Follow Harriet on Twitter
I first read this essay when Joshua Clover sent it over spring break. The cold that comes on crying and lingers for a month had just begun but I kept preparing for next week’s classes anyway, through a haze of multi-symptom meds. I was tired, and sad, despite having signed off only a few weeks earlier on the first collective contract for adjuncts at the college where I work. After bargaining for almost two years. I’d also been working on new research around race and gender stratification in publishing and MFA programs, and was more aware than ever of the ways higher ed produces and reinforces class. Later I wouldn’t remember much, would have to prep all over again, but this piece of writing cut through. It made me feel better. In that I recognized some conditions, despite any number of differences, something felt in common. How our shared and fragile lives are structured according to the imperatives of the economy’s self-remaking. At a time when I was glad about the contract but sad and tired in a structural way, this essay gave me permission to not feel victorious or hopeful. And it told the truth about academic labor, about getting a job: I know this is lucky and also not lucky. Know that my getting the job was overdetermined even if it felt contingent.
Mostly it’s like Julian Brolaski writes, “can’t you see how sad songs / help when you are sad?” Essays about unfreedom help when you’re not free. If you’ve been fighting the budget cuts or legislature, fighting for your job, or the 3-5 you’ve pieced together; if you’ve been hating your job, feeling guilty for having one, or both; if you’re glad about the contract but also sad and tired; if you’re worried about what comes after graduation, this song is for you, too: I will never be grateful to live in a world where you have to sell yourself to eat.
I am being paid for poetry right now. I can’t feel it but I am. It’s complicated. Or maybe it’s not.
I don’t mean I am being paid for this essay though I think I am. I mean something about the aerosolized genre of economic being where poetry meets salary and how it feels like you are always being paid or never being paid. And how that appears and how that feels.
It is perhaps easiest to start with something like the opposite. I was a journalist for a while. I mean I “made my living” that way. I worked in different tiers. I wrote for freeklies like City Pages in Minneapolis that paid 15¢/word and I wrote for the Village Voice that paid being the most famous of the freeklies maybe a little more. I don’t remember exactly and anyway it changed. And then I wrote for national glossies like SPIN that paid a $1/word when I started and as I stuck around and moved from reviews to think pieces to features they paid $2/word and at the very end I wrote something for GQ and they paid $3/word. It was strange to be aware that I could add the words “all crunked up” to a sentence or just phrase something awkwardly and that was a burrito.
But I couldn’t. Not really. And that was the point. It was in fact pretty simple. The first time I wrote for the Village Voice after having only written unpaid poetry reviews and my own music zine they “edited me.” I was not familiar with this process. They suggested actual changes. They argued ideas and they argued phrasing and they argued references. They argued arguments. They did this with a thoughtful feeling and a sense that we were sharing the project of making a better essay. I came to like this. But it was more invasive than I expected as in not just cutting some weak phrases but real changes and rewrites and more labor for those cents/word. And there was some genial force behind it. By the time I was at SPIN it was less genial and less about developing the ideas and more about what “the reader” would understand or appreciate. And there was considerable force behind it and sometimes they would make changes without asking.
For a poet this felt weird but it wasn’t weird. It was linear. The more I got paid the more power the people who paid me would assert over the words. There was more to it than that like the fact that the editors at SPIN were getting paid more than me and had to justify their salaries and so even if I wrote something compact and catchy and perfectly attuned to “the reader”—meaning dumbed down and ironic and liberal—they were going to change something anyway. I learned to write pieces that were slightly too long and had a passage in it that I secretly wanted the editors to cut and this sometimes worked as a stratagem. But either way it was about how they owned the words. It felt weird because it wasn’t weird at all. It was perfectly logical once you understood. They didn’t pay you to write. They paid for disposition over the content. The more a place paid the more they disposed. It was linear discipline.
Now there’s this. I work at a university and I get a salary. I know this is lucky and also not lucky. Know that my getting the job was overdetermined even if it felt contingent. I have the job for a set of reasons only some of which I understand. I know that some people really didn’t want to hire me and some did and they deadlocked and they hired me and also hired someone else. It was a poetry job and I had published one book which had won a supposedly anonymous prize given by my former advisor and it was on the basis of this book that I got hired. My mom is in academia which is part of how it was overdetermined along with the fact that I am a white guy who sounds like he went to an Ivy League school even if I in reality did nothing of the sort. My mom always said “your first book is your union card” which reflects a lost world but was still half-true at the time. Also I had my record as a journalist. That might have helped or maybe the opposite. Also I had letters of recommendation and one was from a well-known scholar. It was effusive and long. As far as I can tell I was the candidate that the scholars in the department liked and the other person was the candidate the creative writers liked and they deadlocked and it was before the crisis and they hired us both. There is more to the story and I don’t know most of it. But I got hired for writing a book of poetry with some sort of prestige and I got hired for all the demographic unfairnesses and now I get paid on the last of the month.
I get paid on the last of the month which means I get paid all the time. I am always getting paid some tiny amount per second. It’s like when you walk through the cosmetic area in a fancy department store and all the various clouds of perfume at the various counters which have been dispersed into the atmosphere by those nostalgic atomizers settle on you as you pass. Atoms of salary settle on me wherever I go. Aerosol payment. When I sleep I am getting paid and when I go to the bathroom I am getting paid and when I ride my bike up on the bridge to get high with Timmy and peer down at the container ships I am getting paid. I am getting paid right now whether I write this or not.
It’s a real change from the journalism days. I might spend three or four months on an article and I get paid $0/word. Except for the part where I am being paid all the time. And the part where there is no direct relation between the article and pay but if I don’t write the article it will later lower my salary.
Which is to say that as an underlying fact I do have to write things like this sooner or later. One has to write some plausible amount and make a self-accounting every year or couple of years and then they decide on your job status and by how much your salary will be reduced relative to inflation. A lot or a little. They call these raises but they are in fact reductions. I think I get paid less in real dollars than when I started. But I have to write things like this and maybe poems and maybe articles and definitely books in order to slow this relative decay. And because I get paid all the time in this strange way I have to write all the time.
I know this is obvious but salary is not really a plan to pay you all the time. It’s a plan to get you to work all the time. First world problem. It’s not entirely easy to measure but I am pretty sure I make a lot less per time unit than I did as a journalist. There is no part where you knock off work. You can have a drink on the train home but you are still at work and you are answering emails and grading essays and annotating dissertation chapters and reading old articles to make a new article you promised someone last year. There is this dream that you can be productive 24 hours a day. That you can be productive when you sleep and talk and stare into the afternoon air and the salary is part of this dream. It is not my dream. It is money’s dream. I feel money’s dream more insistently than I feel my own waking life. I feel like I am at work all the time.
So the discipline is also aerosolized. It’s not linear. There are almost no moments when it is direct. No moments when you do something and someone tells you to do it this way and there is an implicit prefix to the sentence which is “we are paying you such and such so do it this way.” But at the same time is it always there. Always folded in. I don’t mean Foucault-type discipline like sovereigns and regimes of power. I mean political economy basically. How our shared and fragile lives are structured according to the imperatives of the economy’s self-remaking. I am always being paid and I am always being disciplined and I admit I feel this intensely. I admit I feel resentful toward colleagues who appear not to feel this discipline and don’t show up to things and don’t take on extra work and don’t do their minimal work with much care. This resentfulness in part comes from a jealousy that they have found a way to make this a money gig and write poems or drink or garden. It comes in part because it is easy to think that their ease is making more work for me. I think about this angrily all the time. But in truth it isn’t. The shift from linear to ambient discipline is doing it.
Now the perhaps overly smooth move. The shift from linear to ambient discipline recapitulates the shift from feudalism to capitalism as an experience. The shift from direct domination where some aristocrat sends his armed bailiff around for the corvée to indirect domination where you seem to choose work. Seem to choose on your own to enrich somebody else in the process of making a living. Seem to choose this over and over so that every day begins in freedom and ends in defeated exhaustion.
This is not to overestimate the difficulty of my job. It is much more pleasant than jackhammering or selling drugs or assembling office furniture to name three jobs I have had. And these are more pleasant still than many jobs on the planet. At the same time I refuse to say I am grateful for the job and I will even say that anyone who thinks you should be grateful for a job is a PR person for capital. I will never be grateful to live in a world where you have to sell yourself to eat. But it is a good job and I will also never say I deserve it. Nobody deserves anything but life and death. I am just trying to think through the system wherein I get paid for poetry even though it appears otherwise and wherein I do not get paid for much else even though it appears I do. Or both both. And about what pay is which is discipline. And about the circumstance of ambient discipline.
So then maybe this is a thing to say about poetry. I think that more people get paid for poetry than get paid for poems. Not only teachers. Get paid on Fridays or get paid on the last of the month for gigs we got for having published poems and gigs we keep with the expectation we will continue to be productive in that way. Nonetheless the whole time there is no appearance of getting paid for poems and no appearance of discipline flowing through the act of writing poems. You can have the same discussion they have at SPIN about “the reader” and what they will and will not put up with and it will keep a workshop busy but no one ever makes you change a poem directly. You will never “get edited” in the sense that someone exerts a disposition over your poem’s form or content based on the fact that they pay you.
And this allows for the amazing ideology of poetry. Allows for the idea that it is a free act. It is doubly free. It seems to have no economic value and seems not to be subordinated to labor discipline. It seems not to be salaried work or waged work. And so it can stand for certain kinds of freedom. Poetry can stand for freedom so intensely that people start to worry there is too much freedom. This hovers in the air when Robert Frost says that writing free verse is like playing tennis without a net. Seriously fuck you Bob. There is a net. Poetry is bound up in this net and the net is the social system in which poetry is required to appear as free even as poets are constrained by ambient discipline in every moment. And if you split the moments in half you are still constrained in each half-moment. And people talk about the autonomy of art all the time like that means anything and people talk about how poetry is subversive and even anti-capitalist for no other reason than that nobody buys it. But that part we know is not true. People buy it all the time. It just looks like something else is happening. In the society of ambient discipline all verse is unfree.
Still people often describe writing as their experience of a freedom. Which you have to believe. You can’t tell people what they feel.