Virginia Konchan with Cathy Wagner

Cathy Wagner. Photo courtesy of Laird Hunt.

This interview series began with graduate work I am undertaking at the University of Illinois at Chicago on aesthetics, labor, contemporary poetics, and the 20th-century history of the professoriate within the American university, an institution that neoliberalized following wholesale privatization over the last 30 years, and the financial crisis of 2008.

Today, market exchange is commodity exchange: the prices fixed by the neoliberal market on intellectual capital (DNA, art, patents), human beings and human capital (a system subtended by unpaid domestic labor and exploited wage labor) must be reevaluated, beginning with an alternative structure to aesthetic/commercial production beyond corporate creditism, and a return to a labor theory of value. Institutional critiques and conversations across artistic disciplines are necessary, lest enthusiastic rhetoric surrounding the mass democratization of education, cyberspace and literary publishing drown out awareness of the profiteering models of the corporate state, as well as intellectual property-rights issues of increasing salience in a tech-driven culture of citizen-consumers whose increased investitures of time, labor and cultural products (what Rodrigo Toscano calls “aesthetic volunteerism”) yield steadily diminishing returns. 

Virginia Konchan: In your essay “I am a poet and I have” in the Poetic Labor Project, you compare the American university system to a sharecropper estate whose laborers are either tenure-line teacher-scholar-writers or “sharecroppers” (adjunct teachers and graduate teaching assistants).

The working conditions of sharecroppers are horrific as you say: an adjunct teaching three sections of a course at $2,000 each earns $6,000 a semester. Spread over 15 weeks this equates to $375 a week, and when factoring in course preparation, teaching, grading and student conferencing, adjunct professors’ hourly rate is far below the national minimum wage and rarely includes health insurance or retirement benefits: graduate TA’s often make even less.

Context is everything, relativistic linguistic and cultural theory remind us, and yet contemporary poets continue to be exploited by corporatized structures in which the “investment” of a degree or two in poetry is bought, after which many work as contingent faculty for less than a living wage. Public forums (e.g. The Adjunct Project) and unionization efforts name many culprits (the corporatization of higher ed; wage-labor capitalism; neoliberalism).

What larger system in your opinion undergirds the sharecropper estate?

Cathy Wagner: I had a long talk with a taxi driver, an Ethiopian-born US citizen, as he drove me to the Denver airport last January. He had lost a sales job in the downturn in 2008 and after nine months, he found work as a taxi driver. His cab license costs $600 a month. He rents the cab itself from Yellow Cab, which is a huge French company (all those yellow cabs, one company). He and his fellow drivers are not employees of Yellow Cab; they are independent contractors. Yellow Cab offers drivers no benefits, and the fees the drivers pay the company rise all the time. The law says that taxi drivers must take breaks but if my cabbie does not drive twelve hours a day he cannot afford to live and pay for his license and cab. It’s an exploitative situation, and dangerous for drivers and passengers because the drivers are overworked and tired.

This situation — laying off permanent employees, making employees into independent contractors — has repeated itself in every industry including university education, where adjuncts now teach 70 percent of credit hours as you know. Obviously the practice has led to worse conditions for workers (the lack of bathrooms for truckers working out of the Oakland port is one example). It’s made a nonsense of the eight-hour workday. It also makes it difficult to organize activism: everyone is an independent contractor, atomized, out of touch.

It’s not necessary to come up with conspiracy theories to see why such a situation is desirable for employers; they get out of paying expensive health insurance benefits, for one thing, and I know from being on university senate that health insurance costs are no joke for employers; Miami University spends a terrifying amount on benefits and costs go up yearly. You probably know adjuncts who teach three classes a semester because their university won’t hire them for a full-time (four-class) load, because they’d then have to pay them benefits. People working these non-full-time, no-benefits jobs are subject to the same expensive credit economy that the rest of us are subject to. They either can’t participate in it because they don’t have credit or else they’re doing what most everyone else does and taking out loans to pay for their car, their house, their education; there’s little choice but to do so, and the reason the credit economy exists is the reason casinos do: not to make you rich but to make money off you. But you can choose not to go into a casino; it’s a lot harder not to take out a loan. And the money that’s made off those loans will never trickle back to most borrowers, and these part-time/contingent jobs barely pay enough for workers to keep up on their loan payments.

I think one big systemic problem is the absence of accountability, both on the political side and the corporate side. Hannah Arendt says that representative democracy evacuates political power to an other, a representative, a legislator, and when we do that, we’re inclined to turn away from politics and to exert ourselves more on behalf of the private—personal life, personal finances. Jefferson similarly warned that the Constitution’s centralization of powers meant the demise of the town hall, of participatory decision-making.

People whose focus is on personal and financial and domestic life are prone to Arendt’s “banality of evil.” They are not accountable politically, or do not feel so. So the political gets split off from the domestic and business parts of life, and as a result most of us don’t feel our responsibility for the way the system works. In fact we recognize that we have little control over it, even though about half of us still vote. Meanwhile, ironically, the private swamps the political side too—it swamps representative government, as politicians seek to honor their donors’ hopes; and their necessary emphasis on chasing money (they can’t help it, they have to) will represent our values whether we recognize them as our values or not.

There is an irony about the way capitalism works in democracy. The corporation has an amazing genius structure, which by allowing shareholders to buy in and own a company supplies the company with capital, ideally to spend on improving and expanding the company and then enriching the shareholders, creating wealth. This financial participation, this buy-in by shareholders, is the reverse side of the “coin” of our not “buying in” as participants in democracy. Only the rich can invest significantly in the continuing political careers of our representatives. The effect is that the government is not as accountable to the bulk of its participants, its stakeholders or shareholders, as corporations are to theirs. The corporation acts in its stakeholders’ financial interests, but the government fails to act in its stakeholders’ political interests; or rather, government does act in its stakeholders’ political interests, but in a highly unequal way where the interests of the largest group, the less moneyed, are irrelevant.

The corporation’s financial accountability to its shareholders has the effect of reducing its interest in and accountability for the non-financial effects of its actions—pollution, for example. In the same way, in a funhouse mirror, the government’s lack of accountability to the bulk of its stakeholders (citizens) is a vacuum into which surge corporate and financial and business interests. In short, no one is taking responsibility for the well-being of the bulk of the population.

Meanwhile, the bulk of the population has signed away its ability to be accountable for itself, on the one hand (if you accept Arendt’s and Jefferson’s argument) by submitting to representative government, and on the other by agreeing to outsource every last need: food, housing . . . Everything we use, we shop for, so we are at the mercy of the market when prices go up or necessities become unavailable. I don’t have an idea ready to go for how to solve these problems, at all.

VK: The associate dean of your university told you that if working conditions improve for the sharecroppers, your salary will go down and your teaching load will go up. How can poets and academics (and women) practice solidarity when it’s packaged as “dangerous” to our survival? If academia’s gross inequities (University president salaries went from $25K in the 1970s to hundreds of thousands of dollars today with salary, delayed compensation, discretionary funds, free homes or housing allowances, cars and drivers, and memberships to expensive country clubs) are perpetuated by a culture of silence or fear, how does that affect us as writers?

CW: Well, we on tenure lines are deeply affected by the adjunct economy. Tenure-line faculty do a lot of admin-developing and updating curriculum (this takes more time than you would think), advising students, organizing events and conferences, lots of other stuff both inside and outside the department (I served on our Appeals Board, for instance, a kind of internal university court). Adjuncts can’t be expected to do this kind of work; lecturers shouldn’t either, though often they do wind up doing some of it. Because there are fewer tenure-line faculty—numbers are down all over the country—we shoulder much more of this kind of work than our counterparts in earlier decades did. Professors spend less and less time on teaching and research because of the growth in the adjunct economy. The situation is brutalizing for adjuncts, but it’s terrible for tenure-line faculty too. I don’t think all of us realize that yet, but it’s knowledge that could contribute to solidarity with activist adjuncts. As for being affected as writers: we’re affected in the same way everyone else is, mostly unaware of the conditioning that keeps refilling graduate programs with fresh bodies that provide a continuing source of cheap labor, the conditioning that lets me walk the unfair hallways without thinking about labor most of the time. I wonder what the future will think of my willingness to apply for promotion in an institution that treats workers as mine does. In the meantime I really want some gray suede bootie heels, and my leave is coming up, and I should really try to write some more poems about sex and stuff. That is my brand.

VK: You’ve written on poetry and motherhood in Not For Mothers Only, the Fence anthology you co-edited with Rebecca Wolff: in your opinion does the “care economy” of America (upheld by unpaid domestic labor) relate to the “value” of poetry (language not used for utilitarian ends)?

CW:  I guess I’d like to trouble the idea that there’s a strict binary between the instrumental and non-instrumental and that poetry lies always on one side of that binary. There’s a similarity to the way poetry and say motherhood and the caring professions are sacralized, seen as special and sacred; we imagine that we value them but we can only value them if, or because they don’t participate in the corrupt economy, they aren’t paid for.

Yet is this a good thing for poems, is it a good thing for mothers, to say of them “they are special, they do their work outside the paid economy, they are pure and holy, we love them! let’s have Mother’s Day, let’s have National Poetry Month”? When in fact they are absolutely part of this economy, they just participate in it indirectly. Their roles in it are obscured. The more we holy them up and “value” them by insisting that they are not part of it, the less they are valued in any way that results in real benefit to them. Mothers should be paid (at least as long as we’re doing this paying thing to assign value to parts of the economy). As for poetry, the folks who make chapbooks and share them for free, or who la-perruque their publishing, you are awesome. But what gave you time to do unpaid labor? What gave you access to materials? Poems are in the system (see Bourdieu’s essay “The Market for Symbolic Goods”). I want poems to display or expose this fact somehow, not to ignore it, and certainly not to pretend to get outside of it.

VK: Here is an excerpt from a poem included in your collection My New Job:


I make the bird a flying fist
my violence goes on out along the stream.

Things mean, and I can’t tell them not to.
Things moralize, to meet

my expectation, because I want advice
on how to live.

In your BOMB interview with Susie DeFord you mention a secret love for didactic poetry, which you say you’re “supposed to hate” (along with, after Language poetry, any attempts at an “authorial” tone); you follow up with the enigmatic statement that you take responsibility for what your poems say.

Modernism’s rejection of a “pure language,” the intent to signify and a monadic “I” of privatized masculine interiority took a variety of forms (e.g. Gertrude Stein’s rejection of semantic “totality” for a poetics of grammar), and Language poetry favors a pluralistic “we,” polyvocality, or an absenting of the subject altogether (and thus agency) over a self-contained lyric subjectivity.

Your poem (and its process of making) is collectivist yet the voice is particular. Does a desire for meaning link up for you with a poetics of accountability toward the other?

CW: What a great question. I think you are asking something like: do I want to say things in poems (use reference, use signification) because I feel some accountability toward others? Maybe yes. I want the poem to be an exploratory space, and statements in a poem don’t necessarily have truth-value in the way that statements in other contexts might. But I want my poems to say things that risk being wrong in someone’s eyes. I don’t want any “wrongness” in my poem to be seen as OK because it’s a poem and somehow off-piste, on a mad journey aside from life.

Once in awhile I get into these discussions where I talk about how the last page of Williams’ “Spring and All” is troublingly exoticizing or how Mallarmé’s amazing Faun poem is hot to trot for rape, and then someone says “hang on, you can’t reject Williams/Mallarmé because of these ethical issues, they’re products of their time, and what about their technical innovations…” Um, I am not rejecting them, I am reading them and I think they’re amazing and is it not OK to say they’re messed up at the same time as I say they’re amazing? I’m reading them as hard as I can.

Anyway, back to the question: so I do want to “say things” in poems, but I don’t want that to sound as if I think that writers such as the Language poets or, more contemporarily, conceptual poets, who are pushing on issues around signification, aren’t thinking about issues of accountability. There are lots of ways of saying things.

VK: You’ve discussed how the demands of your job and single parenthood limit your opportunities for activism and writing. I often wonder if contemporary female poets (especially those in academia) are caught between the extremes of some of the modernist poets’ (Mina Loy’s, Laura [Riding] Jackson’s) relative isolation from one another, compared to the solidarities between poet-activists of the 60s and 70s (Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich). Is postfeminism’s rejection of essentializing terms, and neoliberalism’s proffered form of actualization for the liberal subject (aesthetic self-fashioning), crippling our opportunities for collective action between poets, and/or women?

CW:  I hope not. “Crippled” is pretty strong. What are we going to do with aesthetic self-fashioning (I think of Kate Durbin, I like what she does with her writing and person)? What are we going to do with shifting identity categories? What are we going to do with the Lorde and Rich and Loy and (Riding) Jackson in our pockets and heads? This is our stuff we have to work with, it’s what we’ve got, and I think we can play around with it and get somewhere.

I wanted to add a last thing about adjunct culture. I said in the Poetic Labor Project essay that adjuncts had a lot of power because of their numbers. Adjunct strikes could be an interesting test case for how contingent workers in other industries might create change by organizing. The thing is, though, if all the adjuncts at my school, Miami University (Paul Ryan’s alma mater!) went on strike, Miami could just hire more. Loads of MAs and MFAs and PhDs out there want work. But if the adjuncts at all the universities in the Cincinnati area organized and went on strike together – even if 30% or 40% of them went on strike, just for the first day of school next fall – the universities would be forced to recognize their power. Adjuncts, unlike taxi drivers and truck drivers, mostly have good access to the Internet. They can organize and they are already doing it. As you are!


Catherine Wagner’s collections of poems include Nervous Device (City Lights, 2012) and three books from Fence: My New Job (2009), Macular Hole (2004), and Miss America (2001). Her work has been anthologized in the Norton Anthology of Postmodern American PoetryOut of Everywhere: Linguistically Innovative Poetry by Women in North America and the UK (second edition), Gurlesque, Poets on Teaching, Best American Erotic Poems and elsewhere. She lives in Oxford, Ohio.


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