Monday, September 27, 2010

Labor Day 2010 Report

(Check out Suzanne's Stein's comments also)

Before the Labor Day event I couldn’t quite make out why it was so interesting and even mysterious to me what would happen there. And now that it has occurred I find I am still not sure why it was that way or what I think occurred, except that a lot did happen and it was more successful and more hopeful than I might have imagined it would be. People took it very much to heart, writing thoughtful talks and presenting them with zeal or attending much or all of the day and the next day. There was a consciously inclusive feeling and, as it happens, there were no major conflicts that I saw (though I didn’t go to the bar afterwards on either of the days). This in spite of what might have seemed the disclusive theme of writers who have jobs outside of the academy. This theme didn’t actually disclude anyone but simply placed the emphasis among the speakers chosen on those of us who in fact work elsewhere-- most of whom, I think, enjoyed being the center of attention for once, as who wouldn’t?

When I first walked up to the lovely Studio One Community Center where the convocation occurred (thanks Oakland and Sara Mumolo!) David Brazil said “wilkommen,” which amused me as I had just that morning watched the eponymous number from the movie Cabaret on YouTube. “Life is a convocation?” I could have thought, but is it? At another point, also right at the beginning, I said to Suzanne and David that I would rather be there at that moment than any other place. Of course that was not absolutely true and yet I was really was very glad to be there. Here was a gathering of people with whom I share the Bay Area as a place and tradition, all of us talking about subjects we regard as important-- labor and poetics -- in a series of events that I had not planned and was not in charge of, nor did I have to fly in a plane to get there. In some ways it was paradise, albeit a literary one.

This Labor Day event was another of many recent cases of series and other events (poet’s theaters, cabarets, fundraisers) that are planned, attended and given by writers who are a generation or two younger than me. This is entirely good and much to be desired. They are stepping up. It is nice to still be included in the action and I very much appreciated being in a conversation with younger writers as well as with my fellow old ones. It is not the only conversation for any of us but it is an important one. Though the Bay Area is one of the places where talking among the generations does occur relatively easily and often, it isn’t always so easy for that exchange to occur seriously and at length if you don’t teach. The extent of the available contact on Labor Day was great and didn’t require after hours fraternizing or other social gestures that aren’t always what one wants or is able to do.

I should admit that it’s not quite true that I was uninvolved with the organizing as I knew a little about the planning when Suzanne Stein, Alli Warren, Brandon Brown, Sara Larsen and David Brazil were putting it together. I gave the odd bit of advice and, ultimately, agreed to be in charge of the tea. A lot of other people also helped including Andrew Kenower on tech and photography and Catherine Meng on live podcasting and recording, blessings on all of them.

What follows here is mostly from the few notes I took, from memory, and I have listened again to some of the talks. I heartily recommend listening to these talks because they are truly fascinating and are short and to the point, dealing imaginatively with how each person either negotiates the life/work problem or how they see it. Seriously—it is worth it to listen to them “in person.”

Alli and Suzanne opened the event by reading from a prepared text which I hope they include among those they plan to publish on the blog. They gave their initial ideas about the convocation and said that by putting on this event they were proposing “a new way a collective conversation could take place in the community.” They said --it was Suzanne who read this --that they didn’t know what they would learn. Suzanne pointed out that organizing people into various kinds of presentations is part of her day job at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art where she is community producer (the phrase is actually in her job title) and that she also sees this organizing of people as part of her writing practice.

Suzanne and Alli said also that who they were speaking for or who the event was speaking for were questions for them. They indicated that each of the organizers was participating in a different way. I liked their intro because it was a bit different from the introductions I am used to hearing. It was a bit more sincere and more willing to express doubt and to contextualize the fact of what we were all doing there. They read the questions they had posed and the prospectus that can be found on the blog. They made little eye contact and yet drew us irrevocably in with a certain sultry familiarity and earnest welcoming. It was sincere as I have mentioned and, yes, the event was just that welcoming.

The organizers didn’t want there to be several presenters sitting at a table while one presented, as in a “conference,” so there was a podium with a mic but no tables. There were semi-reserved sections for the speakers to sit in on either side of the podium, but many of us didn’t sit there. I would guess there were somewhere between sixty and a hundred audience members at each of the talks, give or take. The room was comfortable and airy and there was coffee, tea, water and snacks, some left over from the night before when there was a party for organizers and participants at Suzanne’s house. Often I looked across the room and found I knew almost everyone in it.

Erika Staiti began the presentations by reading a text by Pamela Lu. I first met Erika a few years ago when she was fresh off the farm attending the meet and greet night at the opening of the Mills College fall semester. She was one of the members of the first workshop I taught at Mills, along with a number of other people who were in the audience -- quite a few actually – maybe half a dozen who were either in that class or ones that Brent Cunningham and I gave at SPD. I rarely teach but, with teachers, I know the pleasure of seeing fresh young students blossom into angry dissidents who write despite a lack of faith in all systems. It really is touching.

Pam Lu is a legendary but rarely present Bay Area writer. (She lives in the South Bay.) Her Pamela has been a perennial SPD bestseller. My notes from Pam’s piece contain the phrases “one hour per day,” “time is money but art is free,” “I want my writing to remain worthless,” “I steal time” and “I am a spy, I work for both sides.” The piece was terse and inspirational and brought up aspects of working and being a writer, the time it takes to make a living, stealing back a bit of work time for writing, the value of the kind of writing we all mostly do – which is great among us but small in the market place – that others, including me, were to reiterate many times in many different ways.

Steve Farmer followed. I have known Steve since the early eighties and I know he has gone through the usual or even more than the usual vicissitudes of life and that he used to work really hard as a professional cook and now works even harder in the high tech industry, as does Pam Lu. Steve chose to respond to the questions posed by the fab five, as he called the organizers. Steve pointed out that there are really three jobs – making a living, family life and writing. All of us with kids or other care-giving commitments appreciated this observation.

Steve asked the question of why author’s bios should read like resumes and I was put in mind of publishing something in Chain years ago and being asked by Juliana and Jena to rewrite my very ordinary born-there-and-published-this-and-that resume. They were sick of bios always sounding the same. (Though I will say that it can be a mistake to be too cute on a bio that will haunt you through time.) I find in my notebook another phrase in relation to Steve’s excellent talk that, “as Louie Cabri might have said, ‘You are writing to save your life.’”

I hadn’t known Jason Morris before the event so was pleased to hear his talk. He works as a bartender and, having worked behind a counter or two in my time, I appreciated his mentioning that “Priests also work for tips.” He spoke about the monoculture of the bar, reminding me how strong the culture of the work place is how difficult it can be to negotiate for a writer. He also uttered the phrase “I feel like a zombie and want to run to my creative life.” Been there. Jason asked whether a day job is a skin you shed. Wallace Stevens came up for the first but not the last time. I believe Jason asked something like “Is it like Wallace Stevens? Can we bring him up again?” Intriguingly, he left us with the observation the in writing “each day it’s the first time on the job.”

Lauren Levin began by speaking about The Headless Woman, a film currently of particular interest to various community members, notably Cynthia Sailors who showed it recently along with a discussion of the film in relation to Lacan. Lauren invoked the main character in the film perhaps as an icon of being in the midst of many related events, responsibilities and roles but not knowing exactly how to negotiate them or what to say about that. She spoke of “meaning” in work and jobs, working part time and temp jobs and a love of being fired.

She mentioned the fantasy of autonomy in which one can indulge in a particularly meaningless job but have maximum meaning in one’s writing. “But should a job have meaning?” she asked, adding later, “I don’t work by myself and I don’t write my poetry alone either.” Lauren speculated about how small groups affect larger structure. Can groups interpenetrate? Can the poetry community be more permeable?

My notes tell me that Brandon Brown addressed crime, theft and having two bodies through the lens of his current vampire obsession. He talked about wearing “the wig” meaning to do one’s own work at work. There was a fair amount of discussion about this phenomenon which was regarded as nice work if you can get it but not reliable. Taylor Brady pointed out – but this was later – that capitalism assumes you will wear the wig, thereby making yourself smarter and even more useful to capitalism. Brandon went on to quote CA Conrad saying we are writing to make songs. He developed the vampire thing a bit more delving into time as the object of theft, maybe time as blood? In any case he indicated that the vampire must keep the blood flowing and that blood is life as Marx and vampires remind us. It was one of my favorite talks of the day.

Rodrigo Toscano’s piece, read by Suzanne Stein, was titled “Doings and Sayings of the Ancient Future Poets.” Rodrigo begins, “The problem with academy-based poetry conferences and the valuation structures they contribute in creating is that they aid in further tightening already existing interlocking national poetry bureaucracies.” Rodrigo provided the critique of labor I hoped someone might do. I had thought him the best candidate as he works at the Labor Institute and he did not disappoint. Early on in the piece he was careful to note that everything can’t be reduced to nomenclature and I appreciated that. He compared the aesthetic volunteerism of the world of small poetry orgs to the academic poetry circuit with its real job-related power potential. He went on to identify the bar/café and house reading structure as having even less power potential than the aesthetic volunteerists.

I appreciated this critique, though there is a poetry org structure hierarchy and commercial writing structure I felt he was not including. In my own presentation I made the point that the value or not of these volunteer structures are up to us to create and support and though I see how I could be proved wrong here, I do maintain it. In a later discussion that referred to Rodrigo’s talk, I noted that folks associated with academia who were present appeared to have other questions about his sense of the structure. The argument was definitely debatable and that in itself made it different from most of the other talks which were more personal, though all of us attempted to pull back for a wider view and a few general points.

Brian Stefans, up from LA to attend the convocation and hang out, said that he admired the categories but didn’t feel he fit into them which is close to how I felt, except that I was not annoyed by this as I think Brian may have been. I was actually delighted with the categories as it reminded me of the days when Jerry Estrin and I would remind each other of the possible Marxist critiques of our experiences especially if we were liking them. What kind of capitalist trick were we falling for this time? I thought it good that such a critique be added to the thinking and Rodrigo’s was quite clear. I also liked that the ramp to the pyramids was bigger than the pyramids. I am only too aware that the critique is a serious thing and also that that it privileges critique and a certain critical tradition in a way I have long since learned not to find maddening. There is definitely a place for it and I thought this version very nicely done.

Cedar Sigo is part of the Rainbow Grocery collective and he talked about that and working twenty five hours a week in the beauty products section. He spoke lovingly about enjoying that work and having access to excellent natural beauty products, mentioning his own beauty routine. Cedar carried the whole thing off with charisma and with being, in his writing and person, a good example of his craft. He said he thought that money was inspiring and that, if the money were right, he might be able to write a novel. I can actually see a money –inspired novel of Cedar’s doing well in the market place. You never know how things will turn out. Cedar quoted Bob Creeley, “Our words are our world.”

Chris Daniels, who was deputized by Pamela Lu (Writers who could not be present could “deputize” or choose other writers to speak) began with his earliest poetic memory which is of his father declaiming poetry in the bathtub. He stressed the ordinariness of poetry in his life then and now. Somehow I knew without exactly knowing that Chris has long been a Marxist. He reminded us that the working class creates value for the owning class. He said that he sees labor as human behavior that transforms reality and that we as writers transform reality by transforming words. Like Brandon and Cedar he seemed more to speak his piece than to read it. He said that it was always difficult to talk about class, reminding us that capitalists own while the professional class manages.

Chris followed this observation a little ways later by saying “We are all basically fucked ….” He has a critique but was offering no particular hopefulness as a result of it and yet offering it with a hopeful charm. He spoke of the value put on solidarity by “us commies” and said that most of us have reason to have solidarity with each other – meaning by “us” most people on the planet as well as those in the room. He reiterated that class is a complicated and difficult question. He spoke of his work translating poetry from Brazil, including (I think) Vinicius de Moraes (famous for writing ”The Girl from Ipanema”) ending with a poem by him called “Poetics” whose last line is “Sisters, brothers, come in!”

Dana Teen Lomax then presented a film that highlighted the idea of parenthood with much footage of her daughter as a toddler. Dana admitted later to being a bit of “a spy in the house of love” (my phrase) as she makes her living teaching various adjunct classes. The music was “I’m Too Sexy.” The film was good and a nice change from the talks. It was useful, again, to be reminded of family life as another of the part of life that must be balanced with writing. It was also nice to see that part successfully used to make work.

There was a question period at this point, covering the first talks, run by Sara Larsen. I didn’t note the questions but I think we were all a bit too stunned to pose very many of them. Maybe this was the point at which Brian and a few of the rest of us said a few things about Rodrigo’s talk and Juliana Spahr regretted that Rodrigo wasn’t present or available (perhaps in some electronic way?) to discuss his talk. There was a short break and we streamed briefly out into the glorious day.

David Brazil gave a talk which I enjoyed very much but it was quite dense and a bit Latinate in its approach making me want to read as well as hear it. “Some Reflections On The Question of Vocation” began with a passage from Paul’s first letter to the church of Corinth. David pointed out that his calling, ours, has no ontological standing in our episteme and then he began to elaborate from there. My notes become vague here but I look very forward to reading the piece. Various people who I have read write about Paul (Agamben, Badiou) though I would be hard put to sum it all up. I have read it more than once and may have to read it all again in relation to what David said.

I wrote “In the calling in which he was called let him remain” and presume this is also part of Paul’s letter. David said “If there is a gift who gave it? or as Heidegger might say ‘What gives?’” He went on to to mention singularity of vocation as subset of antinomianism, which interested me having been there and back with Susan Howe’s thinking on this subject. My other notes from David’s talk are “We are not ourselves.” I am not sure what he was referring to there but it struck a welcoming note in my A Tonalist heart. And “Capitalism is happy when we are lonely.” That I knew.

My talk was called “Logogistics” and it was more or less a memoir with commentary. I described my adventures making a living over three decades. At the end of the talk, I made the point that the volunteer activities that we do can be taken quite seriously by us as real structures and that poets working outside of the academy don’t have access to the structures within the academy -- as for example a place and some money to put on conferences and many other things -- but that we have poet-made structures like small presses, journals, reading series, sites in the community etc which can and should be used. I think my piece was also a cautionary tale for those who think they can exist indefinitely in a job without meaning, as I tried to do as a young writer.

Andrew Joron had a bit of a dark thunderous look as he began his talk which was very much spoken though he had paper with text on it clutched in his hand. He began by talking about a demonstration attended by Ronnie Burk in which there was chanting “Jobs not jails” which Ronnie changed to “Jobs are jails.” Everyone liked that and I occasionally heard the line muttered by people for the rest of the time. He indicated that it was the job of poets to make impossible demands. He reminded us that work (job work) sucks. He noted that school and work are prisons of measured time and that work is necessity while poetry is freedom. He said that poets shouldn’t have jobs as poets, that art should issue an invitation and that disciplining language liberates language.

Andrew invoked the surrealist communism of genius and the idea that real musicians have day jobs. He spoke about his own job work as an indexer of academic books and how it relates to his writing. He mentioned that a typical academic book has around 5-10 concepts. He said that each word can be regarded as a poem and that each word relates to every other word. He spoke about the index as an exploded diagram. I thoroughly enjoyed Andrew’s impassioned speech and his fronting of his brand of a sort of passionately unregenerate Romanticism.

Vanessa Place’s piece consisted of a PowerPoint presentation that I found rather mesmerizing. From it I wrote “I believe a society can be judged by how it treats its worst members.” After that I appear to have given myself over to the PowerPoint without taking more notes. The presentation reminded us that Vanessa uses her work as an attorney as the source for some of her writing. As is well known, Vanessa doesn’t write her writing but frames and presents texts and language from various places in multiple ways. She haunted her own presentation, hovering to the right of the screen but not speaking. It was quite effective.

Sara Larsen walked us through her daily commute traveling between two “money centers” (Oakland and San Francisco) to make a living, creating a sort of geography of work. She spoke about vocation and just the plain fact that what many of us do for a living has nothing to do with our writing and forces us to work for entities we don’t respect and sometimes despise. Sara spoke of the poetic body – eclesia – and being dislocated to an underground site. She mentioned Beat writers as Lew Welch, Phillip Whalen and Gary Snyder and their model of doing working class jobs to support themselves as poets while they were young. Sara reminded us that it was different now. I think she said “I will pay my bills entirely by doing my real job which is poet” but I may have dreamed that.

Alli Warren read a section of George Albon’s talk which followed Sara’s nicely. George Albon was deputized by Stacy Szymaszek who couldn’t travel to be present and George was not able to be there because he had to work at Green Apple where he is a bookseller. The talk was a very useful and, I thought, poignant discussion of the consideration of the subject of labor in the Bay Area in the past. George invoked some of the familiar, central figures of this past. Robert Duncan had a little money from home and survived on part time jobs on the peripheries of the academy – the Bancroft library, the Poetry Center at SF State and, eventually, taught full time at New College of California.

It was fascinating to discover that there was an earlier version of this convocation at the Longshoreman’s Hall in San Francisco in the 1969 called “Bread and Poetry.” As typical of that time only a few white male stars spoke of their job work and how it related to their work as poets. (I assume, not having heard that they were included, that such people as Lenore Kandel, Diane DiPrima and Bob Kaufman didn’t speak though I don’t know that for sure.) Gary Snyder talked of the integration of his jobs with his writing, Phil Whalen spoke of having much more difficulty finding his way in work but thought it would “even out” (which it eventually did as he lived by participating and working in various local Zen Centers) and Lew Welch, who may have organized the event, had more difficulty and more alienation with his work especially as he was 37 at the time and the period of youthful jobs could be seen to be over. His early death prevented his particular problems of work and life from ever being solved. George quote Rexroth as saying “Poets in the West Coast work” which is interesting both in that there was an informal “spokesman” of Bay Area poetry at the time and that in fact we did and do still work.

Samantha Giles thanked CA Conrad for existing and for deputizing her to present and thanked the organizers with an organizer’s perception of how much work it took to put the convocation together. She discussed having the job of homemaker and parent on top of the public work of running Small Press Traffic and, of course, writing. She discussed how essential art and culture are to the person. Samantha said “I feel lucky and grateful for this life full of readings and books” and at that point seemed to weep. It was quite a surprise to many of us and quite touching. I have often felt similarly grateful with regard to my own job at SPD. Her talk was well observed from her useful position (with a few others here and in other cities) of having a presenting job in the community of which she is a very active member and was very well received.

Kevin Killian closed the show by appearing to extemporize about the relation of job to writing in his life though he mentioned writing his talk and did have a written text with him as more or less a prop. I believe he said the phrase “I am a diva” which of course we all knew. He also said “I am a writer” and “I am a secretary” and spoke of his long employment as a secretary at a place where he used to have more time to have the occasional literary thought than he currently has there. Kevin reminisced that, a few decades ago, when his fried Alfredo was asked “what do you do?” he said “I take it up the ass.” Kevin seemed to suggest that an stripped down economic writing style might be the result of limited time for writing as well as the endless interruptions experienced by the secretary wearing “the wig” of a writer trying to write while actually on the job.

Kevin was just back from Vancouver and mentioned Jeff Dirksen who lives there and who Kevin talked to there about the subject of labor which is central to Jeff’s work. Perhaps Kevin then quoted Jeff saying “Capitalism has used me up and spat me out” or possibly he was speaking about himself. Kevin said Jeff maintains there is no outside of the corporation. (I am inclined to agree.) Kevin said he believed it and didn’t believe it at the same time and I will also inclined to agree with that and thought it to be how many of us felt.

There was some general discussion at this point which was useful and I was more involved in it than I was taking notes about it. Perhaps it was Brandon who summed or Suzanne? by mentioning a few of the topics that had come up such as domestic labor, how funding affects the book (presumably content as well as production), are we tied to the idea of struggle? why go to graduate school? stealing time, individual response to a collective problem, personalized poetics and ideology of the non subject (this last might have been more extrapolation and wishful thinking on my part about future topics than a note of what had occurred.)

Many people went on to the bar and restaurant at this point and I assume the discussions were hot and heavy but, along with many other people, I didn’t attend this part. It occurred to me at this point that when a conference or convocation of this sort takes place far away and you are there only for it you automatically participate more in the after hours proceedings. This is exhausting but much to be desired also. Of course the more structure and comfort there is around this the more it will cost the organizers and the participants, but there is something to be gained. Still, the fact that this convocation was done on a miniscule budget and volunteer time also gave it a particular value. The payment required by participants was simply commitment to the moment of being there and participating.

About 30 people ultimately showed up for the brunch and discussion the following day to the windowless cavern that is 21 Grand. I thought the attendance was quite impressive on a glorious Labor Monday. David Brazil did a great job of moderating the talk. In the circle of seated participants we eventually formed, there was, at first, some heated discussion about academia. Several people, Brian Stefans, Chris Chen, Tim Kreiner, confessed to being academics and their reactions to the assertions and questions of the rest of us were listened to with particular attention for that reason. Everyone agreed that there was no difference between “ourselves” and “academics” as individuals – that it was just another job and life choice.

This is not to say the larger structural differences were/are not acknowledged. I don’t think anything was decided about what these meant, nor was that the intention of the event. However, I think such things are rarely spoken of in public and the fact that this discussion provided an opportunity to do that was excellent. It occurred to me as the discussion was going on that because the academic world is very much in crisis right now, actually focusing on it, but outside of its borders, might be a worthwhile thing to do in some other event. But, then again, many urgent topics are possible.

Steve Farmer, Chris Daniels and I were, as the older participants in this discussion, the source of historical comments on the community, as well as comments coming out of the knowledge of what life results might be expected from decisions made (or, importantly, exigencies acceded to) in one’s twenties and thirties. The tenor of the speaking reminded me of moments when I have recorded an interview with a friend and what has been a casual relationship becomes formal and careful – in a good way. The discussion session formalized exchanges that occur constantly in the community, as well as adding to responses to the talks given the day before. Everyone had a chance to speak and was in fact drawn out by David’s frontal requesting that anyone who had not spoken should do so.

In a way, it was a bit like a similar event might have in a happy version of the academy, except for a notable and key lack of hierarchy. This inclusiveness and lack of hierarchy was one of the important aspects of the whole event. The Labor Day convocation gave writers the opportunity to be part of a formal but friendly structure to listen to and give talks, to read and be read to, speak and be spoken too without requiring credentials other that desire to do so. It is true it was an event mostly focused on a (fairly wide) community of friends and acquaintances but, for all that, there was a clear attempt to be friendly to anyone not completely known to everyone else.

There were only a couple of people who fell into this category during the discussion part and perhaps a few more during the presentations–-and that on a gorgeous holiday weekend. The will to offer and maintain this inclusiveness made it a bit different from events and series outside of the academy that have occurred in the past. However, the Labor Day event was much in line with talks and convocations that have occurred at people’s house or lofts, Intersection, Canessa Park, Langton Arts, New College (which seems, in retrospect, not quite fully academic) and other places over the years.

At the Labor Day event I learned about job work and creative work , about the value of deciding to make your ideas about community occur in the world by sheer force of activity and cooperation. Many versions of how to make a living were presented along with a wide array of critiques and senses of what the ramifications were and are of that activity. The incessant necessity of making this living and its impact on one’s writing was never forgotten. We were creating a kind of chorus of complaints and triumphs with our multiply heard assertions--so the job (the work) was the work in this case. The event took itself seriously in the best possible sense. The organizers created a structure, a platform, for each person involved to participate and just about everyone did.

What was at stake was more ephemeral but not less important–-membership in the community, regard or possibly disapprobation within that community, responding to the opportunity and work involved in the event, maybe publication–-than what might be involved in a conference at a school where jobs are involved in the sense of actually having or getting them and in the other sense of department or field wide politics, positions within various academic structures, professional status involving money etc. It’s worth pointing out that an event like the recent post moot convocation (there have been others in the past) was held at a school and yet surely existed pretty much outside the academic realm.

With this convocation, with Labor Day, we (the organizers and participants) created, respected and appreciated our own values. This creation of value was an achievement and a great pleasure. For myself I learned or was able to remind myself that my own choices might have been more inevitable than I have occasionally believed. There are times when it seems that a particular version of the writer’s life, including a job teaching at a college, is so inevitable and normal that my own trajectory is anomalous when actually it is shared by many others. What a relief to rediscover and fully realize this!

At the end of the discussion session many said they longed for more of these convocations to occur. Suzanne brought it all to a close masterfully and asked for ideas about what should happen next. I think the organizers plan more such events and are actively soliciting and considering suggestions. (A reading group about Marcel Mauss’ The Gift is already occurring as a direct result of the event, as many said they believed we are in a “gift economy” and David offered to lead a discussion about the book that is the source of the term.) It is also likely that other groups of presenters in the Bay Area writing community will put together other similar events as they realize that “life, in fact, is a convocation.” So we have convoked and will convoke again within and regarding our vocations and our ability to shake it for the amusement and edification of ourselves and convokers and convokees everywhere.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Looking forward to what everyone will have to say on LABOR DAY about LABOR & POETICS! See you on Sunday!