By Leila Rosner
Leila Rosner: Thank you again for allowing me to interview you on your work.
Your style is so succinct and to the point drawing upon many references in a very direct way. In your initial poem in LABOR (Nighboat Books, 2014) how you talk about the very real dynamics of work is indicative of this. Is your direct style a wakeup call for people to think about the sociological relationships that we all have with each other?
I was looking at the start of the book on pages 9-13. You prove, in this part of the book, that there is so much power in a single word that sometimes an entire narrative cannot have.
Jill Magi: Thank you for engaging the book and for opening up this dialogue!
Those pages you are asking about are a kind of “shout out” to the books that have been important to me through the years and from which I drew not only to write LABOR but to live my life with awareness about my cohort and the economic situation I found myself in. Page 81 of the notes section lists the titles of those books. The text in these pages is taken from their indexes, and because indexes are organized alphabetically, the pages have a lyricism to them—so that the music provides a kind of incantation-as-preface. It’s a lyrical warm-up, if you will, for what is to come.
And yes, I want readers to awaken to the idea that labor and work is something to study, even something to make poems and fictions about. I’d like readers to situate themselves in the history of work and in its present, very much informed by history. Also, yes, in terms of readers thinking “about the sociological relationships” they have with others—I’d like it if readers knew that, for example, there is communist and trade union history in our country that very much revolves around black workers. Robin D. G. Kelley’s work is about this. I also wanted readers—even if just momentarily—to contemplate the existence of the “Workers School” and the book Worker Writers and to be aware of the term “churning unemployment.” My book doesn’t “cover” all of these things, but I did want to begin by displaying, to an extent, some of the scholarship that exists on the subject.
I would also say that I haven’t read that many books coming out of the poetry community of which I call myself a part that address work and labor. I can think of more eco-poetical texts, or anti-war projects, or projects on urbanism, migration, or on language itself. Of course all those projects should exist, and there are many overlaps with economics and work and labor, but there is a lot of silence around trade unionism, economic justice, and the culture of work. I hope that this beginning “index poem” and the book itself helps to stir otherwise mostly still waters.
Rosner: It certainly does clarify things and definitely stirs the waters with a much needed Orwellian overtone for sure.
Turning to SLOT (Ugly Ducking Presse, 2011) for a bit, I loved the following lines that bring up an existential question about finding ways to survive in a chaotic urban environment:
They turned off the bridge lights. Gone, our starry drape.
We watched a monarch butterfly try to migrate across the narrows,
surprised to feel glad to see a battleship anchored there. (28)
The “bridge lights” being “turned off” seem to be as a trope for something indicative of everyday urban chaos and the “monarch butterfly” image to represent us trying to navigate through the chaos. The “battleship” seems to represent something to latch onto to keep us grounded within an inherently chaotic system. What kind of resonance do the butterfly and the battleship in this passage represent for you?
Magi: SLOT is in response to September 11, 2001, and all of the writing in the book points to that event. So what’s interesting about the passage you selected and the questions you’re asking is that none of it is metaphor! It narrates what I remember from the days after that day: that there was a battleship out in the harbor and I actually felt glad about that. Yet I think of myself as an anti-war person, or I’m skeptical about the militarization of anything. But I was no longer privy to my old ideological stances for which I was so sure. How interesting, how unsettling. What good grounds for poetry. I remember that they turned off the lights across the Verrazano Bridge. It was as if I had never even noticed “our starry drape” prior to it being gone. Everything was now totally different in our lives, it seemed. And because it was September, it was butterfly migration season and it was interesting to watch that happening, that cycle continuing as if everything was “normal” when of course, to me, it was not.
SLOT was also written in response to what I perceived as a silence around the events of that day. And that if you were skeptical about the jump to making war in Afghanistan, you had very few options to talking about the violence of that day; we all had to be focused on trying to stop further violence—Bush’s war—and so, maybe because of that, we rarely spoke about how, as New Yorkers, our lives were impacted. We were suffering a loss in many ways, and we would be forever changed. We were joining, unfortunately, the ranks of much of the world who experiences terror and violence many times during the lifetimes, or even many times during the week.
Back to the language you are asking about—as a poet and artist, I am interested in finding the poem that expresses itself in lived life. I am not so interested in making language poetic or metaphorical. So, in my work, few things “represent” other things. I don’t use metaphors as code. And though it might seem surprising, I’m not trying to encourage “close reading” where readers unpack meanings. Rather, I’m trying to see and record the poetry found in experience, in life: noticing the butterfly, noticing the lights turned off, noticing my feelings in response to a battleship. All surprising to me, all already strange—so the poetry comes in making the record of that experience, and there is nothing, really, for readers to figure out or interpret. The juxtaposition of all these awarenesses, as I was writing them, is the meaning of the work.
In other words, I am a poet who makes work from life so that I can live life aware of the poetry already there. Does that make sense? Please let me know if it doesn’t—I’ll try to clarify!
Rosner: You clarified amazingly well, Jill. There is so much that we can learn by simply observing around us and understanding the complex social dynamics of what is going on.
The reference to September 11, 2001 seemed so apparent to me in the following lines on page 58:
I said I would go to where the people have dreams, right at dawn.
(The soft gauze of new light on this subject matter)
Going to Cortlandt Street to pray (You don’t pray.) (58)
The text in the parenthesis seems to be an interior monologue where people are realizing their past sense of indifference to certain subject matter (i.e. terrorism) and new dynamics of global instability that may not have been that apparent to them prior to 9/11. What do the “dreams” and the “gauze” signify to you? Does the reference to prayer and the subsequent statement “(You don’t pray)” reflect how people need to rely more on social institutions like religion in times of strife?
Magi: I’ll start with your last question. I worked in lower Manhattan, and I remember, months later, happening upon a “prayer station” that a church had set up. I was really moved by that—on one hand, I thought “of course, this makes sense” but on the other hand, I don’t have an active prayer life, so in another way it didn’t make sense to me. But the time after 9/11 was, for me, a time of trying not to decide too much, trying not to judge or to think I knew what was right or wrong. I was trying to stay open to what I noticed. I was really struck by the intimacy of strangers praying with other strangers. What a totally unique moment in city life. Instead of condoning it, celebrating it, I was just noticing its presence.
I think the first line you mention is indicative of one of the book’s major themes: about journeying—and in this case, making a pilgrimage into that vulnerable and powerful time when we are sleeping and dreaming. What does it mean to journey there? You know, I am not always certain why I write what I write and some lines just come to me! But the whole book is about traversing an actual space—museums, memorials, a city—and also reaching into vital psychic space where we don’t have control, but we’re given information that we can use. So maybe I wanted to chart a path for this “I” that would feel a kind of “oneness” with fellow citizens in that part of sleep where another reality can take hold: a regenerative break from what’s happening “in the light of day.” That might also be that “soft gauze” of the next line. When I recall writing that line (which is hard to do—it was a while ago!) I think I literally saw that journeying in diffuse light. In partial light. In the kind of sweet peacefulness of dawn—when you don’t know everything, when your still kind of “hungover” from sleep, when the air seems smoky with new light, and you don’t know what the day will hold. I wrote SLOT in order to beckon this new awareness about my city and its people—to which the book is dedicated. This grouping of lines “fixes” that wish, in a way, by putting it down on paper.
And what follows on that page is an awareness that extends beyond New York—I invoke the Atlantic and the middle passage. I wanted SLOT to provide a kind of connective tissue that wouldn’t diminish anyone’s particular traumas, but that could invite friendships in the journey. I was asking for permission, in a sense—that “Let me go” repeated is almost a request for an invitation to understand the string of nightmares that stretch across history and people.
Rosner: I think we all needed something that provided comfort from the events of that day and journeying to the site gave me a sense of peace for sure.
I’d like to turn to something in SLOT that alludes to racial undertones in society.
Regarding the reference to the “Colonial Williamsburg Escaped Slave Program” where “guests are approached by a runaway slave” (SLOT 44), you seem to be bringing to light how people are blinded to the constructs of race that are still perpetuated in places like Colonial Williamsburg. Another passage about race brought up an event in history that I did not know that much about:
It was supposed to be a holiday. I wanted to speak about my event, but he insisted on history and for a year I was angry, even though I understood “Rosewood” “my people” “original terror”
Did you know that the attack on Rosewood was planned and publicized? (SLOT 29)
After reading about the massacre in Rosewood, FL in 1923 and the media interpretation of the event as a “race riot”, I was immediately filled with the same anger that many of the residents of Rosewood must have felt on that day. Are you commenting on the underlying sense of hate that is inherently “publicized” and never went away when it comes to race in the U.S.?
Magi: SLOT is about violence, and I had to write it in order to understand how the attack on September 11 was unique, yes, and in some ways, for some among us, it was not unique. I wanted to talk to others about the violence I witnessed and experienced on that day in September, and when I tried to do that, sometimes what came back at me was not “fellow feeling” but statement of difference—that “we already know this and it’s your whiteness now that lets you think this is unique and new in this country.” Over dinner, a friend told me this. That moment may have actually planted the seed for the entire book.
The fact is, this country, “our” country, has been terrorizing its own people throughout history. Many countries do—state-based or state-sponsored terror is often part of nation formation and maintaining its borders and ideologies. In the US, the structures of racial violence work this way: they allow for, help to facilitate, and even carry out planned, well-executed attacks on black people and others. And because the book is about memory and memorialization, I needed to unpack how history is experienced, taught, and “landscaped” in the US at museums and historical sites. This is where the details of the “Escaped Slave Program” come in.
The problem with this program in Williamsburg is that it seems to say that what is important is one’s personal ethical framework; that if approached, individually, with “an escaped slave,” the test would be how you would personally react—and that you would, presumably, be a “good” person and try to help them. This occludes the complex systems of racism at work—that racism is not only or mostly about individuals doing something mean or wrong, good or right. Rather, it’s a whole system of ethics, a whole discourse that enables the belief that certain among us are “less than” or not even human. This is how entire militias can rise up, in an organized and publicized manner, and attack black people in Rosewood while the government and institutions of so-called law and order do nothing.
SLOT is a lyrical record of the attempt to say: we shouldn’t be shocked that both Rosewood and 9/11 happened. We should study how it happens. It is terror; it is not random. The violence is “smart,” and not individual, personal. Faisal Devji’s extraordinary book Landscapes of the Jihad is about this, in a sense. He actually studied what the 9/11 terrorists were saying and what structures of thought and belief enabled them to do what they did.
I think we have to take violence seriously and study its complexity rather than strive to be personally exonerated, to feel good about our momentary, fairly low-stakes decisions while on vacation in Williamsburg. None of us are innocent and can escape racism. And as the amazing poet M. NourbeSe Philip once said in a talk she gave at Naropa University, “to be innocent is to be dead.” Living means investigating resistance and compliance. I wanted SLOT to touch this risky thought. I think poetry is well-equipped to handle this complexity, this risk. I don’t know if SLOT succeeded in communicating this sense—maybe I keep trying to “touch this risk” in the works I’ve written after SLOT.
Rosner: I could not agree more, Jill. Making people think about issues like race in a “risky” way is so necessary to breaking down the walls of racism and fostering understanding and equity
Going back to LABOR for a bit, you seem to be looking at social constructs related to labor in the following lines on page 16:
If there is an ideology, then the worker is a construction –
If the worker is a construction, then who am I? (16)
In challenging calling people “workers” as societal “construction” I think that you’re making a statement of the validity of calling people workers because of worker inequality forcing them to be something less than a worker (i.e. a slave to corporate masters). What does the word “construction” mean to you in this context? Why would you question who you are?
Magi: Actually what I’m doing in the first line is referencing traditional labor ideologies that conceptualize the worker as a member of an international cohort—a group that has shared economic interests. I’m evoking the holdings of the Wagner Labor Archive, around which my book is written. And I’m evoking some history that necessarily typifies working people as a group exploited by capitalism and who can seize power only through the power of strike and collective bargaining. In many ways, I believe in the necessity of constructing this idea of “the worker” whose liberation is bound up in resistance to capitalism, and whose life is organized around class and income. And I strongly believe that unionism is one highly effective way to fight capitalism. And it can be a global fight.
But as the editors of Workers Expressions: Beyond Accommodation and Resistance suggest, “the worker” has a complex subjectivity and workers express themselves in many ways that are not structured by economics or motivated by class oppression. In other words, we can also think of workers as producers of culture. And if we look into those expressions, we do not just see suffering or all of “the worker’s” efforts bound up in resistance or accommodating the super-structure.
In LABOR this “ideology” or construction of “the worker” gets even more complicated because from the outside looking in, I am not a worker. I do not appear to be “working class.” I have two advanced degrees. My parents were lower-middle class. I should have been “working my way up.” But I experienced higher education as an adjunct instructor at the time when I wrote LABOR. And so I wondered, if I am not a classic “worker,” then who am I? I knew that I was not unique; I was part of a trend: 70% of the professoriate being contingent labor. This is a huge change from thirty years ago. Yet most adjuncts do not see themselves as part of a class of people whose lives should be about rising up against capitalism. They usually bury their heads in their work and the incredibly taxing and soul-sapped work of applying for full-time jobs where the competition is immense, nearly impossible. There is often a degree of shame in being part of this majority within higher education. This keeps people from talking to each other, I think. In fact, I recently read an interview with three really great poets who are also adjuncts, but they expressed the desire to not write what they called “adjunctpo”—and I wondered, why not? What’s wrong with being explicit about your place in the structure of higher ed?
All of that said, if “the worker” is to some degree a construction and a concept limited by ideology and history, and if we admit that, then I feel a sliver of hope. It enables me to insert my subjectivity into the landscape and hopefully dialogue with others about pain, survival, and creating a full life in the face of precarity. It also enables me to recognize the full subjectivity of others—no matter what their job is. I wrote LABOR not to say that “I have it just as bad as ‘the worker’” but to say that “if the worker is already a construction, then this is an invitation to look at our own work lives in context and with criticality.” I am hoping that the invitation leads to this: “come, despairing and working person no matter who you are: let’s talk.”
I’d like to say here that maybe this wish for dialogue was a tall order for a book—and a book published into the poetry community. Because actually not much dialogue ensued that I know about. That’s the mystery of poetry, I suppose. You write and have no idea what the work will do out there. From this I have learned to trust in making the work I need to make, and not to create big wishes around it. And, maybe ironically, a year before LABOR came out, I landed a full-time gig, though I had to move very far away from friends, family, and community for this job. That distance has been painful at times, but it has been very joyous and rejuvenating to not wake up worrying about money. I feel very lucky.
I want to say, in response to my perhaps disappointment around LABOR’s reception, that I think we can ask a lot from poetry. But I also think it’s OK to write poetry that is totally sculpted, beautiful, sonically lovely that is about, well, nothing! To write asking for no social change whatsoever. I was just listening to the work of Peter Inman the other day. I had heard his name before and was curious. His reading was so mysterious and lovely and I thought, “who is this person?” Then I listened to Charles Bernstein interview him, and I found out that he makes his living doing union work! And he says this frees up his poetry life to be whatever it wants to be. In other words, his poetry need not be overtly political. Very interesting. So maybe what I’m finding out is that the older I get the more I want generosity—from myself toward others and from others toward my work, too.
Rosner: From a sociological perspective, this topic definitely needs to be discussed because of the inherent inequalities when it comes to workers vs. managers in the United States. Let me get more specific into LABOR in your crafting of the HANDBOOK which deserves some discussion for sure.
In Section [2.2] of the HANDBOOK (pages 30-32) the “tapestries” that you are creating seems to be an amalgamation of many jobs in society including jobs that can be of benefit to many people:
“worked for a furrier, picked strawberries, taught gymnastics, tried to place refugees in jobs during the last recession,” (30).
Later in Section [2.3], in the event of refusal of submission from the “head librarian” of the “labor archive” that you are going to place the box “down to the edge of brackish water and dump out its contents.” What could the “brackish water” signify to you in this context?
Magi: In answering your questions, we get to an interesting aspect of poetry: that of fiction and autobiography and invention happening all at once! Let me explain. The section you mention that instructs the reader/handbook user to embroider this list of jobs is actually based on my biography. Those jobs are part of a list of all jobs I have had. I started working at age 13 or 14—can’t remember which it was. Actually, even before that legal age where I got my working papers and started working, I worked “under the table” as an assistant gymnastics teacher every summer. So, I have worked a lot and had a lot of jobs—some “white collar” and some not. I think about this sometimes—that maybe this part of my biography separates me from some of my art and poetry colleagues who maybe just went to college, found poetry, maybe ended up teaching, and haven’t done much else. But the thing is, I might never know because our worklife histories are often something that we never talk about. The poet Elena Rivera is doing a project, I think, on work. And for this project she interviewed me about my work history and it was really interesting to talk about it. Work is the seat of a lot of knowledge about how power and language works in the world.
You framed your second question, I noticed, with the word “you”—it’s interesting because I never did this act—I never went down to the “brackish water” and did any such dumping!
What I’m trying to express here is that poetry is very true, in that it is a very true form of expression and of using language to get to perhaps hard-to-express truths. Yet at any time, the “I” in a poem can be an absolute fiction. I think this is very crucial to remember when we read and when we write. That we can only count on the instability of a subject and a text will never tell us, play by play, just what happened in a life. That is because a text can be a space of utter freedom—where we exceed our limits, our lives, and where we imagine doing things we might never do, being someone we could never be in waking life.
You ask about what the brackish water signifies. It refers to the Hudson, actually. The indigenous people call the Hudson River “the river that flows two ways” because it is a mix of salty and fresh and flows in two directions according to the tides. I had this image of a person dumping very important yet useless labor documents at this river’s edge. This is also a veiled reference to a scene in SLOT, where some people in that book witness barges at the edge of the lower Hudson lined up to be loaded with pieces of the remains of the twin towers. They take this cargo to Staten Island, daily. In a sense, the brackish water holds the thing that matters most, and the thing that perhaps society wants to get rid of the most. Or maybe it doesn’t “hold” these things but it is a site for transformation—not quite “discarding” these confusing items, but setting them off perhaps as material for art. Yes, in my case, that’s what I did: I took these things, ideas, experiences that I couldn’t find a place for in my regular conscious life, and I made two books from them. They set sail in the “impure” waters of poetry and art—thankfully “impure” and hard to define, always washing back and forth between “either this or that.”
Rosner: I think a lot of people discard things in the “brackish water” daily and don’t even realize it. Amazing metaphor for human behavior!
Continuing in the HANDBOOK, I was very moved by Section  of the “HANDBOOK” on pages 42-43 which forces people to look at their past history of racism. You look specifically at the fate of Seneca Village in Manhattan, a small village founded by free black people in the 1800’s. You note that “After the birth of the idea of Central Park, newspapers called it ‘Nigger Village’” (42). Since the people of Seneca Village come from divergent racial and socioeconomic backgrounds, what do you want readers to gain from this portion of the “HANDBOOK”?
Magi: Thanks for this question, Leila. First, I want to keep the awareness of Seneca Village “alive”—or let people know who might not know about it that our very own New York City has been the site of many struggles over land, property ownership, and policies—policies that are not at all neutral or for “the greater good.” The residents of that very organized, built village were portrayed as “dirty” and it was called a shantytown, and race was attached to this derision, this strategic spread of mistruth.
Poetry, attuned to the unsaid or the whisper, can help us literally listen to the ground underneath the ground we walk on. What history has been buried, covered up, invented, so that the pleasures and opportunities for a good life can get distributed mostly to the wealthy, the usually white? Not to say we all don’t have and make our own pleasures—but the fact is that black people continue to face unsettlement and disruption and even death at the hands of policy and personal acts that are bolstered by institutionalized racism in our time now, in this post-Civil Rights era. As a white person I know I need to read between the newspaper’s lines, media reports, workplace dispatches—I need to get underneath the workings of policy that perpetuate inequalities. I have to listen to myself and study history closely in order to see the constructedness of the narratives that come at me daily about the supposed deservedness of my privilege. Poetry helps me listen. I feel affinity with the criticality I know black people possess and poetry is language that can bend the language we’ve been given. This bent language is a direct result of a training in criticality—but it’s not about being sour, a quality we might associate with “criticality.” We poets bend language in order to make something closer to the truth. And can I say that it is absolute pleasure to bend this language we have? It is! The history of African-American literature is a lesson in that pleasure—a way of working with language that mixes in urgency, play, critique, inventiveness, shout, silence, and tradition as it needs to. The critic and poet Evie Shockley’s work about this—her work on experimental poetry and identifying the “writerly,” not just “speakerly” traditions in African-American literature, especially by women, comes to mind as important to be aware of now.
Second, Seneca Village is featured in LABOR because the archeologist character in the book, a black woman professor with tenure, works on Seneca Village as an academic and has seen how so-called progress in her field—the use of ground-penetrating radar instead of actual digs—has served to keep Seneca Village buried and to keep one idea of the beauty of Central Park in circulation. She is right inside the institution that is supposed to promote knowledge, and she knows, keenly, just how much that aim of betterment is a construction. Power will find ways to keep truth buried. But of course never totally buried, no matter how hard they try. This is why she takes her class to Central Park and asks them to touch one of the cornerstones of the buildings of Seneca Village. It’s an actual cornerstone that was exposed as the park was landscaped. It’s a treasure and a powerful stone. To touch it is to live a poem.
I hope the story of Seneca Village reminds readers that when we suffer, when institutions fail to fulfill their aims and promises, we are absolutely not alone. All we have to do is look to history, look the built environment around us, and investigate: doing so, we’ll find a whole slew of comrades—living and dead. We are always part of a cohort. I want LABOR to be about this promise of connection. And I am grateful to the whole history of poetry to help me, through this book and my other books, deliver even a small sliver of that promise to readers.