After publishing my Sixty Morning Talks interview collection, I have begun work on a more focused, single-press interview series, offering a comprehensive oral history (a cinéma vérité, in prose) of Nightboat Books’ diverse and ambitious output over its first decade of publication. For this newer project, it particularly interests me to track interpersonal and intertextual constellations that have helped to shape the work done by Nightboat’s authors, publishers and designers. Nightboat will publish this interview collection late next year. This interview focuses on Jill Magi’s book LABOR and was recorded March 12, 2015 and transcribed by Nicole Monforton.– Andy Fitch
Andy Fitch: Progressing through LABOR, I wondered what proportion of your audience might consist of professors, professional poets and/or professed Marxists potentially finding their own ethics, their own self-conception, quite often challenged. I know that I could read your book on a late Monday morning only because non-tenure-line instructors filled those teaching-intensive composition courses that get so crowded before noon. But I also remember, in your Conversant interview with Thomas Fink about SLOT, your statement that our poetry community has limited training in how to critique certain practices without discarding them all together. So could we start with this specific small world of poets and/or academics? Could you describethe types of discussions you hope for LABOR to prompt among readers who find their own lives immediately reflected in the book?
Jill Magi: These are great questions. In relation to that comment that I made to Thomas: most people’s lives are moving more toward precarity I would say. So I live with that. I also live with this idea that nothing is wrong. In other words, we are exactly where we should be and doing what we need to be doing. That is an awareness, a dialectic that I feel very viscerally. What I want from poets is a little bit more patience that their art-making need not result in a change that they can measure. I’ve said that before. But this patience doesn’t mean that critiques don’t need to be engaged. In other words, the idea is to keep making art as the teaching artist does in the book, the character Miranda. But to also know that the making of art might not change the problem one is currently in. Thomas and I were engaging in that line of thinking because SLOT had just had a somewhat negative review that suggested: if you’re going to critique something, isn’t it obvious that things are already wrong, so why bother engaging in a critique? And what kind of right does a poet have to make a critique? I’m interested in the ways that, unlike other kinds of texts, a text that isn’t traditional exposition can stay with critique but make language work in a fashion that’s generative and resonant (toward nuances, the possibility that we can love something and be critical at once), and not necessarily generative toward a solution or resolution—I want texts that can provide feedback loops.
The other part of your question about audience is interesting. I want other adjuncts to read my book and feel very plainly: solidarity, camaraderie. I want them to feel the sense that there is nothing wrong with them for feeling the weight of that backpack on their back, that portable office. That it isn’t their fault. That they haven’t done something that prevented them from measuring up properly to get the job. I want to help adjuncts to be able to put their situation in a context. You know, a diminished job landscape being one of them. I thought a lot less about potential full-time tenured professors reading the book and seeing themselves in the archeologist character J., who’s tenured. But I had this awareness that a lot of folks who occupy places of privilege like tenure, inside the institution, are also really unhappy. So I wanted to write that J. is unhappy with many aspects of her field. She does not feel at home in the institution either. She’s a woman of color. I wanted many readers to think through the ethics of their position vis-à-vis each other as well as this shared space—how it might be possible that the institution doesn’t work for all three of them.
I’ve created three characters who are all outsiders in some way. J. watches Miranda, who is of ambiguous ethnicity. J. watches Miranda, the teaching artist, and sees that Miranda, in her contingent status, has a particular freedom and capacity to critique in a way that J. cannot. A lot of J.’s resistance is covert and quite futile. She uses her archeologist tools to remove signs from the hallways in her building. She’s also obsessed with collecting the old card-catalog cabinets that the library wants to discard. She’s doing these things that are perhaps cathartic or silently resistant, but she’s noticing that Miranda is teaching a class called Public Art. Miranda’s students never leave the classroom, and J. wonders what’s up with that. She tries to follow Miranda’s syllabus because she thinks that something that Miranda knows about making things and being an artist is something that she would like to know or do. Then there is the character Sadie, who was a contract employee, and due to budget cuts, lost her position. J. tries to help Sadie by letting Sadie use her office at night to do this sort of covert grievance work. J. feels maybe a little bit guilty about the fact that Sadie was full-time but didn’t get tenure. I think they’d like to have a friendship. There’s a moment when they meet at the threshold of their shared office but Sadie rejects her, closes the door on her. There’s also a line in the book about how it’s possible to hate one’s big job. That’s actually a moment when Miranda looks up and notices that the Dean is pacing in his office. He’s not a happy character either. I was trying to not so much locate the privilege but to see how even those with privilege on paper are actually looking for something else, looking for another way to be within the institution. The institution’s problems impact all who enter it, regardless of their official status.
AF: Just to give some specific points of reference within the text as document: your opening indexical/invocational poem brings up a lot of these ambivalences. At the same time, it offers light, short, anaphoric lines that often end in propositions. It feels very inviting and expansive at first, formally or syntactically. But before the first page ends, I sense an uncomfortably constrictive order also present, and soon I note the coalescence of an abecedarian—an alphabetically arranged project. Again, this particular arrangement could suggest a large-scale, all-inclusive, comprehensive scope, like an encyclopedia’s. Or this arrangement could seem quite confining and categorically closed as a system (you either fit into it or you don’t). And then implicit ideological biases begin to arise when, say, the terms “labor” and “trade unions” get linked to “Communism.” Could you discuss the tensions raised within that opening sequence, and how they relate to the overall LABOR project?
JM: I wanted to do a couple of things with this introduction. One was to create a lyrical space. Something like an invocation, almost liturgical, opening up the space of the book with repeated sounds, with a repeated meter. And I liked ending on propositions: the voice wants to try to complete the phrase. Like the register of a question. Maybe “incantation” is the word. I also liked that I could use that space to include a nod to the books that had been important to me when I was studying labor history, particularly from the point of view of African American trade-union activists—with labor, in this country, also including the history of slavery and the current situation of racism, economic struggle and those relationships. So I went to all the books that were foundational for me, including a book from my mentor John Calagione, and some other folks who have been important to me like Robin Kelley and Jacqueline Jones. That beginning was a way to signify on them by taking those books’ indices and placing them in front, in order to say “Before my book comes these other books.” Also, the two volumes of the American Social History Project’s Who Built America? are referenced here. The gesture was a nod to elders or forbearers and also via language and its sounds.
AF: I too love, let’s say, Jacqueline Jones’s Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow. But did you find it fraught to engage the archive as an institution having an essential preservatory function, yet also reducing human experience to something one can index, catalog, abstract? Did you feel any regret to deal with the abstraction rather than the lived human experience of people who can’t speak for themselves in this context? But maybe that never becomes a big issue in the book.
JM: Actually, to me, it doesn’t. The Wagner Labor Archive is really interesting. There were times when I felt that this archive has a certain hegemony to it, and that it presents a boxing up, literally, of what labor history means. But the Wagner is organized around the names of specific activists and actors in history, so it defies that hegemony also. There are quirky things in the archive like personal notes, appointment books, items from everyday lives. And I do feel very differently about indices in the back of books. I do see those as openings, these moments of Oh, these are the determined touchstones…well, let me go to page 77 and when I go there, I’m sure I’m going to see something else. Yes, indices are a reduction, and I’m interested in that choice to reduce and then open back up. I’m hoping that, framed as poetry, the indexing urge becomes lyrical, a circumstantially sound-based composition, a distillation of one way of sensing those texts. Of course, what you’re saying is true, but I was thinking of it in the reverse: the words are openings into, portals into something generative, a story about to come.
AF: Still on the topic of authors who get cited here: when I first opened the book, thinking of particular topics that LABOR might address, I found Marguerite Duras quoted in your epigraph. At first, Duras seemed an odd fit. But I remember, with SLOT, you describing a literary form that offers many vantages, that arrives at something like a conclusion but then departs from it, then comes back to it before too long—allowing audiences to compare and consider, rather than definitively conclude something. Does Duras provide a useful structural model for modular literary spaces? Or in the past, you have described a poetics of healing that remains unpredictable, circular, mysterious. Does Duras fit in with that?
JM: Yeah, I think so. Marguerite Duras became very important to me at a moment in my writing life when I thought I was a novelist and then realized that I couldn’t write plot and was really more interested in language. I found her absolute direct narration to be refreshing in contrast to a Henry James novelistic thing that I had thought I should be going for. Her work came into my life at a moment when I was also taking Laura Hinton’s “Women in Fiction” class up at City College, where I was doing my masters. We studied Duras and it was also my first introduction to Leslie Scalapino. We also read Tender Buttons. It was a huge semester for me. The ground shifted under my feet and I moved closer toward what could be called poetry, though I really don’t care about genre. I like your word “modular,” so yes, perhaps this is the writing I came to find: writing that keeps returning to statements with slightly different insights, maybe even progress, or digressions down the page. Duras seems to do that as she links sentences and reconsiders scenes she may have just written.
I’m also going to say that LABOR reverts back to characters in a family home, a childhood home, toward the end of the book. Duras often emphasizes this: linking family and politics, or seeing the family as political. I think that the oppositional stance that you find in social-justice movements actually can be traced to folks needing to resist textures of their home, in terms of who is allowed to speak and who isn’t. I do think that my emergence into writing was actually an attempt to rewrite a silencing home texture. That’s present at the end of LABOR: a deer, a hunter, a sister down the hall. I was really happy to find this quote from Duras about leaving behind the family of the hunter. I wrote LABOR to try to get underneath the rhetoric of “us versus them” in labor movements. Duras inserts a further liberatory gesture by admitting the possible multiplicity of “them” when we rise up to fight a power structure. I think that’s why she’s there.
AF: Well, in LABOR, we also find, amid the pervasive, Brutalist cinderblock, an immersive attention to perfume scents, to stalled elevators, to the interplay of institutional-lighting patterns while one passes down the hall to class, to never finding the right room, never officially submitting one’s shameful syllabus, never remembering to take attendance, etc. Amid all of those elements, which combine into a Bobst Library- or Sebald-inflected vertigo of sorts, I recognize many of my daily neurasthenic impressions as a teacher. I’d love to hear more about the body teaching. We could focus on gender dynamics (the slouching undergrad staring at his teacher’s body until she cuts class early, the lecher dean sitting opposite Miranda’s “crossed legs her desire for money”). Then as a constructive antidote perhaps to such scenes, we also could consider tactility as form of inquiry. Fingers will trace the architecture. Characters feel a desire to touch the archive, the excavated archeology site. Could we discuss how pathologies or therapeutics or affects of touch play out in LABOR? How do we arrive at the book’s “I” depositing the manuscript in a box lined with fur? How can we bring your abiding interest in textiles, and/or your training with Bhanu Kapil, to these questions of touch, therapeutic touch, corrosive touch?
JM: First, in response to this sequence of questions, I am immediately thinking of my work as a visual artist—I work with textiles, and there’s a huge body of thinking about textiles and touch. I actually made boxes, lined them with fake fur, and put documents in them while I was writing LABOR. Those addendum practices that are documented in the book, I actually did some of those things. I’m not sure why. It’s part of a practice of not only imagining, but realizing other environments for things like documents and archives and for the body. Perhaps if I’m going to run my hand against cinderblock, that is a performance of recognizing two things: cinderblock does have a texture and I do have a body. I don’t know that I ever thought about these actions as corrosive or therapeutic. They just seemed to occupy a space of ritual necessity. For me, as a visual artist working with materials, I am aware that I am part of a tribe who does things to and with materials. I’ve actually just been reading Vibrant Matter by Jane Bennett, though I wasn’t reading it when I wrote LABOR. As artists we are attuned to touch, frankly, and the pliability of matter, as well as its energy. My training with Bhanu was interesting because, more than forefronting touch or tactility, she encouraged me to forefront ritual practice. The things that I needed to do on the jobsite to flourish as a person were actions that I could record in a book. Or I could imagine in the space of writing a potential action that could resituate my body in space—so to not feel disappeared, taxed or overly burdened.
Your question about teaching and the body is such a great question, but I just don’t have anything else to say about that. It’s so intense. Bhanu warned me that it’s really taboo to write about teaching. I went there anyway. I think I need to write a whole other essay where I am direct and come clean about what goes on in the classroom for me. I probably need to read a lot of bell hooks and re-read Paulo Freire and write a serious essay. Now, as a woman who is middle-aged, for the first time students are saying to me “You remind me of my mother.” Now I enter into a new body-space in front of students. It was a fabulous experience to teach in the MFA program at Columbia College Chicago, but the classrooms were intensely hot. I said to my students one day “This is ridiculous. What if I have a hot flash?” They looked shocked. They were floored that that language could even enter the space. If it had been overly air-conditioned somebody could have said, without any shock, “Oh, what if I catch a cold?”
Something I have never talked about is that I was a gymnast growing up. Talk about performance and the body and a super-gendered activity. Later, as an undergraduate, I was involved in improvisational modern dance, and I think that’s one of the ways I came into writing, by imagining the page as also this floor-space of movement, of composition. The body inscribes space, and words do this also. I guess I just don’t ever think about the body as teaching naturally. There’s always a performative element. Teaching is practice in vulnerability, and to feel that vulnerable is to feel very alive.
The other thing I’ve never written about but I’ve mentioned to people is that, by the end of the semester, every person in the classroom looks much more beautiful than I’m guessing they think they are. I’m really interested in that texture of seeing someone else with a lot of acceptance, and after having listened very closely to each other. By the end of the semester, “seeing” crosses over to this plane beyond familiarity, beyond basic “recognition” and maybe even beyond “power.” I find that really life-giving. That’s the flipside of the danger of vulnerability one might feel as a teacher. You may walk the hallways feeling by turns glared at or invisible, but you also have these eyes that look out at the students, and the students become something like gifts to you.
AF: Certainly you could read more on teaching practices, but you already write terrifically on these topics. You also brought up ritualistic enactments, and I know in the past you’ve mentioned your interest in the Technicians of the Sacred anthology. Could we talk about how the “HANDBOOK” exercises play out here? Could I offer my favorite, the scantron one (“Run the results through voice recognition software and play into the space of your studio. This monotone computerized voice will suggest a chant”)? Have you (or has anyone) enacted or performed these handbook assignments? It sounds as though you at least have enacted some. Also, more broadly, as one approaches a book examining the position of adjuncts in contemporary academia, one might envision a gloomy, pessimistic narrative. But here your epilogue tells us “Track these pages playfully. Because you have a listening name and love will pull you back.”
JM: There’s a little story behind the “HANDBOOK” exercises. At almost every job that I’ve had, somehow I get elected or appointed to write the handbook.
AF: I’ve found myself in that position a few times.
JM: Yes, I can imagine you have. You’re a good editor! I guess I’m an organized person. I’m a good worker. I can meet deadlines. I have a lot of work experience. As soon as I was of working age, I got my working papers and I was working. So I have written three employee or faculty handbooks. I’ve written a student handbook as well. One day one of my colleagues at the Center for Worker Education was joking with me and said “Oh you should write an alternative employee handbook.” And so I actually did. I made a little pamphlet I think called “Tips for how to handle your poet employee.” I didn’t sign my name or anything, but I gave it to my favorite coworkers for a laugh. By the way, I see the jobsite as an extremely social space. I really enjoy being a coworker. One of the things about being an adjunct is that you don’t spend a lot of time with your coworkers. You kind of shuffle into the institution and then you leave. So in writing LABOR’s handbook, I was imagining ritual activities that could be done alone, but that could also be a shared transcript among adjuncts here and there. I wanted some of the directives to be absurd, funny. Does everybody want to be a funny poet? I don’t know. I don’t really think of myself as a funny person but I know that on the job I love to have a laugh. I love to hang out at the reception desk and find out who’s a good storyteller, who makes laughter happen at the workplace. This release valve is really a part of work and a huge part of culture-building. I think the handbook sections in the book are playful, and it’s funny to imagine an entire cohort performing these actions—because we all know that the actual employee handbook really isn’t going to help us.
AF: Here, could we pivot from questions of play to how your own autobiographical experience again manifests in the book? You’ve talked a bit about LABOR’s ambiguous “I.” But first, for broader background context: at what point in the book’s development did you join the ranks of non- or less-contingent faculty (I guess we all stay forever contingent)? What does it mean now to have NYU as your employer? And I remember, with SLOT, the idea that we need some sort of temporal distance to help us productively memorialize and process a traumatic scene. Your Fink interview offers a partial critique of liberal guilt for taking on other people’s causes, rather than grappling with one’s own pain. How has your critique of contingent-labor structures changed as your own career trajectory changes?
JM: I’m glad you asked. I’m in Abu Dhabi, which is a partial answer to your question. I really like this city. I might even be falling in love with it. I do wake up sometimes and can’t believe that this is where I live. I feel like New York is my home city and I feel like a New Yorker. My family is from that area. It’s where my dad’s family landed when they emigrated, and my mom was born in Yonkers. I think it’s really uncanny that my parents, especially my dad, can’t believe that I moved here. For his generation, the goal of reaching the United States was paramount. It signaled opportunity. So the fact that, in even just one generation, I would need to leave the States in order to stay in my profession is kind of incredible. For more on that and needless austerity and its impacts, read Paul Krugman.
Yet with this job, I’ve moved out of contingent status. I’m a full-time contract person now. I’m not tenure-track. I moved out of adjunct status by taking a very faraway job, and I believe it was the only choice I had. So I’m really understanding the word “globalization” a whole lot more. Profoundly. I’m aware of people moving for jobs now, in a way that I had not been. I don’t really believe that we all have to be able to stay “at home” to flourish, but I am aware that there are a lot of people who separate even from their immediate families in order to pursue opportunities. Like many of the workers and laborers here in Abu Dhabi. That’s not my case. Jonny came with me and we’re happy here. I just have a lot more of an awareness now about the things people do, the lengths they travel, and the sacrifices they make to live—to make money.
And maybe I can speak a little bit more loudly now than I could before about how much it sucks being an adjunct, and how much I think it’s impacting the entire educational system in a negative way. Not because adjuncts are not capable, but because that precarity takes a toll. Greed, inflated administrator salaries, the cost of health care and the cost of technology on campus—those are the real problems. The continued problem of the adjunctification of the university is happening because of those things. I still speak about it any time I can. For the Essay Press project that you invited me to do, the adjunct fact sheet is really important to help keep awareness going, about the huge problem that this is. Maybe working on this book LABOR allowed me to have my eyes further open to that—yet the writing solidified my commitment to teaching. Despite the diseases rampant in higher education, it is my institution, my home, my profession.
I think a lot of people are aware of the labor challenges and controversies in the United Arab Emirates. I hope that instead of only focusing on the UAE, this kind of awareness will help all of us think back on our own home contexts and global connections. For example, who built the new student center on your campus? Were they union workers? Were they paid well? Who hung the sheetrock? Who taped it off? Who staffs the kitchens now? Did the building contract go to a friend of your college president? And, thinking globally, what role do U.S. politics play in the home countries of those places who send their citizens here to the UAE to work? Places like Pakistan, the Philippines? Is a focus on “them” a call to action, or a way to suppress complex-systems thinking that can often come around to self-recrimination? Both? Can we think really big about these problems of labor? Do artists own a piece of the moral high ground from which to judge and call for action, or are they down near the roots of the very problem they are pointing out?
Now when I think about contingency, moving, migrancy and struggle, I think very widely. As I tried to do with SLOT, I still study my own context very closely. Perhaps talking about systemic greed has the potential to affect even the construction worker who is here in Abu Dhabi suffering, as well as the construction worker in the States who may be blocked, probably due to race, from being in the electrician’s union, for example.
AF: Again, it always interests me that you write about messy, embodied, quasi-autobiographical situations, but wish to avoid making yourself into a hero, avoid self-monumentalization. LABOR critiques Roger & Me, the Michael Moore film and his obnoxious antics in it. I actually admire that film in part because of these flaws. I love, in your own work too, how potentially contradictory or self-canceling qualities can suggest personal experience, candor, without becoming too personalized or self-valorizing. Here I’d like to discuss LABOR’s staging of its diffusive or ambiguous “I” as creating a productive space for public inquiry. LABOR’s “I” plays an especially important if less obvious role bringing in the audience and constructing space for that audience to reflect at the same time.
JM: I was once part of a failed union campaign. I was young and it really shocked me that we lost the vote. I actually had to sign a gag order, so I can’t relay anything more specific. So I have a very anti-hero stance toward this subject! I literally failed at it. But I think it’s characteristic of labor history and of the Wagner Labor Archive that there is actually, necessarily so, a lot of valorization of individual heroism and acts of courage. Often documents enter that archive when someone passes away. A family member feels compelled to have relatives’ union activism remembered, and it’s usually through that kind of a donation that a file becomes part of the archive. I find it amazing that union work is often guarded by families, and legacies are discussed around dinner tables. Yet I’m really aware of the problems of this tendency to believe that it’s a personal or individual struggle that results in change. This wariness that I have about the individual causing change actually enables me to use the “I” in my writing. I don’t really take the “I” so seriously, so singularly. I sense that it is always so incredibly adjacent. Adjacent to bigger strategies, plans, shared actions. If we even think about the way the Rosa Parks story gets told: it’s that she individually had a day where she decided she wasn’t going to take it anymore. A lot of us don’t know that that’s not the story, and that she was trained at Myles Horton’s Highlander Center, the place we know Dr. King had great alliances with. Those alliances were downplayed because, strategically, King didn’t want to be associated with anything that looked like communism. So Rosa Parks was trained. The movement picked her to do this action for very strategic reasons. I read somewhere that one reason was that she was fairly light-skinned.
AF: Also middle-aged.
JM: So she probably would seem less threatening. So yes, individual action has some power, but I’m utterly convinced that real social change happens in much more broad-scoped ways. That’s why I feel unconcerned with some poetry’s critique of the “I”—that it’s too solipsistic. In my thinking and art I’m always kind of toggling back and forth between micro and macro.
AF: The Rosa Parks analogy works well for your book. Parks provides this almost mythic, inherently memorable construct of individual character. But you’ve also mentioned your sociological training. And your interest in cultural studies and anthropology often comes up. I’ve wondered if such training likewise lends itself to fictive constructs in your work. A lot of documentary poetics, let’s say, foregrounds a pledge to make everything bibliographically traceable—to remain within the factual, which you drift in and out of. I’d also love to discuss how characterization plays out in your book. Your Jean-Luc Godard epigraph recalled for me that Godard’s movies will offer sociological or anthropological or essayistic vignettes as much as dramatic or novelistic development. And the photo-spread near LABOR’s end looks like Alphaville, my all-time favorite film.
JM: Here I can trace how in a way this book is a return to fiction for me. My very first book Threads actually was a novel before it disintegrated and became the book that Futurepoem published. In a way, LABOR is a return to characters. I took a workshop in the haibun form with Rebecca Brown at Goddard, and began writing these one-page journeys to work. I was starting to amass a folder filled with these, and I was calling it “Labor.” Then I did a semester of work with Bhanu. She just looked at me one day and said “You need fiction.” We were in the hallway or something, and she said it and I was like, “Oh OK.” So I imagined these three characters who could do things that I have not done or couldn’t do. And I utilized Bhanu’s compositional tool called The Matrix. I placed these characters in various situations in a matrix to see what would happen, particularly what would happen when two occupy the same space at once. Would they actually talk? Would they just brush shoulders? I set up situations that I did not know the outcome to before sitting down to write. Thus, fiction.
AF: In terms of a matrix and a compositional whole, your acknowledgements extend gratitude to Stephen Motika for his “passionate editing.” That phrase could suggest an oxymoron to some. What did “passionate editing” mean to this book?
JM: Stephen is a fantastic editor. I felt that this manuscript was very polished, because it was my MFA thesis, and I thought it was good to go. I sent it to him and he got back to me with feedback that made the book better. He said he loved all the bodies and institutional space, but he thought it was too neat, that it was too clean. I think those were his words. He was absolutely right. It was with Stephen’s editorial suggestion that I took commas out. I looked for breathlessness. I returned the text to a place of urgency. I looked to Alice Notley at that point. I had recently been to a reading of hers at the University of Chicago, and in the middle of the reading, she broke down and started crying. I thought that was extremely brave so I thought I needed to look at her texts. That’s when some of her language came in. But I wouldn’t have gone there if it hadn’t been for Stephen pushing me. It was an amazing privilege to have his honest reading of the book. His reading made it better.
AF: Finally, for these questions about the fiction/nonfiction continuum, could we move back to the documentary, to your evocation of Seneca Village—the first sight of African American land ownership in Manhattan, the victim of a propaganda campaign, of supposed “slum-clearance” and urban renewal? Seneca Village serves as something of a civic crime scene that creates the space for Central Park. You’ve discussed the appeal of indices. Here, in your treatment of Seneca Village, you open space for your reader to explore further and investigate on his/her own. In the past you’ve described poetry tracking complicated systems and probing small-scale intimacies. Did Seneca Village stand out for prompting both forms of inquiry?
JM: Seneca Village is an example of the idea of progress gone awry. This is a theme that I always go back to: how modernity presents itself as interested in betterment yet in the name of progress, how it will commit atrocious acts and then proceed to rewrite those actions as necessary and justifiable. This sinister side of “progress” is often felt very intimately, as intimate violence, and this is what I usually write about. Threads is about nationalism. SLOT is about memorialization. Cadastral Map is about environmentalism. In LABOR, J. (the archeologist) uses new technologies of ground-penetrating radar, considered an advancement in archeology. With this tool you can see things that aren’t there, that are buried. You don’t “need” to do a dig. But if there had actually been an excavation in this case, the learning, the history and knowing would be on display for everyone to see. The history of an organized, built settlement would be there. But it is not. Thus “progress” in a field of knowledge can directly relate to a failure of vision, of knowing. I am very interested in the idea of progress being completely relative. Progress to whom? For whom? These questions link very well to the challenges of a documentary practice. Documentaries are supposed to be instructional nonfiction systems, and more learning is supposed to be a good thing. Bill Nichols writes that “Documentary itself expresses a faith in knowing.” We seem to agree that it is better to know more. In J.’s case, she knows, but others don’t see. Maybe this frustration is what adjuncts experience. They know what’s going on, but the systemic problem is not seen, especially by students. So knowing is relative, and knowledge is not neutral. My critique of documentary poetics is that if we believe a poem can deliver knowledge, then this may imply that the poet or reader has mastered some knowledge. The point is to try to get underneath how the knowledge is made—by whom and for whom. To get under the idea of mastery. People might call my work documentary. But I hope it’s also in the vein of Trinh T. Minh-ha: work that is about getting underneath what knowing means, and who claims knowledge.
Andy Fitch’s most recent books are Sixty Morning Walks, Sixty Morning Talks and (with Amaranth Borsuk) As We Know. Ugly Duckling soon will release his ebook Sixty Morning Wlaks. With Cristiana Baik, he is currently assembling the Letter Machine Book of Interviews. He has dialogic books forthcoming from 1913 Press and Nightboat Books. He edits Essay Press, teaches in the University of Wyoming’s MFA program, and directs the MA program in literature.
Jill Magi is an artist, writer, and educator working in text, image, and textile. She is the author of over five books including LABOR (Nightboat 2014), the monograph Pageviews/Innervisions (Rattapallax 2014), the e-pamphlets Labor Poetic Labor! Projects 1 and 2 (Essay Press 2015), and SHROUD (a DIY collaboration with Jen Hofer 2012). In spring 2015 Jill wrote weekly for Jacket2 on a textile poetics, and other essays have appeared in The Force of What’s Possible: Accessibility and the Avant-garde, The Racial Imaginary, and The Eco-Language Reader. The New York University Abu Dhabi Project Space gallery mounted a solo exhibition of her visual work in 2015. She has taught at The New School University, The City College of NY, Goddard College, School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Columbia College Chicago. Currently, she teaches writing through the study of textiles, as well as poetry and art electives at NYUAD where she joined the faculty in the fall of 2013.