On September 13, 2011, the following statement was read as part of Belladonna*s first event of the season: Our Material Lives, Feminism and Poetry at Various Ages. It was prepared by one of the evening's readers, the amazing Ana Božičević.
Two nights ago, after our latest reading with Uljana Wolf and erica kaufman, we (the audience, the readers) sat in the cozy Dixon Place lounge and discussed our multiple economies--how we survive and make art, jobs for poets, academic jobs, teaching avant-garde poetics in our composition classes, resource sharing, how to better communicate our needs to the community. I think of this manifesto as a resource, a way of re-shaping the way we look at "poet jobs," our work and the work we create.
A Working Poet's Manifesto
What does a poem do? Let me rephrase that: what does a poet do? I wake up at 8, let the dogs out, read on the train to Manhattan, work 10-6. After work I take classes or teach, read on the train home, have very late dinner with Amy and fall asleep. Just before I drift, lines start going through my head and so I stir and I write them down. This is usually after midnight. I write them down in the dark.
When I tell people that I work full time and attend grad school and teach, they look at me funny. I don’t remember living another way, though, ever since I emigrated to the US. For a while I tried the broke in Brooklyn thing – eating two bagels a day, feeling heroic in a roachy flat – but I got writer’s block from the hunger and the filth. I did not thrive on punishment. I was not Vallejo. Coming from a country where jobs are at a premium, and having no economic or social support system in the US – as much as capitalism made me retch, electing unemployment felt disingenuous. So I worked.
It’s hard to figure out what kind of work is appropriate for a poet. A few months ago a poet I admire wrote on a blog that a poet should not be a bureaucrat and administrator -- a poet should be a poet, live for the art. Blue collar work was not even mentioned. So, let’s see, regular jobs are unpoetic, but then I read elsewhere that teaching is even worse – academic jobs are somehow deemed “not real,” as though academia were a virtual realm like the internet but counted even less. Staying at home in a different arrangement also doesn’t seem to do a poet good – mom poets are not paid for their work of mothering and often can’t go to readings and travel, poets fortunate enough to have a private income can’t mention it lest they be dubbed trust-fund babies, itinerant poets who move from colony to colony can’t keep a boyfriend or girlfriend to save their lives, poets with government grants are sellouts. Most of you in the room have been pegged as one or the other. Prestige & stigma are doled out in a random system of poet-castes that shift & refract differingly depending on the site you’re reading, the people you’re chatting with.
I listen and I am confused. I eat. What should I eat? I sleep – where? Does it have to be uncomfortable? Can I earn my rent or must I only accept donations, like a fortuneteller? I really don’t like being told what to do, especially by people who are not paying me. Why should a poet be a stranger to any human experience? Maybe it’s only my communist upbringing speaking. All I know is that everything is real and every work counts. Writing counts. Bricklaying counts. Pushing paper typing pouring coffee counts. Mothering counts. Everything counts and everything belongs to a poet, belongs in a poem.
What should a poem do? Auden wrote in lovely flowing lines that Poetry makes nothing happen. Maybe it’s just atomic physics, but nothing looks a whole lot like everything to me from here. How does it make you feel if you switch those two and say that Poetry makes everything happen? Now substitute Poetry for Poet: a poet makes everything happen. Now turn around and look at your friends here – isn’t it funny? It’s completely true: Aphra Behn: a spy, Marianne Moore a library assistant, Diane di Prima and Anne Waldman and Amy King teachers, Vanessa Place an attorney, Hanna Andrews an editor, E. Tracy Grinnell and Rachel Levitsky publishers – poets are making everything happen all over the place. And that means that we also change everything.