The Quality of Light
As it turns out, there’s no way to discuss poetry and money without also talking about work, institutions educational and otherwise, hierarchies of value, the reproduction of various normals—or, as Cecily Nicholson describes it, murderous conditions of the everyday. Nicholson’s story of coming to poetry is at once intimate and expansive. It’s very much a story of work, in both the service and social service industries, but also of coming to and leaving cities, teachers of all kinds.
There is a sort of familiar narrative about cities and poets. Going there to be an artist. This is not that story. The city here is complicated, a place as much about displacement and injustice as access to any cultural milieu. So too the sharing economy of poets, one born through organizing around resistance to the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. The Quality of Light meanders beautifully. Meanders the way so many of us do, through times of less writing when my hands were constantly occupied and there was a lot of surveilling and competition to be productive and my hands started to hurt and my right wrist too, through rooms where I just could not get with the cadence. Nicholson writes of that place where poetry comes alongside, parallels other labor. And sometimes touches.
It took almost three decades of my writing poetry to first land on an instance of getting paid for an outcome of that effort. I had not been seeking payment. I wasn’t “submitting” to things because I was unable to get past the word. I wasn’t sure if publishing was necessarily or even mainly about writing. It seemed what generated money wasn’t the poems themselves, rather the publication in which the poems were published and those weren’t very lucrative. I began to read journals, as I liked the idea of being in concert with other poets and connecting beyond my local. I started to attend more readings after moving to Vancouver and began reading poetry to audiences there in 2008. This grew more emphatic come 2010 when an Olympic mega-event took over the city, contributing to further displacement of the low-income and racialized communities I was situated in. I/we handmade books to give away and trade. Poets began to invite me to contribute to events and publications. I’ve authored two books since then yet I still don’t think of my hustle as an individual effort.
In an interview following the publication of my first book in 2011, I drank free beers at a gentrified establishment in Gastown and commented to my friend Kevin Spenst that “writing poetry for me is something that is not consumed by processes of capital.” I believed that poetry, though work, was somehow different from all my other labours and that the freedom I associate with writing poetry could not be remunerated. Pressed further on the topic in an interview for the Canadian Women in the Literary Arts organization in 2012 I admitted to my friend Sadiqa de Meijer that “even if poetry for me is not consumed by processes of capital, my paid and volunteer labour limits my time and capacity to engage freely and creatively.” As I carry on writing and publishing poetry I have shaken my faith in its emancipatory possibilities onto capitalism or in any notion that this is somehow inherent to the practice. Interwoven into efforts to communicate, through fact, with texture, atmosphere and affect poetry is necessary analysis and one of the ways I am able to subvert normative, disabling, and murderous conditions of the everyday. The work of poetry for me is an incomparable labour. Further, it is a labour, alongside reading, that has paralleled all my other labours. It has rendered tolerable industries that otherwise would have worn me down. It is a way for my blasé existence in the service sector to occasionally resonate.
I never put much stock into learning a profession. My first job out of the home that was paid was rock-picking (after the frost-heaving spring with other children walking behind the rockpicking machine to gather the small ones it had missed—we were paid per volume). My second job was “babysitting” or so we agreed to call the primary business of childcare. I was an excellent “babysitter” preceded by my sister. We worked across county lines. Evenings, parents polite and showered picked us up and later, chatty and boozy, they drove us home. We made at least two dollars an hour at a time in a rural community where we thought that plenty. As the children slept it was sometimes fun late-night work away from home with free food and Saturday Night Live via satellite dishes. The daytime childcare however was always highly intensive labour. It was treated as marginal relative to the production of the farm despite its obvious centrality and necessity. I became vigilant early on in the effort to ground and humanize myself while doing this work. One summer “babysitting” I wrote a series of poems inspired by a Michael Jackson poster, framed behind glass in the living room, of a pig farmer with four daughters who looked exactly alike right down to their matching orange tang tongues, but fortunately who were all of different sizes. It took weeks to compose and I carried the poems (backpack, bicycling) to and from home and work. I studied MJ’s image: the Thriller album jacket interior, him: softly lit in a white suit, languishing with a baby tiger. I thought about his moves and songs I had seen on TVs in other people’s homes. The image was so dazzling and pretty to me at the time however ridiculed my attentions would be in later years. Here was a venerated black man, an artist, “king of pop” and “cultural icon.” He was out of place and time there, like me, and onto all of this, the part or whole of me that was black and diasporic, was related. All that I had learned about aesthetics or culture or nature was prohibitively mediated but even then I knew to treat certain subjects with poetry while and despite the (childcare) work to do. I was a good worker anyway and I knew how to fashion breaks which in later years I regret to having replaced with so many cigarettes. There are many unread poems. Poetry wasn’t much of a thing in my homes or rural schools. That this kind of thinking and practice would ever have anything to do with cash, payment, income or profession was to me, then, who had no consideration of intellectual work or the University at that time, inconceivable.
Poetry practice accompanied my long foray into the service industry. By my mid teens I had developed skills in small-town fast food and family dining industries. I had a resume. One summer of summers I worked all the baseball diamonds and swimming pool concession stands in town. I had keys to the town’s buildings and occasionally slept in them. I developed a flowery cursive with over-sized capital letters. I was getting ready for the City. I rewrote poems and realized I liked editing as much as writing or that editing was writing. I began to carry my journal with me everywhere. I had given up on math and focused on languages. The next summer I fled and fled again and I thought I had gone far. I ended up at a university as an emancipated minor. The City was terrible in some ways: fast people, the train was dim. The buildings were so tall there was no horizon discernible. I held my journals close. I shared poems, as they became products of love. I reread Jazz and studied “anthropology” and “political economy.” I made a transition to being a bartender. For many years I held that position generally occupied by men, as the highest grossing in food service, short of management (and who wants to be management). I made a decent living serving alcohol and small talk until I left that industry (the food side of it) a decade later. I didn’t find as much time to write as studies and volunteering were necessary. I no longer could break for poetry or homework either because my hands were constantly occupied and there was a lot of surveilling and competition to be productive and my hands started to hurt and my right wrist too and I smoked and drank a lot and grew thinner. For the most part I kept my poetry to myself. I sat at the back of a feminist spoken word poetry event one evening after class and I just could not get with the cadence.
It took another summer of summers, my first airplane ride, time in Havana and an actual shift in my worldview for me to reconvene my writing projects. I wrote letters home sitting on the steps of Universidad de la Habana. Rifle-armed guards kept watch there at the time and I watched them. I had a limited number of sheets of paper to write about my days and the NGO education I was not receiving well. Still, it was a turning point. That summer I wrote a letter to my one and only ever former English professor, who I loved (and still love!), reining in my flowery cursive to conserve space on the page. I was thinking more about writing and being a writer. It was 1996 and nearing the end of the “período especial.”
After my education, a move to a new city and many years work in the social service industry, I was able to start to speak in the context of Vancouver’s poetry communities. My poetry then and now is impacted by, and alongside migrant justice organizing, prison solidarity and the downtown eastside neighbourhood of Vancouver where I have worked for fifteen years. Upon invitation I contributed poems to West Coast Line (now LINE) for volume 62 in 2009. It was my second formal publication. I received a cheque in the mail and a note indicating that the amount was in no way commensurable with the work I had contributed. Although I imagined it a form letter I appreciated the thought. I considered the cheque object and set it atop my piano, which serves as a mantel for a few light things. I never cashed it.
I’ve cashed every other cheque I’ve received since for writing or more commonly, for appearing in public to read or speak. I receive support for travel and in-kind resources gratefully. Occasionally I am reliant on cobbled-together payments to subsidize my landlord’s property taxes say. I want poets to be secure as I want all people to receive a living wage. Like many I give money away everyday: change and small bills, donations, contributions, in-kind labour, loans, grants, tobacco, and food. I belong to people and networks that share and this is my preference. There are still libraries. Most poetry readings are free and these are the only ones I attend. Many writers exchange and gift work, and increasingly publications (even academic ones) are sourced openly. Let’s give it up for room, for freedom, and for poetry.
Cecily Nicholson is the author of Triage (Talonbooks, 2011) and From the Poplars (Talonbooks, 2014), winner of the 2015 Dorothy Livesay Prize for Poetry. She earned her MA from the University of Notre Dame. Her work, both creative and social, is often in collaboration with artists and educators. Nicholson contributed to...