Rodrigo Toscano—untucked dress shirt flapping over dark cargo shorts—stands outside the offices of the Labor Institute in downtown Manhattan. The nondescript building is a few blocks south of Union Square Park. The place where, in 2004, 500,000 protesters began their march against the Republican National Convention.
Five years later, it’s a cloudy day in June, and the wiry poet recalls the 2004 crowd’s shape with precise hand gestures carving the humid air. He explains in a rapid-fire style his problem with the massive protest: “It was a corralling of energies . . . a fake allowance of letting a trickle of people move through an area; it was authority allowing a small, fake stream of liberality moving through its tight spaces to give the illusion that it was a civic democracy.”
His voice drops into a conspiratorial murmur: “I wanted to blow that up.”
Toscano, as a labor activist and as a poet is a highly combustible presence. He’s a radical in an older tradition—restless and fiery, much more Louis Zukofsky than Allen Ginsberg—but he shows up for work every day, too, which makes him something else altogether.
Toscano’s office offers no clues that a poet works there—no ink-stained manuscripts or half-empty bottles of absinthe. Instead, it’s bare white walls and stacks of papers. A boxy PC monitor dominates his desk. The poet spends his days here at the nerve center of the labor organization, contacting other Institute employees around the country, and fielding questions from activists and workers in a wide range of disciplines.
It wasn’t always clear to Toscano that he would have such a stable life, doing what he loves.
He grew up in San Diego and quickly veered off the common poetry path—the one that leads from a university to an MFA program to an academic job. “I felt tracked pretty early . . . to be non-university,” he says. “I did not do well in elementary school, junior high, and high school. I was a C and D student, always in trouble. But on my own, I was always reading philosophy or poetry or politics or history.”
Frustrated by his formal education, Toscano skipped college altogether, moving to San Francisco in the early 1990s. There, poetry and activism became intimately intertwined in his adult life. Toscano’s self-made syllabus sampled a wide range of poets—Leslie Scalapino, Fanny Howe, Bob Perelman, Lyn Hejinian, and Charles Bernstein—as well as political thinkers such as Karl Marx, Louis Althusser, and Herbert Marcuse. In the mid-1990s, he helped organize the Labor Party in San Francisco and published his first collection, Arbiter (Parenthesis, 1995).
From there, Toscano’s life as an activist and poet took off. Within a few short years, he organized with the Service Employees International Union in Los Angeles, published Partisans (O Books, 1999), and protested NAFTA and worldwide privatization at the Western Hemisphere Workers’ Conference in San Francisco.
These were heady days spent fighting what seemed like an impossible battle against the forces of hypercapitalism. “Now, that economic ‘philosophy’ has totally been shown to be bankrupt,” Toscano writes in an e-mail, “but back then, it took work to struggle against it.”
Alan Benjamin, a member of the San Francisco Labor Council’s executive committee, worked closely with Toscano throughout the 1990s. Together they edited the Golden Gate Labor Party newsletter. Benjamin recalls the young poet: “He had precise demands, precise formulas. He said, ‘People are being affected and we need to speak to them directly on the issues, not just pie-in-the-sky ideas. We need a platform that speaks to the needs of the working people.’”
By the end of the decade, Toscano was forced to reconcile his time-consuming political passion and his literary career. In 1999 he left California for the Labor Institute in Manhattan, hoping to “recoup my literary-political trajectory,” he says.
“From that point on, my activism within organized labor began to decline, so I had this glut, and I’m talking an absolute glut, of experience, organizational experience, languages, attitude, perspective on labor justice issues,” he explains.
As Toscano the activist stepped away from the front lines of the labor movement, Toscano the poet emerged in a flurry of politically minded experimental work. Within a few years he published The Disparities (Green Integer Books, 2002) and Platform (Atelos, 2003).
“All that [experience] was dammed up and spilled like a broken dam into Platform,” he says. “So much material came out of that particular period that I could have written a book twice the length.”
For two years during this pivotal time Toscano traveled around the country, helping educate workers about their workplaces for the institute. In New York City, he taught steam and electrical plant accident prevention with a utility workers’ union; in Chicago, he worked with bookbinders; in Nashville, he helped the Paper, Allied-Industrial and Energy Workers Union map chemical processing dangers in the workplace.
Though the work was immensely rewarding, the long hours began to interfere with Toscano’s writing. Fortunately, the Labor Institute provides a certain flexibility for artists and gave him a more peaceful administrative post in the New York City office.
Now that he keeps office hours, Toscano maintains a rigorous writing program in his free time. During his most intensely creative periods, he writes from 6:00 to 10:00 a.m., then heads to work. After leaving the office, he keeps a strict exercise schedule—either running or swimming. In the evening, he edits his writing from the morning, often showing final drafts to his partner, the poet Laura Elrick, for feedback.
It’s a full life, and one he’s clearly grateful for. He dedicated his most recent collection of work, Collapsible Poetics Theater (Fence Books, 2008), to his colleagues at the Labor Institute. In an e-mail, he explains the gesture: “They all—together, have made my workplace an artistically amenable place to be in. Many employers in the U.S. are not that poet-friendly.”
Toscano’s fellow employees have included a number of artists and authors, including the poets Lisa Jarnot and Erica Hunt. In addition, the institute has employed the avant-garde choreographer Sally Silvers as well as dancers, performers, designers, and cartoonists. Currently, the writer Les Leopold directs the institute.
As Toscano moved away from his training responsibilities at work, his poetry became more instructional. But he doesn’t often exhort the reader, as did Rilke, to change her life—it’s a little more complicated than that.
In fact, Collapsible Poetics Theater (CPT) reads like an avant-garde training manual, crammed with diagrams, numbered instructions, commands, and surgically precise language. In “Clock, Deck, and Movement,” Toscano orders his players to follow a technically complex set of rules, teaching his reader to channel five “different embedded voices” in each stanza.
Toscano’s performance poem “Spine” opens with a player struggling under the weight of a vertical beam, spouting a disorienting, fragmented poem:
It’s . . . not . . . the main . . . thing . . . this . . . it’s . . . the extensions . . . above . . . and away . . . far . . . each . . . dangling . . . reaching . . . vine . . . each . . . fruit . . . emotion
. . . thought . . . sound . . . fading . . . slightly . . . slightly . . . expiring . . .
Before every CPT performance—the most recent was at Schweinfurth Memorial Art Center in Auburn, New York, in April—Toscano spends from 48 to 72 hours training his players for the experience. He calls this the “Contact Zone,” an experience analogous to the poet’s technical training with workers around the country.
Frequent collaborator Tom Orange describes it: “The prep period is intense: we usually go through at least three or four rehearsal sessions before a given performance. It’s an organic process, beginning with close collaborative study of the text, getting down elements of delivery like pacing, intonation, and inflection.”
“I imagine that editorial work took place more between poet and performer,” explains Rebecca Wolff, the editor and publisher at Fence Books. “Some books come to us seeming to be finalized,” she adds. “Rodrigo’s been publishing books for a long time; he’s got a really strong sense of his desires and aims. The sections have thorough notes to the audience and stage directions—it was a complete concept.”
As his CPT work has evolved, Toscano has enjoyed residencies at Bard College, the Evergreen State College and the Kootenay School of Writing, indicating that the academy has learned to appreciate this stubborn outsider. CPT was selected to be part of the prestigious National Poetry Series in 2007, a measure of mainstream recognition for a poet outside the walls of the university.
“Even though it won the National Poetry Series, I don’t think [CPT] should be read,” says Natalie Knight, a poet and CPT player. “It should be acted—because it’s theater.” Along with many other CPT clips, Toscano has posted a video excerpt of a 2007 San Francisco performance of the poem “Clock, Deck, and Movement” on YouTube.
It opens with three untrained actors sitting at a table with microphones, like members of a surreal press conference staged by Samuel Beckett. Music pumps over the sound system. A female narrator reads a staccato stanza over the action (“it’s nobody’s fault we don’t live in radical times, it’s your fault man”) as the players flip the table upside down.
The players proceed to slide the table back and forth in an awkward battle for control, literally embodying the futile protest Toscano saw at the RNC march in 2004.
“Volumes of articles have been written . . . about globalization,” he explains. “Everybody has been fighting over a conference table that’s been upside down, legs up, dead as a bug. Back and forth, back and forth, always ceding responsibility.”
That image represents two seemingly contradictory sides of his life: years spent focused on teaching and activism in the workplace, while simultaneously writing esoteric poetry outside the office. Remembering Toscano’s early days as an activist, Alan Benjamin explains: “Rodrigo was very central to developing the Labor Party platform. He always wanted a very concrete platform. As a poet some of his work may seem very abstract, but in his activist work he was very committed to precision.”
A few blocks away from the institute, Toscano reveals how this precision affects CPT performers: “I like more surgical kinds of poetic investigations. Perhaps at the cost, sometimes, of immediate graspable comprehension—something you can put in your vest pocket and walk away.”
He flashes a smile.
“I would even go so far as to say that some people are transformed.”