re-writing : Cathy Wagner’s Poetic Labor Project

I looked at a short story to finish it and it just looked back at me. Cathy Wagner’s Poetic Labor Project has me dizzy.

I can’t put a finger on it, but I’ve pressed the idea hard. Yes, it’s labor and it’s labor of the most difficult kind. For me, time. Sadly, time. I write for companies that pay me pennies, I nanny for more than that, and I teach when someone else forgets to ready a syllabus or makes a mistake. And I write between things.

Writing, in this way, is very elusive. It’s near, it’s near – I have that idea to put that nearness into a word and see what other words gather around it, but the dishes pile up and, because my husband has a “career,” it seems like I should do them.

Last week, my mother and sister visited and comforted me to say, “It’s this way.” The everydayness of wanting to write is, for my sister, wanting to read; for my mother, wanting to cook a meal. The problem with the everydayness is the labor and the value of the labor.

I want to give you an experience of the ordinary, but when I talk about the dishes and remind you that I’m a woman with a husband, I’ve made the ordinary something else: a political statement, a gendered position, a question of economics, a spectacle. I cannot put a finger on it, but I press down again: I’m working, working, working and the real work, the writing, gets quiet.

Last week, I wrote a review of a book that was – possibly – really trying to put a finger on the ordinary…it was all error after error. A confused tense, a mixed up word, a repetition that didn’t add up. It might be because of how I ordinarily talk in pauses and hesitations. It might be because I talk about language for being bendy flexy and I want to show off how the word pull sounds so lovely in my ear and makes me think of days with dandelion bulbs, the wind picking up just so, and the whole world feeling like its gone to seed.

I couldn’t write that. I wrote, instead, the word pull and the editor said, “I don’t quite get what you mean.” I don’t correct him or explain, but I erase because I’m so happy to have an editor looking at anything, so happy to have work that is the work. I let the word delete and the whole memory with it.

My own poetic diction from James: you use a lot of “and”, from Joan: you use a lot of “or” and I don’t get it, from Arielle: the tone is so serious, and from Rick and Lisa: the thinness and the fatness, are you listening to it?

Thankfully, Rick shows me Charles Baudelaire and I see him for how far away he seems. I see him for how he thinks things about ordinary things, but doesn’t see himself engaged. And that might be the current labor, the labor that makes blank pages pile or the short story that looks back at me, I’m so engaged in the ordinary. I call my father and tell him about the way I choose to alter a recipe “just so” so that it’s my recipe, how I carve out very small spaces to call “my own” so that I’m still making and interfering a bit.

It’s this way with the word pull: I use it and insist it makes a difference when it’s used and when it’s erased. Is this labor? To make that word an experience, a real material object that I remember having and losing and re-making.

When I walk with the baby I nanny, I hear her starting to make words and they all mean something to her. I’ve never thought of telling her that her poetics are off, but I do ask her to say things. I point to water and say “water.” When she looks at me, she doesn’t say water. She says something else. I think, “are you saying fish? are you saying swim?” But she isn’t. She isn’t saying any of those things and she’s working very  hard: I see her little tongue pushing around, I see her hands moving to explain, and I see her head nodding to tell me that she’s very correct making sounds. I imagine she’s in love with sounds, with the very different ways she can say all the things I’m asking her to say.


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