Since the Epic of Gilgamesh (the oldest surviving work of literature from 3rd millennium B.C.) writ on clay tablets and papyrus, and onward to the Book Of Sibyls (the eldest surviving remnant of a medieval poem printed before the Gutenberg Bible), it goes without saying that poets have never made a sustained living based on the sales record of their books alone.
Fast-forward several hundred years to the present. What do poets do to earn a living and how might this influence the poetry they bring into the world on the daily? For some reason, every devout reader of 20th century poetry knows that the poet William Carlos Williams was a doctor, that the poet Wallace Stevens was a lawyer, or that Frank O-Hara worked at the front desk at the MOMA where he composed (during lunch breaks) what culminated into his epic Lunch Poems.
In 2010 a group of Bay Area poets convened at bars and living rooms to talk about what it means to write and work. These casual talks evolved into a two-day gathering then known as the Labor Day Event where poets informally discussed and shared experiences about writing and working. The gathering attracted more poets outside the Bay Area and grew into what is now known as the Poetry Labor Project (labday2010.blogspot.com) that hosts a series of talks and presentations on the subject free and open to the public curated by poets Alli Warren, Brandon Brown, Steve Farmer, and Lauren Levin. This Labor Day weekend, David Brazil is hosting "A Gathering on Labor, Art, & Politics" in Oakland, CA.
The Poetry Labor Project is unlike any other event and blog on writing and working. It's a democratic space that invites critical dialogue concerning what it means to be a poet and laborer. With rampant joblessness, this event comes at the most appropriate time. Such questions and statements posed to poets are How do you navigate your employment life and your poetic life energetically? How does your employment life relate to poetic form in your own work, or in poetic work generally? How do class relations play out in the poetic sphere or how do they appear in or affect your poetic work? Contemporary working and living conditions and their effect on writers versus other times and other locations. The stance of the institutionally unaffiliated artist or intellectual in relation to the academy. Additionally, we are interested in specifics of everyone's job or trade that might be invisible to many.
The personal testimonies in the Poetry Labor Project are super inspiring to read. It got me thinking about my own poetic means of survival while trying to keep up with whatever hyper shifting definition of what it means to be poet. Poets who've contributed to the dialogue are minimum wage workers, some in the corporate world, others are professors, and the list goes on. One poet even had to wear a "kidney belt" to keep his organs in place while operating a bulldozer.
One of the many contributors, poet Cedar Sigo, works in the cosmetics department of Rainbow Grocery Cooperative. "There is a poem by Ted Berrigan & Alice Notley that I had so much fun searching for the other night. I found it in A Certain Slant Of Sunlight, the poem is dated Feb. 20th 1982, 'You'll do good if you play it like your not getting paid, but you'll do it better if the motherfuckers pay you'." Another contributor, writer Bhanu Kapil is a part-time masseuse and teaches at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. She explores the relationship between writing and working as an embodied process. "From bodywork, I derive a language of the nervous system -- of the carapace of fat, light and electricity that surrounds or packs a nerve -- and I apply this to the sentence. The sentence, in this formulation, becomes a site for memory processes and pathologies, but also speed. The speed at which something might pass from one site to another, below the level of conscious reflection. From the work with the fascia, I derive the "diagonal line" as the axis of release, a phrase I also encounter in the post-colonial essays of Gayatri Spivak. In classrooms, I encourage my students to work upon this diagonal, and to translate between the flows of a body, and a text."
While this might be referred to as a poetics of labor it challenges the notion of what it means to be a poet if we consider poetry as also way of surviving and living in the world. So yeah, poets have interesting jobs and make money too.
Correction: Lauren Levin's name in this piece was originally misspelled. It has since been corrected.