On her website, native New Yorker Jen Fitzgerald describes herself as a poet and essayist who “comes from a place that is lawless. Her family has been there for 200 years and refuses to integrate into normal society… Vivaldi gives her goosebumps as do some Jay-Z songs. She is proud to be a poet of witness and class activist.” Her first full collection The Art of Work is now out from Noemi Press. Here, we discuss the influences of her family, the rights of the worker and why she believes “[l]ife is the greatest art project.”
Rosebud Ben-Oni: In your long poem “Last Totem of Tradesmanship,” you explore the art of butchery as a trade “that propel[s] the human engine/ forward” and the rigorous labor involved with pulling a “knife body down/ the hung body,// ridging along ribs/ to remove flank steak.” You also explore the relationship between worker and customer whom “are no constant;/ a slideshow of flipped/ faces on repeat” as well as the economics of “salary cuts,/ store managers, about the bullshit //folks eat to stay fed.” You explore similar images in “The Killing Floor is Slick.” I can taste the blood in the collection as a whole— it pulses on the page, carrying “purple veins/scarlet muscle” and “the history of necessity;/ hunt, fire, communion.” Can you discuss the peculiar communion in more detail?
Jen Fitzgerald: The work of feeding oneself is ancient. Our ability to take in and swallow food is our first instinct straight from the womb. Now, when we think of communion, it is preparing, cooking, and sharing in a meal. Many of us do not think in terms of the ancient communion of the hunt, slaughter, butchering, and parsing of an animal to eat.
This segment of consumption has been relegated to a back room. And in the United States, that back room is enormous. There is an entirely unseen segment of our food industry— the inner workings of which are taken for granted, but without which we would not eat.
I paid close attention to the interplay of drawing the reader’s eye to the exploitation that occurs in our food industry while also highlighting the intense skill, trade, and seven year apprenticeship needed to be a butcher. They study longer than it takes to get many advanced degrees.
There is an actual art to this work. Beyond feeding the people in their community, they better themselves though skill and reinforce their necessity through trade. Their engagement with the community they feed is tertiary—the primary relationships are with one another and store/shop/plant management. This is another interesting juxtaposition: the comradery that the workers find with one other exists as its inverse with management. The often confrontational relationship between employer and employee is strange, objectively, because the aim of each is to provide food. The dividing line is the divvying up of the fruits of this labor. Their relationship to the Union is an extension and magnification of each of these.
RB: Your family and the ideas of engines and machines play a prominent role in your collection. In “Battle Hymn: Generations,” we learn the speaker’s grandfather “never drifted/far from engines as movement,/ engines as mechanism and his/ hands grew rough with reverence,” even in his later years.” In “Redux,” the speaker’s brother carried “the somewhere else in his eyes/ making a machine out of maneuver.” Does the art of work make us machines? What sort of consequences might that have?
JF: The art of work does not make us machines, profit makes us machines, other people make us machines, and the ambivalence of the consumer makes us machines. The art of our work makes us human. We have to shed pieces of this humanity to function in an economy that remains “capitalist” while casting off the “religious morality” found in the original “Protestant Work Ethic.”
We think of machines as having singular purposes—as though they simply power down when you turn off the lights and reanimate the next morning. No—there is life on and off the factory floor. There is need, linage, and history.
I wanted to tap into the grit and power of the Industrial Revolution through the use of mechanical language. I think of this as the first time humans had to work alongside and to a degree, control machines, engines, combustion, and industrial goliaths.
Workers had to pick up the rhythms and cadences of a machine to work in step. I imagine this repetitive clacking of gears, how the workers’ hearts almost beat in time with the machines. The only difference was, the machines never got tired, they never faltered. What happens when in the course of workday or the course of a life, we slow and the devices we man remain steady? What does that tell us about how we have lived our lives?
RB: I see an interesting juxtaposition of the grandmother, speaker & the speaker’s daughter in “Survival: Generations” and an emphasis on sewing, repairing and preserving both of skill and heritage. The reader feels very much “my grandmother’s muscular//hands scrubbing my skin as though/ it adhered to my bones by grout” as well as the stitching throughout this three-part poem. I found most affecting the saving of the newborn mice nested in the speaker’s “sweater, how she/ nursed them with an eye dropper of tuna water/ until each died and was buried.” Can you speak more about suffering as “the amorphous, ever-present nameless” as link both in the poem and the collection itself?
JF: My grandmother has been one of the most influential people in my life. Throughout my childhood, it was not strange to see an injured, wild animal in her home, being nursed back to health. Stray cats, birds, raccoons, opossums, and any other creature that “needed love.”
We found the abandoned litter of mice in a sweater of mine when I was about 10 years old. It seems that the mother had given birth in my drawer—it must have been open a crack. When she returned later that evening, the drawer was closed and she was unable to get to her litter. We had heard strange scratching sounds all night, and when my grandmother opened the drawer the next day to put away clothing, I heard a gasp and then, “Oh, Jesus.”
We were left with eight, tiny, blind, pink bodies curled together for warmth. I panicked as she tried to figure out what to do with them. She didn’t see rodents, she saw hunger. My 10 year old self couldn’t bear the thought of watching something, let alone eight tiny, writhing somethings, starve to death. I thought differently after that day, about what we feed and what we exterminate. How a creature who is widely killed and accepted as vermin could quickly morph into something we are meant to nurture. It is the recognition of suffering that allows for this shift.
But maybe one must have suffered themselves to see it in others. She grew up on Staten Island during the depression. She saves everything: objects, plastic containers, swatches of fabric, people, and animals. In this way, it feels as though she stays in crisis mode, while remaining grateful because “There are always people out there who have less.”
She instilled in me responsibility to all living things. Everything and everyone deserves a meal; never walk past hunger. I am sure that my activist streak is due to this feeling of stewardship. But I must be careful. Even if I feel like a “steward of suffering,” that does not give me the right to impose “nurturing” on anyone and everyone. It is also not my job or right to objectify those bodies.
I have revealed some uncomfortable truths about the way my family and I have been treated as workers, immigrants, “natives,” and members of a “lower socio-economic class.” I did this to create connective tissue and align the generations. I did this because there had to be something at stake for me too.
RB: The Art of Work as a whole seems to be an examination and critique of capitalism and the rights of the worker; the poem “Here is the Life We’ve Made For You,” in which “workers disabled/their machines,/ Workers, their words like fists./ Benefit cuts,” is interrupted by “Human Resource Handbook Section 7,” which asks of presumably the ever-present-even-when-not-present employer to “convince them/to forfeit sick days, vacations, and their right to unemployment.” How do the ideas of (in)visibility and power come into play here?
JF: Just as I spoke about how the slaughter, butchering, and parsing of animals to eat has been relegated to a “back room,” out of sight, many of the people charged with this work are our “invisibles:” our migrant labor, day laborers, fast track visas, and undocumented workers.
There is so much misinformation about the relationship between migrant and undocumented workers and the socio-economic health of our nation. Did you know that undocumented workers contribute 15 Billion dollars annually to our Social Security System? This is 15 Billion dollars on which they will never be able to collect. And this is one of many truths to battle misconceptions about the monetary contributions of undocumented (or “other-than-legal” as the SS Administration prefers) immigrants.
Painting an entire group of people as menace, as diminishing force, as plague, is just dangerous, self-serving rhetoric. Every new culture introduced, immersed, and assimilated feels friction at the onset. Why do we keep pretending this process has gone differently? Why do we keep revising our own struggle out of history?
On a really basic level, I have always been confused with the idea of geographic borders. We have been a nomadic people for tens of thousands of years. Are things different because now we have flags? The markers we use to delineate ourselves from others are pretty absurd—but they are also markers of a power structure.
I am fully aware of how these absurd markers were used to alienate and demonize my family when they came to the United States from Ireland. I also understand how markers delineate them by socio-economic class then and now. It is not difficult to see these same markers being imposed on South American immigrants and migrant workers.
RB: In your acknowledgements you thank the members of UFCW Local 342 for allowing you to observe them at their job sites. Can you tell us more about that experience?
JF: Over the course of two years, Thomas Sayers Ellis and I visited multiple job sites throughout the five boroughs and upstate New York. He was there to take photos for the Union and I was there to be a sort of apprentice to photography and image making.
This was one of those rare times when we are positioned to witness; it crystallized for me fairly quickly. As we visited the packing houses, processing plants, and killing floors, I began to understand that the few sites I saw represented thousands, nation-wide and the few hours I spent in each represented years for the individual workers.
This book is collaborative art and labor. It would not exist without the workers, the managers, the Union Officers, Thomas Sayers Ellis, my family, my former bosses, the animals, the consumers, the structures, and the systems.
The collaboration lives on now, in everyday life, in these answers, in my movement—we are all in a constant state of union and of living as art, in art, and by art.
I have worked on these answers as I worked on the poems: in multiple states, after visiting the Tenement Museum, in transit, after reading up on real time unfair Labor practices such as the LIU Lockout—my understanding evolves each time I interact with someone about the collection, about race, about gender, and about class. I understand the mutability of my own words. We feed one another with stimuli; gestate, revise, release. Life is the greatest art project.
RB: Who are you reading now? What poets and authors inspire you?
JF: Right now, I am neck-deep in mostly reference books about the class system in the United States and abroad, both currently and historically. I am pretty well-versed in the history of labor, economics, and how hard-won the right to collectively bargain was in the US, but I am culling these texts to create a sort of syllabus—an erudite course on Labor, Economics, & Class. I highly recommend curling up with a cup of tea, the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) annual reports.
It is important to me that I can engage, in a meaningful way, in necessary conversations that I believe and hope will arise from this collection. My lived experience, while invaluable, does not offer me the historical context needed to make links between the past and present. Even within the literary world and the academic world that aligns so closely with it, there is labor exploitation that needs to be addressed in some significant ways. We are funneling highly educated individuals into exploitative relationships with university employers. We are requiring students to perform unpaid labor in the form of internships. And we are creating/sustaining insurmountable barriers for economically disadvantaged writers to enter into the broader, social conversation.
But poetry will always exist as expression, respite, and device. I have been and continue to be inspired by W.S. Merwin; Elizabeth Bishop; Philip Levine; our Poet Laureate, Juan Felipe Herrera; Anne Winters; Nikky Finney; Carolyn Forché; Mark Nowak; Meg Day, and Natalie Diaz among many others. I love poets who place themselves in the world—poets who have lived.
RB: What’s next for you, Jen?
JF: I continue to work on my photography and essays and imagine I will be chipping away at the memoir for some time (goodness gracious, it is already over 100,000 words). But right now I am at work on a poetry manuscript titled, “These States.” I am trying to understand what it means to be an American—if the land could speak, what would it tell us about the past thousand years?
I am also exploring what it means to be a multi-generational “American,” born into a lineage of immigrants who fled colonialism, starvation, and oppression to come to a land where colonialism was starving and oppressing. What are our responsibilities to those on whose backs we have won our success?
My coming to see this country from the perspective of a 5th generation New Yorker skews my point of view to privilege the immigrant story. After leaving New York City last year and traveling as much as I can of this enormous land, I have seen new narratives emerge— indigenous narratives that are troubling at best. I have also gained a much deeper understanding of slavery, segregation, racism, and our post-racial dystopia. I am wondering after how American History courses were created, why a watered-down, white-washed series of events is fed to us as truth. And again, how do I fit into all of this? While trying to better understand myself on these trips, I am coming to understand the larger system that makes us, us or US. I am dealing with my own trauma as I understand our national traumas.
I have always thought of this country as a representation of the world and people’s need and ability to govern themselves, but it is far more complicated than that. I am excited about the work we have done and are doing to seal these cracks and fissures. I hope to contribute to that work in a meaningful way.
Rosebud Ben-Oni is a 2014 New York Foundation Fellow for the Arts (NYFA) in poetry, a CantoMundo Fellow and the author of SOLECISM (Virtual Artists Collective, 2013). Her work appears in The American Poetry Review, Arts & Letters, Bayou, Puerto del Sol, among others. In Fall 2014, she will be a visiting writer at the University of Texas at Brownsville’s Writers Live Series. Rosebud is an Editorial Advisor for VIDA: Women in Literary Arts. Find out more about her at 7TrainLove.org
Jen Fitzgerald is a poet, essayist, and a native New Yorker who received her MFA in Poetry at Lesley University. She is the host of New Books in Poetry Podcast as part of the New Books Network, a member of New York Writers Workshop, and was a Bread Loaf 2014 Conference participant. She teaches her workshop, “Writing the Silence,” at the New York Public Library. Her first collection of poetry, The Art of Work, has been published by Noemi Press in September of 2016. Her work has been featured on PBS Newshour and Harriet: The Poetry Foundation Blog and in Tin House, Salon, PEN Anthology, Cosmonauts Avenue, among others and is forthcoming at Colorado Review and Public Pool. She is now in the DC area and at work on new poetry and prose collections.