Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Dreaming in public, as Jon Frankel says in the comments box below. But as Arlo Guthrie once said: I'm not proud... or tired.

People are understandably skeptical of groupthink. Anyone who's ever taken a creative writing workshop has likely felt its effects. Consensus and inspiration don't usually share a bed, unless they literally do. Yet people do associate to mutual creative benefit. Someone offers an honest opinion when it's needed. Another someone provides encouragement. Another someone says, You ought to read Rebecca West or Barbara Guest or Lydia Davis. You'd like her, I can just tell. Another someone offers their couch for the night. Another someone takes your ideas seriously enough to argue with you about them.

The poets' union is already here, it's all around us. But I want something more. What is more? An invitation to want. Not settling.

Some people also object strenuously to the professionalization of poetry, which I can understand if by professionalization you mean the bourgeois assimilation of poetry, which brings with it a particularly pernicious and deadening brand of groupthink, the endpoint of which is the hegemony of genteel poetry. But what about poet as culture worker? Isn't "professional" in itself a middle-class marker meant to conceal the uncomfortable fact that doctors and lawyers don't actually own their means of production? Are still just highly skilled, more-or-less highly compensated workers? The objection to poet as worker is more logically a question of kind: if your work produces nothing that someone will buy, you are playing and not working. But if we believe in the dignity of labor then why not the dignity of poetry?

You make the real poem for yourself, with and for your ownmost body. But the finished poem is a gift. The capacity for giving, that's what I'd like to see enlarged. To others and oneself: negative capability. Men die miserably every day...

Yes, unions and co-ops squabble and bicker. That's what life sounds like. Life not organized for profit, but for life. The opposite of bad or malign organization is not no organization.

I'm not calling for some centralized Poet Authority. But when poets do gather, why not think in terms of mutual aid? What have you done for poetry—the poetry you care most about, the poetry that stirs you, the poetry that gets less attention than it deserves—lately? At the end of the day, with all his faults fully on view, I'd rather be Kennedy than Kruschev.

So look for the union label, every time.


Henry Gould said...

I believe in the dignity of play.

Henry Gould said...

& I think your version, Josh, of the literary economy - ie. a collective self-help & good-deeds society, which elides any questions about critical-aesthetic evaluation - tames & domesticates poetry just as surely as the other forms of "socialization" you describe.

Poetry, in my view, is the goal of a subjective, personal - & sometimes very elusive - artistic discipline & process. What happens to it afterwards is something else entirely. Those who try to promote the former, by structuring or manipulating the latter, often encounter the ironies involved with most best-laid plans & well-intentioned paths.

shanna said...

nobody but the truly self-righteous would vote to allow/accept just one kind of poetry (just like nobody would want to have only one kind of fiction or visual art or movie or a one-party political system or). i'm with josh in that working for poetry of any kind (the kind you like, we *can and are* still making those distinctions, so we're not skipping the critical-aesthetic evaluation) can be thought of as working for Poetry (all kinds, in a way in which the distinctions between types are not so important). work as gift, yes, given to specific recipients, but in a spirit that is wider, larger.

but, i've got a mental illness called optimism.

E. M. Selinger said...


Your earlier posts promted a snarky reply from me over at Say Something Wonderful--this one, though, spurs me to respond here, if only to say that I don't think you've entirely clarified (to yourself or to me) the range of desires you're trying to articulate.

Some are practical: health insurance, more opportunities to publish, more attention from potential readers.

Some are social: the "association to mutual creative benefit" you speak of here; the encouragement; the honest opinions, etc.

Others here I find harder to name, maybe because they're incohate or maybe just because I'm not a poet, and so don't know what you're up against or going through. This desire for "dignity" for example...or for the "capacity for giving" to be enlarged. Or for "life." What are the losses, the frustrations, the lacks that these are meant to assuage? To what extent are they shared, unnecessary, and political, and how much are they really much more local, more idiosyncratic, more about you, age X in situation Y?

(A loss of something ever felt I...)

--Eric (who'd rather not be either Kennedy or Kruschev, but if you offer Kenneth Koch, we'll talk)

Unknown said...

I think Shanna picks up on the implied role of aesthetic evaluation in my fantasy very nicely.

Eric, both you in your snarky post (is "snarky" a more fun way of saying "cynical"?) and Aaron Tieger in his post worry that I've forgotten about readers. But if you wanted to quote Thoreau the way Mark did, surely you don't mean to suggest that we all should start writing poems that folks wanna read? You know, poems that rhyme and stuff? I rather take that quote as meant to nudge its reader out of the selfish circle of his concerns: it's akin to what some people have said about how we should worry about health care for everyone and not just poets. But that attitude strikes me as quietistic. As if you'll be able to have any impact on global warming if you don't start taking better care of your own neighborhood first.

Yeah, my desires are inchoate. It's a POETS' union, damnit. Its primary function might very well be the fuller articulation of its members' desires, which is the first step toward pursuing them.

Surely, Eric, you don't blame poets and poets alone for the dearth of readers out there? You're a Ronald Johnson fan, aren't you? You think his work is beautiful, offering many pleasures? Why then is he so obscure? Would writing diffferent kinds of poems have solved that problem? Easier poems? Do they get any easier than his concrete work?

My only problem with National Poetry Month is that there are eleven more months in the year.

Radish King said...

Hi. Have you ever worked in a union shop? I'm really curious.

A. J. Patrick Liszkiewicz said...

"All the poems of the first three volumes I sent to Jenny are marked by attacks on our times, diffuse and inchoate expressions of feeling, nothing natural, everything built out of moonshine, complete opposition between what is and what ought to be, rhetorical reflections instead of poetic thoughts [emp. added], but perhaps also a certain warmth of feeling and striving for poetic fire...." -- Karl Marx, in a letter to his father, dated Nov. 10, 1837

To combine poetry with politics is to risk cheapening both. Plato banned poets from his Republic for a reason: poetry is the language of lies, a la Walcott, and poets make the best liars. This is not to say that poets shouldn't unionize. Rather, it is to assert that perhaps we ought speak of the producer and the product seperately.

If the project of critical theory is to help people become ends, rather than means, then perhaps we ought ignore the poems and focus on the paycheck. Forget iambs; give people insurance. I care not for the dearth of Ronald Johnson readers. I care that so many people are watching Fox news.

If Habermas was talking about anything in Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, it was how dangerous it is to allow opinions to be formed for you. Yes, we need groupthink, but we need much more; our citizenry continues to legitimate our government each day via illegitimate means, in that they vote for others' opinions rather than forming them on their own. Such is our mojocracy. Our consent, our couch-cover consent, our purchase-a-candidate consent, serves the same function as robust opinion, says Habermas: non-public opinion wears the mask of public opinion, because it travels through the same channels and thus serves to bestow authority upon our representatives.

So, yes, unionize! Yes, adjunct professorships are the products of bourgeois, capitalist, irresponsible people! Yes, poets are being taken advantage of! Poets of the world, unite!

Just leave poetry out of it.

Unknown said...

Rebecca, when I was sixteen I worked as a bagger and cashier at the Acme Supermarket in Morris Plains for a year. That was a closed shop so I was a member of the union. But I'm not sure that really counts. I did vote for the graduate student union when it was proposed here at Cornell a few years back, but it was defeated.

AJ, if you read what I've said carefully you'll find little to disagree with. I said that how poets conduct themselves as people and as poets is more important than political stances within poems.

I do care about finding more readers for Ronald Johnson, though.

Anonymous said...

Josh, I agree with most of what you've said. This, for example, is very fine: the university is a primary instigator of the desire to turn one's poems into commodities, which in sufficient number can be exchanged for the goods of prestige and jobs.... Absolutely true, and an important point. My problem relates to the specific point you just made-- how poets conduct themselves as people and as poets is more important than political stances within poems--and how that point relates to the other I mentioned.

If you read what I've said carefully [wink], you'll find that my concern is that unionization and collective action among artists can encourage a degredation of art into mere rhetoric and, thus, to poems again becoming commodities. "Write a SoQ poem, or you won't get a job," becomes, "Write a 'political' poem, or you won't get a job" (or worse). It's more than the way we conduct ourselves; it's that we disallow poems from becoming or remaining autonomous, as much as they can and need to be.

Art is not product. Art is capital. Or, rather, art is the beginning of process(es), not the end. And it seems that you might agree with that revision of your position, no?

Well, anyway. Feel free to backchannel me some Johnson; perhaps you'll find yourself a reader.

Anonymous said...

What if Billy Collins wanted my couch! Would I have to let him stay? Actually, BC would probably be a pretty cool guy to have crash. But OK, like what if like some horrible poet (I won't pick a name, pick your own) was like, dude, union, you got to let me in.

And what if you have a really cute someone over?

Lyle Daggett said...

I've worked at jobs in union shops for a total of around 20 years, at various jobs in offices talking on the phone and typing on computers. At two places I've worked, I've been a member of the Communications Workers (and am a member at present), at another place I was a member of AFSCME (the public employees union).

I would always choose a union job over a non-union job, given a choice. (Obviously the economy we live in doesn't always provide a choice, but given a choice I would always want a union job.)

One of the places I worked was non-union when I started there, and during the time I was there we organized a union. (We approached a couple of the existing labor unions, eventually picked one to work with and they helped us organize.) We were on strike briefly and were successful in getting a union contract with our employer. It was one of the most deeply meaningful experiences of my life, a very real struggle for survival together with people I worked with every day.

I was also, for a time (during the late 1980's and early 1990's) a member of the local chapter of the National Writers Union, which is basically a union for freelance writers though maybe not exclusively freelancers.

I eventually let my membership in the NWU lapse; I enjoyed the solidarity and general connection with other writers that it afforded, however the NWU is mainly focused on organizing and helping writers who make appreciable income (at least a little income) from writing as such -- freelance journalists, technical writers, textbook writers, fiction writers to some extent, various types of non-fiction writers, "genre" writers (mysteries, science fiction, etc.). Pretty much anybody but poets. Poets are always welcome, but there's little in a pracitical sense that the Writers Union is able to do for poets except for providing moral support and a pat on the back once in a while. (The NWU does offer health insurance for members, but the premiums were hopelessly out of reach for me during the time I was a member, when I really could have used the health insurance.)

Josh, in your posts about a potential poets' union --and in the various comments people have made -- I'm finding two somewhat parallel ideas. One is the notion of general mutual aid and the potential for organizing for collective action, which I think is eminently possible and has great potential.

The other thread has to do with the economic relation of poets to the capitalist system we live in. In order for a labor union to be effective in the traditional manner, the union members have to be able to withhold some type of skill or service or product of work, the withholding of which will put economic pressure on the employer, that will press the employer to negotiate and make concessions. This could be problematic in the case of poets, since currently (especially in the United States) poetry doesn't occupy a critical position in the capitalist economy. If auto workers or dock workers withhold labor (i.e. go on strike), that hurts the profit margin of the employers (i.e. capitalists). If poets stopped writing -- or publishing -- poetry, which capitalists would care? Whose profit margin would that hurt?

In this respect, in a capitalist system, labor unions (mostly) are essentially a defensive measure on the part of workers, existing within the capitalist system and to some extent dependent on it. (Potential exists even among very traditional mainstream labor unions to push the boundaries and become politically effective agents for change, though that may or may not happen under existing conditions.)

This ambivalent relationship between labor unions (as they tend to be constituted in the existing economy) and the commodity system of capitalism is -- I'm guessing -- at the root of the hesitation expressed by some of the commenters. I myself would not be very interested in a labor union the existence of which just had the effect of making poetry more of a profitable commodity than it currently is. (Think of the relationship to the economy of the various unions in the movie, T.
V., radio and music industries, for example.)

A basic question to address would be whether a union of poets would be a traditional union of the type described above, dealing mainly with economic issues; or whether it would be more like a political action organization, working (in addition ro basic economic concerns) toward fundamental transformation of the economy and society we live in -- working (as Marx and Engels once put it) for "the complete overthrow of all existing social conditions."

Sorry about the long comment. This really got me going. Thanks for the space.

Henry Gould said...

Shanna, I'm not pessimistic, & I'm sorry if my comments came across that way. Probably part of the problem for me is generational : when you get older, there seems less time for peripheral games - I mean anything besides actually working on your writing.

In my view these are very good times for poets. I go back to one of my earlier comment-box remarks : one can GIVE solidarity & support every day. One of the main arenas I see this happening is in the small press editor-publisher role. Look at what subpress, Faux Press & others have done for people. & they didn't need a union card to do this. They just did it.

The idea of organizing poets as economic-political actors seems an invitation for more hot air & phony baloney. What's missing in the current atmosphere is independent, informed, creative criticism, and an official union buddy-system will only work to extend that void & fill it with more hypocrisy.

Frente said...

What I find really surprising and actually a little disturbing is the fact taht so many poet-bloggers are graduate students and university teachers.

It'd be an intersting experiment to force them all to work in a REAL JOB for two or three years (where you work 46 or 48 weeks a year for 10 hours a day, no spring break etc.) and see how it effeccted their poetic output (and indeed outlook) over that period.

For many years some poets taught in coleges as a 'day job' while getting on with their poetry in the evenings, not too differnet from their many coolleagues who a worked in a bank or library or whatever.

But now it seems that in America the divorce between academic work and poetry writing has been elided in ways that are really surprising and weird from a European point of view.

Poets who work in collges see their poetry writing and academic activities as part of one continuum, is that right Josh?
Do you think that this is a bad thing?

Also the structures and strategies of the academy are seem to be being replicated by or colonised by poets (AWP? and so forth). This is nothing like what I know in Europe where us poets still get together very informally in bars or at readings while the academics go to conferences and panels etc.

Surely this development in America is a bad business.

Forgive my bad English...

shanna said...

Hi Henry, I too am encouraged by the small and micropresses and magazines, and also by nonprofits like SPD. (They accept donations!) The generosity of the people who do this work (which is cultural work, as Josh points out and I have said elsewhere) is essential and very much appreciated! I think is EXACTLY the kind of "organizing" that poetry can really use, and hope to see these operations continue to thrive.

This work is the kind of mutual-aid I mean, first and foremost, and a grander idea of all poets working on some level for poetry, not just their own. It's important for poets (if they really care about poetry) to contribute something beyond their own work, if they are in the lucky position to do so. It makes me really sad to see so many very young poets already so bitter, simply complaining rather than addressing the causes of their complaints by "getting building" (as J. Davis would put it).

My mother is a former union president, and like Anne, I am looking at the union model as a model, or maybe really more of a metaphor here. I'm skeptical of an actual union like many people in these comment boxes, for the reason many have already stated--we're not really laborers in the economic sense, at least not as poets, and labor unions require economic engagement with the market, etc. (I make my living another way, doing commercial-sector writing and editing, and when I teach--so far always in open-enrollment programs--or do poetry publishing work, I still have to freelance/count on my husband to pay the rent and have not been blessed with benefit coverage. I have chosen and accepted this employment as the best compromise for me. I happen not to be interested in tenure-track professorships--it's just not something I want to pursue, though I do like to teach.)

Hope I'm being more clear. I've been writing these posts on the fly and from the freelance desk. Thanks to Josh for hosting the party, and spending his spring break with us.

E. M. Selinger said...

In addition to the mutual support networks you've described here--mostly focused on publishing and distribution--I'd love to see some brainstorming here (or elsewhere) about what can be done to spread the word about contemporary poetry to potential readers and teachers of it. Josh embarassed me into some actual suggestions over at Say Something Wonderful, mostly concerning the worlds I know a little about (high school teaching and teacher training). I wonder what other ideas any of you have over here?

shanna said...

yeah, education is the another front, for sure. poets teaching (at high school level or any level) is important. i like open-enrollment and nonprofit org teaching for this reason too, it reaches folks outside of the university system. library and in-the-school programs are out there, doing great things. poet robin reagler runs this one in houston, tx, for instance: link

Curt Stump said...

Ok, I'll bite on this idea of suggestions. I manage a volunteer poetry venue and am not affiliated with a university. For anyone interested, you can read 10 suggestions here. The suggestions go beyond the idea of increasing readership and focus on how poets can improve the state of poetry that is in public view.

upyernoz said...

hey josh,

i couldn't help but notice that in your response to rebecca you edited out your work for that union-busting law firm in new orleans

i wouldn't be much of a union lawyer if i didn't remind you of that now and then

Unknown said...

It's too true--for a year and a half while living in New Orleans in my early twenties I was a messenger for a law firm whose primary client was a shipyard that was constantly trying to repress the formation of a union. I'm not proud of it, or of my feckless and mostly unconscious politics in those days. The weird thing is, I went to that job from another law firm job that specialized in environmental law and busting oil companies for polluting the hell of the wetlands. Back then I guess I just thought a lawyer was a laywer.

& said...

Well, this year at Owl Oak Press we have published volumes by seven poets. Damn fine stuff and published whithout the usual folderol -- no contests, no submissions, no entrance fees and so on and then there are these podcasts at

done in a similar fashion and more to come.

dbuuck said...

all interested should read Mark Nowak's "Workers of the Word Unite." Absolutely essential to this debate.

see also
the Union of Radical Workers & Writers

there are several writers unions already at work in the US & elsewhere. perhaps the lines of affinity should be along "intellectual labor" (cf Hardt for ex) esp given the increasing commodification of "non-material" forms of production worldwide, & get out of the "poetry" margins...

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