In all the debate around the proliferation of MFA programs in the United States, one topic that seems particularly inducing of delirium tremens in most young writers (and likely many of their parents) is that of jobs. There is nothing wrong with the creation of thousands of “professional” creative writers, as such—I think most would say—but what on earth are they all going to do? Certainly it would take a far less accomplished schemer than Bernie Madoff to explain why they can’t all teach in MFA programs. And doing anything else wouldn’t quite be “using” the degree, right?
Given this shroud of anxiety that hangs so peskily over the growing clusters of writers in America (reflecting too a more widespread employment malaise), maybe it’s surprising that there aren’t more books about that very fact: about trying to get a job. It is into this silent, worried fray that Jill Magi’s new book, LABOR, bravely steps.
Magi’s work has consistently sidestepped literary conventions of genre and meaning-making. Ron Silliman writes on his blog of Magi’s 2006 book, Threads, that even the mere fact of its being in the form of writing seems “simply a choice, and that it is the larger vision that is the central element of the work of art, which might as easily be expressed through sculpture, music, intermedia, theater, film, whatever.” So too LABOR carves a unique path through genre: part documentary, part collage, part fiction, part art installation, part whatever.
LABOR explores what it means to do work, what it means to create value. The book begins with a beautiful collage of text excerpted from the index sections of a number of books on labor history:
false consciousness of,
restructuring bodies of,
This opening sequence—which spans the first five pages—forces a confrontation with the many guises of labor, displaying how ideologies of work are structured and organized by the texts that narrate their histories. Located at the beginning of the book (rather than at the end), and reproduced as poetry, the conventional value of the index is reversed: since the source material originally indexed is elsewhere, the index ceases to do its work. If we find value in it, it won’t arise from simply flipping backwards to the correct page, but rather will be ours to bring.
This poem reminds us that part of the political force of poetry—made in small batches and consumed in local communities—may be that it exists outside of and apart from capitalist notions of value. Perhaps a poem’s real value can be found in its worthlessness.
It’s not pejorative to claim that LABOR is the product of worthless work. The book chronicles the hours Magi spent in the labor archives of New York University’s research libraries, engaging less in actual academic research than in an interrogation of that form of labor. Woven throughout the book is a set of instructions, each titled HANDBOOK, that involve complicating the idea of the labor archive with the products of Magi’s own struggles finding a university post as a teaching artist:
Take offers of adjunct employment and paper clip them together. Soak in water. Remove the paper clips. The rust will remain. Place inside a file folder labeled “Rusty Pages.” Drop strands of your hair into the folder to mimic archival authenticity.
Woven between these instructions is a complicated fiction of three women working in and around the university: a tenured archaeologist named J.; an artist named Miranda, who teaches in a non-tenure track position; and Sadie, who is recently unemployed but has appointed herself an “inspector,” working out of J.’s office at night. The women interact at the sites of the different work they each perform that fails to create value in a conventional sense. J. places a metal container at the edge of a river and Sadie deposits into the container the “grievances” that she has collected in her capacity as inspector. In turn, at night in their shared office, Sadie reads the obscure and elliptical autobiography that J. is slowly producing, titled “My Seneca Village.” Miranda, among other things, eats paper.
Like Magi’s time spent in the NYU labor archive, Seneca Village is not a fiction. It was a community that included some of the first African American landowners in Manhattan, until it was displaced in the late 1850s to make way for the construction of Central Park. The city used eminent domain to expropriate land that today would be worth millions. “264 people lived in Seneca Village in 1855,” writes Magi. “After the birth of the idea of Central Park, newspapers called it ‘Nigger Village.’”
Each of the women in LABOR is grappling with the fact of Seneca Village, and with how to understand and know it in a world in which the city continues to restrict excavation of the site to maintain the pristine park. “Sadie is white. More than Miranda and not like J.,” Magi tells us. But while J. enjoys the security of her tenured position, it is also stifling, and she turns to autobiography to find expression. Sadie is free to be angry, to be vocal, though the outlet for her voice is in some ways less clear.
Without a doubt there is no neat way that the historical fact of Seneca Village maps onto the professional anxieties of a white artist 150 years later; the book is aware of this, though the mere fact of the comparison may still test some readers’ sympathies. Ultimately, the question that hovers somewhat uncomfortably behind (or maybe before) the text is, Should universities hire more artists? In this reviewer’s humble opinion, absolutely! But it may not be the kind of question that poetry can comfortably answer. Then again, it is the way of Magi’s work to challenge at all sides what poetry can and can’t do. “If these details repel you, then am I an artist and who are you?” Magi asks near the beginning of the book. For readers with the fortitude for provocative conceptual poetry, LABOR continues to unfold, complementing and complicating recent achievements in documentary poetics by writers like Mark Nowak and C.D. Wright.
About the Reviewer
Sean Pears has lived in Boston, Chicago, and Washington D.C. He is currently working on a mixed genre manuscript on his parents' decision to leave apartheid South Africa in the 1980s. In the fall, he will be pursuing a PhD in Poetics at the University of Buffalo.