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“More writing than welding”
I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t know a thing about Philip Levine’s “poetry eternal.” I don’t even know what I’m going to have today for lunch (aka, “all this temporal crap”). Now the order for how the condiments go on a Wendy’s hamburger (mayonnaise, ketchup, pickles, onions, tomato, lettuce, mustard), that I know. Because there’s certain things you never forget after nearly a decade of practice, something “unforgettable (that’s what you are)” about spending a good portion of your life assembling cars or changing bedpans or typing memos or “manufacturing hamburgers” (remember that great idea from George W., right up there with the Reagan administration’s idea of classifying ketchup as a vegetable in the pre-NCLB school lunches). By the way, is “ketchup as a vegetable” a simile? Mmm, mmm, good…
Likewise, I’d say as far as temporal repetitive jobs go, with making your kid breakfast. Taking out the trash. Feeding the cat and the barking thirteen-week-old puppy (and cleaning up his poop in the yard). OK, maybe this is getting too specifically about my morning. Or is it? Is there something about working, about “everyday life” that scales across many of the divides? (Except, of course, if a nanny or au pair made the kiddo breakfast, the maid or cleaning service took out the trash, the dog walker and/or the lawn crew cleared the dog-done deeds along with the excess leaves of grass.)
Today, in between these Tillie Olsen and Meridel Le Sueur celebrated tasks, I secured an hour or so to read Tom Woodin’s essay “‘More writing than welding’: learning in worker writer groups,” an ethnographic/oral history account of the UK Federation of Worker Writers and Community Publishers, an essay that was published a few years ago in History of Education. Established in 1976, the FED grew to include a wide array of community-based creative writing workshops including Basement Writers, Hackney Writing Workshop, London Voices (all London), Scotland Road Writers’ Workshop, Stockbridge Writers, Chilwall Writers, Prescot Writers (all Liverpool), Commonword, including Identity Writers (Manchester), Heeley Writers (Shefﬁeld), Bristol Broadsides, QueenSpark (Brighton), Shorelink (Hastings) and groups in the North-East.
Woodin’s ethnographic account gives a detailed history of these “community publishing as self-education” or “collective self-education” workshops. As someone who’s been leading workshops like these in factories and union halls in the U.S. and abroad as well as in community college and “adult ed” classrooms, what struck me most were the comments by participants on how community- and workplace-based creative workshops such as these fostered their interest in putting pen to paper and what it meant to have space for and feedback on their stories, poems, and plays. A shipyard worker from Newcastle, for example, describes the difficulty of finding the social space to nurture his love of writing in his youth: “I was trying to write as a child you know and eventually to put some of the words so as they rhymed and then I threw them in the dustbin and the fire because we cannot really be a poet amongst football mad kids.”
And this narrative from a worker-writer at Scotland Road: “The old woman who joined the group, in her 70s, could barely hold a bloody pen in her hand—because she’d worked in a laundry all her life and her hands were like ragpicker’s hands, the joints were all swollen and all the rest of it. And people used to help her write. But she told terrific stories… Bloody fascinating…the difficulty would be putting that into writing and trying to retain that same position and humour and warmth that was in the storytelling.”
As Stan Weir, whose Singlejack Solidarity came out a few years ago, wrote: “We are starved for images of ourselves….for identity and for aids to communicate the condition of our lives and the good in them. But the millions who do the so-called ‘unskilled,’ ‘semi-skilled,’ ‘craft,’ and even ‘professional’ jobs in American workplaces are seldom, if ever, represented fairly in the popular literature and media of the nation.” The Fed, according to Woodin, did just that; it “enabled working class people to construct their own literary culture…challenging what they perceived to be a selective tradition in literature which could alienate working class people.” [Note: see critic and novelist Raymond Williams’ Problems in Materialism and Culture: Selected Essays for more on “selected tradition”.] And Woodin’s concluding point equally seems apropos for our discussions here today: “While institutions have become more diverse and many more opportunities for cultural expression now exist, it can still be argued that an elite is being formed and re-formed, albeit on a slightly more meritocratic and diverse basis than previously. Cultural and educational institutions are still nurturing ‘stars’ that speak and write to a passive audience. Thus, the majority of people remain positioned as outsiders, as consumers rather than producers.”