Work Types
The Poetry Project Newsletter, 194, 2003

Works Reviewed:

Bruce Andrews, The Millennium Project, [www.princeton.edu/eclipse], 2001.

Joe Elliot, Reduced, Situations, 2003.

David Larsen, Freaky If You Got This Far [self-published], 2003.

Carol Mirakove, temporary tattoos, Baby Self Press, 2002.

Rene Ricard, Love Poems, CUZ Editions, 1999.

Lytle Shaw, The Lobe, Roof Books, 2002.

It's awful to pick up a book of poems and find sweat. A while ago this was so.

"I lose myself / in others' dreams": Before, a product-minded consumer of poetry intuited the effort that precedes a perfectly normal-sounding clause like this, but she preferred pulling the dream straight from the text rather than dwelling on evidence of its labor.

Today the consumer can lose herself in sweat: there are works about work (process); works about that other kind of work (earning $); and works that work to amuse us as 'not work.' All together, the types here are metalinguistic and reflexive, but my intent is simple, to highlight three approaches to work as recent transactions in remarkable practice.

A good lead-in to the typology is The Millennium Project by Bruce Andrews, available online. A crosshatch of material from the 1980s and 1990s, Millennium adds up as real labor, nearly a thousand pages of poems in 11 volumes. Each volume is sectioned off within a delimited spectrum of "conceptually organized" categories: distance, context, suture, apparatus, praxis. These subsets are then split into 18 smaller divisions that take up shared forms and themes. The crosshatch of texts gets previewed within a neat 'pegboard' on the index page with 55 points of entry (11 volumes x 5 conceptual categories). As the title html indicates, once you enter, "you can navigate the project by moving sequentially through one of the eleven volumes (left or right), or from one subsection to its counterpart in each of the other ten volumes (up and down)." When you select Volume 1, C3, the "suture" category, you find a poem, "C3A1-a," which begins:

The stiff curve ease & the dark cibachrome nights

Hornier precipice, dizzy elixirable tumor guts
a mock fake swell stupor romeo zoot

High-heeled monotonic koochie-koochie penetralia of gifts --


Andrews's language in these poems is "testicular," the familiar "mannequin attributes" of a half-self-deprecating (mock fake), death-metal (dark cibachrome nights; tumor guts), sex-tooled (stiff curve; penetralia), dragster (romeo zoot // High-heeled) square pants. This jokeful project could be typed as unserious, yet Andrews attaches the poems to stern conceptual framery, apparatus, praxis, etc., so that the didactic authority these concepts intimate on the title page point to more instrumental purposes. The preface establishes the work as "a companion piece" to another book by Andrews, Lip Service, only the poetry in Millennium focuses on "socially resonant material." Even before finishing the preface we get it. This is work about its own collation, 1000 wacky, brilliant, communally relevant pieces put in the right places. The work, as noted, comes with back-up instructions that prep readers to steer through the poetry with notional expectations, as well as to read it with reference along a continuum in Andrews's career processing other texts.

In The Lobe Lytle Shaw makes evident his own set of processes translating Diderot's rationalist "practice of selectively eliding and expanding -- to present difficulties and supply phenomena." Shaw's phenomena summon a big, nearly all-male cast of references to 18th century figures (Wilhem Meister, Johann von Herder, Novalis, Friedrich Holderlin, among others) as well as contemporaries (Rodolphe Gashe, Phil Rizzuto, Jeff Wall, Fester) for a pocket dictionnaire poetique brimming with exceptional difficulties: "ski slopes gone to gravel"; "he learns by playing / as a diagram makes his rage concrete"; "Undergoing abject exteriority and historical whiplash"; "I used staccato rib drags and irregular stomach billows to enfold the island's economy of lunch motions into my midriff"; and so forth.

If Shaw were only compiling an encyclopedia in an emergency, so to speak, there would be little else to notice in his processes. But there is more, as phenomena pile up. Shaw is in a methodological snit that he aims to transform, but that also triggers influences not entirely under his control. A breezy 13-liner titled "Enter the Wagon," begins: "'Emotional content,' repeats The Master, / correcting a youngster's kick. / I don't want to be all 'Confucius said,' but the mysterious fluids find / expression..." Emotional phenomena and a self-conscious aper┴u on method pour out by way of nasty yet urbane environs, captured in these last five, O'Hara-like lines:

The monster trucks sparkle.
The surround sound kicks-in.
On Canal rig horns chug.
These were briefly some of my piles.
And an attitude to grind them.


Expressing selective phenomena keeps Shaw scene shifting and job hopping. His specificity of the workplace and other stagings for poli-sci conditioning is apt, abbreviated, and the sound is right. Here are some favorites.

* A "hippie" tries the service exit;
* The Overseer in his upstairs office;
* a sculptor laid-off from his temp job;
* The $217 of junk money he had gotten from the unwatched suitcase;
* profiling applicants who might accept unpaid internships;
* punch-in time.


Thanks partially to Shaw's research on the Age of Reason, certain noun phrases project more than a whiff of refreshing class-collision: "world travelers" brushes up against "townies"; "the Baron" v. "work-suited helpers"; "someone speaking / on a cell phone" v. "private fucking property." While this is a text that persists in examining its own compositional practice, The Lobe links to ambient surround sound of political and economic preoccupations and their attendant outflow of self-knowledge:

As the sun goes down, I'm reminded that I own stuff.
But no, I'm not satisfied: I still keep notebooks and make lists.


I'm going to move to another work type, poetry that makes contact with earning a living and one's finding a niche among the impersonal macrostructures we associate with late capitalism. This type has been previewed in Shaw's supply of data on class, employment scenarios, etc. In characterizing this second type as work about earning a living, however, I'm interested in emphasizing one's intimate and transformative interactions with 'the outside.' To illustrate I'll turn to two recent chapbooks.

temporary tattoos by Carol Mirakove looks like a journal, with entries on each page numbered 1 through 15, some numbers with two or more entries -- "10 (am)," "10 (noon)," "10 (pm)," for instance ˝ and with one entry with a double number -- "5-6 :: happy" (the number 13 is skipped). The texts are lyrics about so much more than earning a wage. They center on internal dialog with a fellow who tattoos the writer's hand, takes drugs, and isn't always around while she does other things, laundry, listening to music, and aha! fooling around at the office. Mirakove is not unmindful of the dark forces of capitalism, though. "i have just ventured into the world of online banking." Two sentences later: "i have 3 phone bills."

Here's Mirakove's portrait of a higher-up at work: "he's the best person i know but i swear i think he thinks about saran wrap. turnbuckle. someone on 1st avenue says 'yeah, he's the cfo." This is the light hand of poetry of the moment, orchestrating Mirakove's fill-ins about 'the outside' into credible and amusing elements in a larger, deeper song. Three entries titled "11 (am)," "11 (noon)," and "11 (pm) :: depression rearing up like god's flyswatter" further demonstrate Mirakove's brand of lightness. The first half of "11 (am)" starts as an employment narrative but this yields asyntactically to a 'you' she addresses throughout the text:

In meetings a lot, including one with an art director who
tells me that the intended nav bar color is critical. sigh.
flesh out aesthetics versus e-commerce. i don't know whether
to feel easy or awful in knowing the difference.

the other 2 were so desperate for the job it broke my heart.

i should get a dog. although meta-me says petting purpose is
a slight pathetic.

It's because as soon as i was looking for you.


These four paragraphs resonate, one to the next, back and forth. You more fully appreciate a line, "i should get a dog," after reading a few lines further ("i was looking for you"). Similar in emotional force, the second paragraph ("the other 2 were so desperate for the job it broke my heart") makes more sense as a counter-sigh to the slight sarcasm implicit in the word "sigh" from the paragraph preceding. The entry "11 (noon)," toward its conclusion, takes us back to 'you,' and back to the office.

in honor of purple you. when the revolution comes there will
be no more reports, my manager went around earlier and said
we must not exceed 40 hours a week. & i spend at least 10
hours a week corresponding, so this is overall

[ before i could type "a pretty good deal" a meeting popped
up around my cube & then there were three people IN my cube
with me & my desk -- breathe -- breathe -- ]

dear hero in prison,


Obvious conflation in fantasizing 'you' -- the second paragraph of "11 (noon)" begins: "i am busy daydreaming..." -- with Mirakove's own imprisonment in workday action binds the lyric. Real and imagined, what's the difference? as the transformation stratagem goes. The low-key authenticity of a manager and then three people in a cubicle lends credence to her striking unanticipated notes, "purple you" and "hero." And just in case you recoil from the nearly plaintive rant "when the revolution comes," Mirakove clears this up recursively in "11 (pm)...": "when i said 'revolution' i meant i'll keep you close in a special midwestern way."

Joe Elliot is a poet in the poetry publishing business. This is a too-familiar combination. His chapbook Reduced reveals more speedily than other recent examples, though, what a poet is up to when she or he works in what he says and in the ways he says it.

Elliot's Reduced is a small object, even by chapbook standards, twelve pages of used blue-lined notepaper, cut to 4 x 5 1/4 inches. One sign of working 'in what he says and in the ways he says it' is how the poetry here is imprinted on pages that contain penciled-in (erasable) handwritten notations related to printing. One imagines the paper was hanging around the back office, and Elliot didn't want to waste it:

I thought of writing
you a letter explaining all

the reasons I'm not
wrong, then I thought of

all that paper
the shrinking rainforest

in my head,
didn't,

wrote this instead


At which points the handwriting crosses Elliot's printed poem is left to happenstance, and since each piece of paper is one of a kind, no intersection of particular handwriting and printed text will be repeated. In my copy of Reduced the penciled script "form [illegible] ~ 100" shares the same line as the beginning of the printed text, "Some living / people send // their love / letters to the dead: " Barely making out the words "Some living" (because these words intersect with the illegible penciled-in text) while simultaneously in-taking the handwritten "form [illegible] ~ 100" is chilling. Then again, ascribing the line literally as-is -- "form Some living ~ 100" -- to the subject position of the printed poem is unsettling when I continue to read: "form Some living ~ 100 / people send // their love / letters to the dead: " In this reading, line 1, the mostly incomprehensible line of penciled-in and printed text, enacts the pathos of writing to the dead. Further, the look of two kinds of text (layers of thinking and rethinking) and the atmosphere surrounding the texts (thin blue lines floating across white pulp) contribute to an artifice of intimacy, which is also eerie, because I can experience this easily-erased, half-handwritten poem as one written to me personally. But this is a love letter to the dead!

Elliot's practice combining poetry and work life contrasts with Mirakove's. temporary tattoos mixes up the workday with daydreams to surrender a nimble lyricism. Reduced distributes its limited materials -- a) handwritten notes and b) printed text -- to cancel and simultaneously recombine poetry of love and some loss that is accented by chance procedure, the intersections of a) and b). These intersections play out the intimacy between what they first obscure but ultimately tell of the one who lends her attention, the writer, and the one who borrows it, the reader.

The last work type is so self-magnified and comedically distorted it operates out of reach of ready-made categorization. At surface, it drops features of the first two types: there are no mentions of, much less personal intersections with, a day job; and there is no clarifying detail of how the work develops nor background on how it should be read. This type is so messy about conventionally-referenced appeals to critical attention that it seems unmindful of itself as poetry. As a stand-alone, the work that is 'not work' comes to us subterraneanly and with not a little hip hauteur.

Rene Ricard's Love Poems flaunts the current practice of presenting poems within a quasi-defined chronology, that is, a collection of recent or older work. Ricard distorts such expectation, mixing up eras, ages, and names within and among the poems. In no more than 20 pages of text, he gathers three short pieces written one, 12 and 18 years before their publication in Love Poems. (Only the oldest and funniest poem, "The Death of Johnny Stompanato," appeared earlier in Italy, with an Italian translation.) One impression gleaned from this assortment, is that Ricard is stigmatizing his own retrospective, forcing the question of why only these pieces fall under the rubric 'love poems.' Anyone familiar with previous work, and most especially Rene Ricard 1979-1980, would recognize that a majority of his oeuvre is love poems. Ricard writes here the way he has written before, straightforward declarative sentences as subterfuge for an ambition tied to physical love, but also bound up with physical demise, rage and public disgust beyond his conscious understanding. As he wrote in the poem "I was born" included in Rene Ricard: "This isn't art this isn't poetry I don't believe I'm / writing this I don't believe I'm reading this..." Now in "The Death of Johnny Stompanato" Ricard admits:

I want a drink. I don't know what happened.
I was young then I was old. I was paid for
Then I paid. Everything seems like it happened
Yesterday or so long ago it happened to someone else.


Ricard's poetry is unstinting in its incredulity, fueled by the aftermath of love affairs with awful boys in his imagination, and the three pieces in Love Poems fit together within that shameless tautology. The twitching hilarity and disturbance he evokes are equally at odds with the cool, cognitive tones of current, formally ironic and even smug avantist literature. Ricard's is heavy-breathing and enduring neo-romanticism. His diction is sent up in the crisp, descriptive style of Dashiell Hammet, that is, were Hammet a humorist permanently fallen out with Sam Spade. Like his recent drawings and youthful performances in underground films, Ricard's Love Poems is slender in weight, absurdist in intent, and extraordinary in its impersonated semiotics of tragicomedy.

Then again there is David Larsen, aka LRSN. Cartoonist, Berkeley Ph.D. candidate in comp lit, self-publisher of artist / poet chapbooks, Larsen is easily the complement to Ricard when it comes to crisscrossing demarcations between subterfuge and the shameless. Pick up a copy of Freaky If You Got This Far and make sense of the book first as a tailored physical object, a tactile fetish to savor in its variations in texture and thickness within 30 pages. It's hard to figure which parts are handmade and which 'manufactured' (Xeroxed), and that's part of the tinker's design, you'll realize, a foil to the fraudulent harmony struck between Larsen's original and appropriated texts. One sixth of the book lifts decades-old sociological prose verbatim, penned by Erving Goffman, "A Great Canadian," and tellingly the author of such baleful-sounding books as Behavior in Public Places, Interaction Ritual and Frame Analysis. Here's a sample of one appropriation:

The general formula is apparent. The stigmatized individual
is asked to act so as to imply neither that his burden is
heavy nor that bearing it has made him different from
us...


In some dimension, via Goffman, Larsen internalizes the stigma of Ricard's persona-driven romanticism, and renders it thoroughly, methodically ironic per the dictum that one should not call attention to one's "burden." But, hey, does Larsen stop there? Tireless, and with just a couple of master strokes, he tags the two-page passage, excerpted above, with a magic-markered "FREAKY IF / YOU GOT THIS / FAR p. 13 / OR 14." Layer upon layer of ... frame analysis? Larsen is saying a) I'm not saying this, Goffman is; b) but I'm using Goffman for my own purposes, heh, heh; c) I think; d) but why are you reading this junk?; e) anyway, let's remember this is a booklet I'm putting together and, see, you can participate in my laying it out!

Larsen's black-and-white visuals are epically ragbag, some tinged with two or three of the cheesiest-possible colors. One titled "I'll Buy That Dream" pastes a swamp photo over faded musical notation. The swamp is slimed in a mucous hue that's contrasted at the base with a platter of dead fish on a bed of lettuce and overripe tomatoes. Across from this is the poem titled "THEY";

They'll understand.
They'll have to understand.
They'd be monsters not to
understand.
What are they, some kind of
crazy monsters?


Larsen sates my appetite for chuckling with angst. He does this by raising only the bloodied tips of sinister propositions, leaving me to fill in the syllogisms. In a list-poem, back-titled "It Takes a Lot to Kill a Young Person," Larsen identifies these five (of 13) potential arguments:

1. THE GLORY OF GOD
2. HIS WRATH
3. TOO MUCH SPERM
4. NOT ENOUGH SPERM
5. IMAGINATION


Larsen is insinuating an all-is-up-for-grabs nonseriousness that is at least one occasion for poetry. "Eggs," he writes, "They're fucking throwing rotten eggs!" He adds a few lines later, "Best vacation ever."