was in. This isn’t to say that people with all sorts of economic situations don’t make art—they do. But if you do it without access to knowledge, community, and time, you’re doing it in spite of conditions, not because of them.

We have, of course, slid into student loan-based indentured servitude and adjunct jobs that do not pay enough to live. And here in Michigan Right to Work has just passed the legislature as the administration at my university attempts to get rid of tenure. Nonetheless, the majority of us who make art have access to knowledge, community, and time--to whatever extent we do--because mass social movements won those things for us. (The graduate students at the university where I got my MFA had unionized back in 1990, and the union remained relatively active and militant when I was there--which allowed for us to write so many poems and go to so many readings.)

Friedrich Engels said that we must replace our current mode of production with a socialist one in which “productive labour will become a pleasure instead of being a burden.” Most people who would like access to some sort of creative and/or intellectual community do not have it. What would it mean to win more? I love our DIY poetry culture, being around people who are excited about making things, the cheer and thoughtfulness and curiosity that follows from people having access to intellectual community--something that, unfortunately, is very hard to get in our culture and that is currently deeply threatened, since it's (unfortunately) largely tied to universities. What could we win, though? Imagine if everyone had access to intellectual culture, could get engaged in whatever interested them (from astronomy to pedagogical theory to fashion to documentary, or whatever) and pursue it? Or could have a creative, non-alienated relationship to whatever job they do? As our poetry and intellectual communities face more and more attacks in the form of austerity measures (and therefore become ever more exclusive), the question remains how to win the possibility of art for ourselves and everyone who doesn’t have it.

JOSHUA CLOVER is a writer and political antagonist living in the Bay Area. He has monetized his poetry by becoming a teacher, sometimes.
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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.


TIM SHANER works as a full-time part-timer at Lane Community College in Eugene, Oregon and as a full-time part-timer at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon. Picture X, his first full-time part-time book of poetry, will be published by Airlie Press full-time in 2014. With Kristen Gallagher, he edited Wig, a magazine devoted to poetry and art that appropriates the job, partly or fully, for artistic purposes (sans benefits). More from The Institute of Loafing can be read at: http://www.shampoopoetry.com/shampoothirtyeight/shaner.htm

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from The Institute of Loafing

May 2, 2009
From the New York Times

To the Editor:
Re: “Latest G.M. Plan Cuts More Jobs, Halves Dealers” (front page, April 28)

Recent reports of restructuring
describe a company
that hopes to find a new
better life by closing
plants. Investors
may find comfort
in these cutting measures
but families will suffer
and communities
will find sources
suddenly boarded up.
General Motors may do well
but in its wake there are
so many sad stories
that must be told.

Gary Chaison
Worcester, Mass., April 28, 2009

The writer is a professor of industrial relations at Clark University.

The humans need an Institute of Loafing for precisely this reason

We too want a new better life by closing plants, but to the benefit of families and communities and people in general (sad stories and suffering, another matter)

The humans—especially the Americans, North, that is, but just south of Canada, who are addicted to the narcotic of doing and who are thus always and a day just doing it—need others to say it for them, so they can say it for themselves, and save themselves. Not only because many of the Americans, North, just south of Canada (SOCA), who have lost their jobs will have had little experience loafing, but more so because little will have heard the case for loafing and will thus be less inclined to loaf knowingly, that is, to give themselves over to loafing, and not be mired down by the guilt trip of being redundant

Now, naturally, there will be those who criticize the Institute of Loafing for its lack of class-consciousness. It will be argued that it is all very well to tout the virtues of loafing when you have a job, or you have the kind of privileged job, or situation, the would-be blogger has, never mind the ad hominem fallacy, but for those who are out of work and, say, facing foreclosure on their house, or something like that, if, indeed, they were lucky (or unlucky) enough to have been allowed to borrow the money to buy the house—nothing down, your home, a kind of magic—whose marriage is thus strained, due to how gullible you were (admit it) to have been suckered into that transaction, he both of you, and so forth, for those humans, loafing is a luxury they cannot afford, not to mention the developing world, the world in wait of development

To which, we at the Institute of Loafing, will have to develop a response, because, true, that is a good point

We will argue along the lines that the Institute of Loafing envisions a society in which loafing is inclusive, even if you don’t want to loaf, where, as Paul Lafargue put it, the humans have the “right to be lazy,” (not that lazy is loafing), not to mention the right to the means to be lazy, many times over, daily, if there but be the will—just do it (or, rather, the right to loaf)

Which is precisely where the Institute of Loafing steps in, as it will take some time for the doers to exorcise the beast—are we in a hurry?

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The Breitenbush Hot Springs up the McKenzie River an hour or so from Eugene may appear to be a kind of Institute of Loafing, but in my mind, from what I can tell from a brief visit, it is too filled with purpose to qualify as such. I would argue then that Breitenbush is no Institute of Loafing. For one goes up there to cleanse oneself, both in body and soul, or, as they themselves put it, Breitenbush is “a peaceful and safe atmosphere for spiritual growth, physical and emotional healing, and mental relaxation”

So, they have massage rooms, and hot springs where you can get naked, and classes in sexual healing, in yoga and meditation, in poetry and probably knitting with some sort of spiritual bent to it, not to say I’m knocking that, knocking knitting, and so on

I’m not knocking knitting
Some of my best friend’s are knitters
Indeed, my daughter is a knitter

While all of that’s fine, if you’re into that sort of thing—I’d go for the naked soak in the hot springs any day—I probably couldn’t stomach the poetry thing, however, that kind of poetry, that is; the stuff that heals doesn’t heal me—but overall, there’s way too much activity, things to do, to qualify as loafing, though I would gather that they pretty much let you do what you want, including pretty much doing nothing, as if what you want is what you want, so long as you clean up after yourself, so loafing may be possible there

                “as if what you want is what you want”

But Breitenbush is a retreat, and while true, presumably one could, likewise, come to the Institute of Loafing for a “session,” which, really, would consist of nothing, nothing but hanging out and, at best, watching others loaf, maybe talking to them, if you so wish

But the Institute, in fact, is not really a place, but, yes, a state of mind, but even more so a matter of praxis, and so, something one does daily, if possible, wherever one may be

I’ll go over that at another time, having not completed it of course, sketching at it, at best, when the writing called after me just now, and I turned around and said

That, by the way, is in keeping with the poetics of loafing in so much as what loafing teaches us is not to force things, not to get all stressed out over plans, even if at the Institute of Loafing one has a fairly clear idea of what one is doing at any given time, the clear idea coming and going, of course

The poem was once a single paragraph, all the sentences crammed together, one after the other. But reading over it, I was feeling a little cramped and weighed down, so I decided to open the windows

#

Perhaps the institute is a conceptual one, whose walls are made of paper at best, like Laura Moriarty’s paper spaceship, but which really is not confined to the page

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“For Badiou, the time of the fidelity to an event is the future anterieur: overtaking oneself towards the future, one acts now as if the future one wants to bring about is already here” (Zizek, In Defense of Lost Causes 460).

This quote from Badiou explains The Dude’s way of life in The Big Lebowski. If he is indifferent to the ridicule of the police officers when he tells them that he is unemployed, it is because The Dude exists in a post-labor world. In such a world, labor is not considered the be-all, end-all of human being. Rather, it is something one does or not, depending on the situation. (It may be necessary for some not to work, for example, work at a job; or: perhaps people could rotate in and out of work, like in a volley ball game: in for a stretch, then out for a stretch, giving everyone the satisfaction of contributing to the society (getting in the game) and one’s local community while, at the same time, giving everyone significant time away from the task (job) on a regular (planned) basis, so that “retirement” isn’t something that happens at the end of one’s life, but something that is interwoven throughout one’s life.) It’s like asking The Dude whether he’s done the laundry. The plot that The Dude is embroiled in is simply the laboring world intruding in on The Dude’s future anterieur, hence the meaninglessness of it all. It is up to the laboring world to catch up with him, that is to say, to turn their back on labor. Walter’s “blanks,” his heroic attempts to solve the plot, attests to the bankruptcy of the laboring society, as do the blanks of the other characters, from Jesus’s pedophilia, to Mr. Lebowsky’s fraudulent achievements, to Maude’s artistic pretences, to Jackie Treehorn’s pornographic empire, and back again to Walter’s faux Judaism—note that Walter’s more than willing to break with his “day at rest” conviction when The Dude threatens to quit the bowling team—this attests, in turn, to the fact that the Dude himself has been momentarily led astray in his attempt to labor (that is, to solve the plot); the Dude, after all, is unchanged as a character by the end of the movie—the price to be paid for momentarily losing his way: Donny; that’s what the laboring society gets you, in other words—yes, it’s funny, but

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“I want to take issue with the negative way public institutions are perceived by the mode of radical critique fashionable today: Celebrating ‘desertion’ and ‘exodus,’ to use the terminology of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri . . . such critique asserts that political action should withdraw from existing institutions so that we might free ourselves from all forms of belonging. Institutional attachments are presented here as obstacles to the new, nonrepresentative forms of ‘absolute democracy’ suitable for the self-organization of the multitude. Yet such an approach forecloses any immanent critique of institutions—critique with the objective of transforming institutions are perceived as monolithic representatives of forces to be destroyed, every attempt to transform them dismissed as reformist illusion.”
                   —Chantal Mouffe, Artforum (Summer 2010) p. 326

And does this not doom nascent institutions like the Institute of Loafing before they even have had the chance to institutionalize themselves

I imagine, for example, if there were to be such a building, with the offices of those loafing about, if they cared to, that there’d be things like Kafka’s leg dangling through the hole in the ceiling

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In chapter “19. Bulk Rate Permit” of his Memoir and Essay, Michael disses on Charles for not working hard like everyone else—they were working on publishing a book or something, I seem to recall—but acting like he was all involved in the project, hanging out, taking advantage of everyone being there, mingling and joking around, everyone working, but he alone loafing/mingling—messing around. While Michael has a point about this, at least according to his account of events, his criticism comes entirely too much from the position of laboring and not from the position of loafing, where Charles’s action would be seen in a more favorable light. In fact Michael admits as much when he writes:

The thing was, this kind of menial, thoughtless, rote production work was right up my alley. I had always, if not exactly enjoyed it, found it congenial. I suppose I must admit that I do still. It allowed me, I suppose, to believe that I was being productive while at the same time taking up so little of my attention, such as it is, thus allowing it to freely range over whatever topic, fantasy, possibility for a decent line or phrase, or compulsive anxiety that struck my fancy. I was also sporting the bureaucrat’s eyeshade. That mid-level manager’s officiousness was a pose I fell prey to often in those days. (74)

So, here they all are, gathered together to work on whatever, and Charles shows up, a bit late (as usual; I’m embellishing, here), and instead of helping out on the actual work, he bounces around chatting and making jokes, basically doing nothing. Yet, later, he acts like he was in on it, taking credit for being involved, etc.—that’s the implication, right? Naturally, Michael gets miffed by that, as the task at hand is to work on publishing that damn book, sewing it together or whatever they were doing. Folding and stuffing. Actually. I went and looked it up. Now, from a laboring point of view, Michael’s right: that’s messed up that Charles is just cashing in on the thing, as if it was a social event. But, from a loafing point of view, Charles is entirely justified in his loafing. First, who knows, maybe Charles had just come from his job, where, true, maybe he was loafing too, but then he’s still on the job and hence laboring. Actually, the event was on the weekend, so forget about what I just said. And perhaps Gottlieb had been loafing around all day and only now was arriving at work, even though it’s not, strictly speaking, laboring, laboring has to do with making a living. Even if it wasn’t this way, even if I’m just making shit up here, hypothesizing, where, with a little digging, I could arrive at the truth, so easily, having the book in my library, somewhere, even so, Charles’s loafing would be entirely justified in that loafing often requires a bit of shamelessness, wherein one loafs while others labor away, loafing in the face of the laboring. That is to say, loafing means loafing in the face of the laborers. I mean, you’re into laboring anyway, right? I mean, you get off on all that, right? Did the work get done? Yes, thanks to those of you who were laboring, like you. Yes, but the work actually has to get done and if everybody did what Charles (me) did, the task would never get completed. True, but I want to loaf and even when I loaf and you labor, the work gets done somehow. I mean the task got done, right

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from Card Chronicle:
“I liked my job once. Then I found out I had to show up EVERY day.” – Cards78

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Twenty-First Material Confession (after Apollinaire)


We who want to work less
Say to you who want to work more:

Go ahead, make my day