Q & A with Joe Hall, author of Someone’s Utopia

Dana Guth — How would you define “labor,” the subject matter of this book? How about “utopia?” What do you see as the relationship between the two concepts? What drew you to them as subjects? (Or, Why now? What was the impetus?)

Joe Hall — Labor holds the world together. Labor: what people have to do to sustain their lives and the lives of others. It can be productive or reproductive, physical, affective, paid, unpaid. Not that there aren’t labors of destruction and cruelty. Though the state incentivizes these kinds of labor, that’s not the kind of labor most people do.

Silvia Federici: yes. Wages for housework, wages for all of it. Making a meal, operating a drill press, teaching children not to be cruel. A boss sending a worker home with shitty feelings because that boss treats that worker as an emotional trashcan is a kind of wage theft. Home healthcare workers in New York city aren’t paid for the hours they spend sleeping at their clients homes during 24 hour shifts. As if sleeping in a stranger’s bed, subject to being woken up to work at any moment isn’t a part of the work. Cuomo’s Department of Labor made sure they didn’t get paid. Opponents of the national prison strike argue that what inmates are forced to do is not slave labor because they are paid (pennies on the dollar, swallowed up by the prison) and that most inmates don’t make products for the market but rather work to maintain the prison. They’re drawing on people’s biases toward productive labor by excluding workers in kitchens and laundry rooms, workers pushing mops, from the category of actual labor. It’s real labor, forced and unpaid: slave labor. Capitalism runs on regular exploitation and superexploitation, mostly of people of color and women.

“Utopia”: Medieval Utopias were utopias of rest and pleasure. Meat grew wings and flew into open mouths. Peasants slept, feasted, and fucked. Not so bad! Later, Utopias were sincere attempts to reorder society, often on the lines of representation and hierarchies of work. They sought to do away with those hierarchies or provide more enlightened hierarchies. This sort of utopic thinking was sometimes a safe way to articulate radical political thought and a source of violence, a propeller of colonial schemes.

So why have I squeezed labor and utopia through my poetry organ? Why now? This project started in 2008, the year of the financial crisis. It came from years of toggling between two worlds: a working-class world and a middle-class world. I spent 4 years in high school at a plant nursery working with people making the minimum wage or close to it. In 2002 I worked at a shipping plant during my holiday break from college. Then after I graduated in 2004 I worked on production lines at an industrial printing press. I’d spent a lot of time with people working 2 jobs to pay the bills. My friend Rebecca, who loaned me VHS tapes, would fall asleep smoking cigarettes during her breaks.

One of the guys at the printing press had been doing repetitive line work his whole life. He seemed bewildered by how it had happened to him, that he’d got old in it and was still struggling to pay his bills. He worked 50-hour weeks for decades in dim, dust clogged industrial cavern and it hadn’t got him anywhere. I met a lot of people who felt trapped and worn out and wasted by shit work. I mean they got by with a certain kind of dignity or even sangfroid. But they told me they weren’t living the life they wanted. Not even close to it.

Then I’d go home to my extremely comfortable suburban home.

I’ve had a couple of well-off people try to convince me that certainly many people are happy to work hard, and shouldn’t I be trying to dignify labor and laborers. I find this to be a very weird response. They should try working on a conveyor belt or scrubbing toilets or working in a day care or just filling out applications for assistance then filling out more applications and waiting in lines to keep that assistance for even a year. It sucks. Why should anyone have to do it for more than a few hours a week? Why should anyone be paid less than a living wage to do it?

Anyway, five years after, after the peak of the financial crisis, I was living in a trailer park while adjuncting creative writing and literature classes. My roommate and I couldn’t afford to heat the place over 50 degrees. The head of the department told me I wouldn’t have work the next semester while he was pissing. The teacher who got me the job told me I was lucky for the opportunity. I totaled my car. My neighbor set his trailer on fire. Our landlord shit in our toilet and didn’t flush out of spite. I was falling as I was rising. I had more respect from people because of what I did and less money than I did loading cars with bags of manure. Where before I was a tourist in the world of low wage work, now I was living it fully. It was my life. And this life told me something was profoundly wrong with the conditions of low-wage workers and educators in America. I wanted to write about it, to keep learning about labor.

From dissatisfaction with a system that creates incredible inequalities in wealth, comes the utopic demand: equality, redistribution, actual representation, etc. I started to look at utopias, actual socialism and communism, some planned, some unplanned. I wanted to know how people tried to remake their worlds.

Now class and workers’ rights are on more people’s minds and people are getting at the problem through intersectional approaches. This is tremendous.

DG — What was your research process when writing this collection? What did you consume in preparation?

JH — My process is to write alongside texts, their unfolding. I read and read and flounder around.  I wish I could wait to fully synthesize and digest them, but I can’t. The act of writing is a countervailing force that I need to keep applying to stay alive.

I started with Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project. That was a mistake. I read utopic literature: Ovid, More, Fourier, the extremely messed up utopia of Nicolas-Edme Retif De La Bretonne. I read Gerard Winstanley and about Womanhouse. I read Marx and the literature surrounding the Oneida community—the pamphlets of John Henry Noyes, the journals of Tirzah Miler. I read about utopias in folk songs. I read Marx then Silvia Federici. I read Montesquieu’s “Of Cannibals” then Marxist anthropologists fetishizing communitarian indigenous groups then Bernadette Mayer’s Utopia. I dutifully read Frederic Jameson’s Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions. I read Heriberto Yépez’s The Empire of Neomemory and realized I had to throw a lot of my reading away and read what I was reading more deeply, with thicker context. I read more Federici, Sara Ahmed, Audre Lorde, the Colectivo Situaciones, the Precarias a la Deriva, Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo on domestic workers (thanks for this whole sentence, Judith Goldman!). I began to see labor in a more expansive way, beyond low wage work, into no wage work, beyond exploitation toward superexploitation.

While I was doing this, I did interviews with family members about their views on and experiences of work. They started with a list of questions they could use to prepare. I recorded us talking then transcribed those interviews. Why family? If I was going to work with the words of others, I wanted to be accountable to those people. I couldn’t flee them; instead, I returned my drafts to them, asked for their feedback then for their permission to publish the poems. And they might still change their mind about them. That would be painful.

While doing this, to figure out my own documentary and archival poetics, I read Lorine Neidecker, Rukeyser, M. NourbeSe Philip, Mark Nowak, Craig Santos Perez, Susan Howe, Susan Tichy. Some of these I discovered on this big list Brandon Shimoda put together.

The first sequence came from a visit to Lilydale, a community of Christian Spiritualists, watching them to do these groups seances at an open-air pavilion and my own unsteady search to find a kind of self-talk that would lead me out of alcoholism.

Did I understand any of what I read? Not fully, sometimes not at all. But this is all in the mix, with my experiences. This book was composed during a period of long, intent seeking. This book feels incomplete to me, like part 1. I’ve since worked at a worker center and now work at a labor library. The seeking goes on.

DG — Setting is very important [in] this book. How did your physical surroundings impact your writing?

JH — I wrote Pigafetta is My Wife in the summer of 2007 lying in bed in Washington, DC.

I wrote The Devotional Poems walking through the woods in Indiana in 2008 and 2009.

I wrote this book for ten years—2008-2018—across at least five different apartments.

I hate to write this: it sounds so dramatic. But I wrote this book in some of the blankest, loneliest places in my life. The interviews were great. They brought me close to family—but putting the words together was difficult.

3 places:

1) In a home surrounded by trailers in St. Mary’s county Maryland, 2009. Half of this home was boarded up. It would have been condemned in a less corrupt county. I was separated from Cheryl then, 600 miles apart and adjuncting for pennies at a small college. This had me living with a friend in a structure that was uninsulated. We put plastic over the windows and kept the heat at 50 to afford it. We wore hats and jackets inside and dragged around space heaters. I started writing Someone’s Utopia looking out of this cold house onto the Potomac river (“across the river houses enter water / in it cold flames in debt rent enters water”). A flock of swans bobbed on the water twenty yards outside of my window. The walls were bare. I was cold and inconsolable and wrote from there.

2) In 2013 I didn’t realize I was developing a drinking problem. I was on the road doing something like 25 readings in 36 days, coast to coast. I had a very good time and also a drinking problem. I was lugging the draft pages of Someone’s Utopia around, doing reading after reading of The Devotional Poems, pounding those poems out until they were just words, drinking to smooth out any social friction and to siphon off the energy reading generates. I can remember driving up Rt 1 in California, squeezing around all those sloped turns. I started to think of my MS, the hundreds of lines that would be the Amnesia poems and this rhythm came into my head—the rhythm and its variations that would drive those poems. So, I stopped every hour or two to reedit that fifty pages, rewriting them in a notebook, throwing out anything that wouldn’t fit that rhythm, folding poems into each other, and then folding them again. The two longest editing sessions were in a diner then a motel in some small beach town. When I was done, I didn’t go to the beach; I went to a convenience store to buy beer then watched TV. It was so strange, how intent I was in that two-day span driving up the coast, how mentally dead I was for weeks driving around after.

3) Then I wrote “Greetings” on the floor of our apartment in Buffalo later that summer, trying not to have a drinking problem. I shouldn’t say I was alone for that. Cheryl and I were very close. But I was new to myself and Buffalo and feeling very raw.

So, place was important to these poems. Being out of place, out of sync.

DG — Do you have a writing routine?

JH — There’s no routine. The shape of my day keeps changing—jobs, moves, weather, psychic weather.

Though the writing process, the first-drafting, is beautiful.

I see words surface in my mind, singular or in phrases.

I let them float there. If they feel right, I write them down.

It happens with a kind of ease, outside of strong intention. I don’t know where a poem is going or where it will end. It’s not my poem. I just try to follow it. Lucille Clifton taught me that: don’t listen to what I want, listen to what the poem wants to be. I feel like I’m opening new sense organs. It is delicious.

Arranging a manuscript--editing. This is awful. When you proceed by intuition finding a final structure or even a title for a poem to coordinate it all is difficult, involves carving paths across the calcified mass of those new old organs.

DG — What is the experience of performing these pieces like for you?

JH — I’m grateful to Myung Mi Kim for sending her students to the Robert Duncan archive. Duncan thought the body was a hive for souls, the soul a swarm of bees. One is multiply-souled. I think bees might pass between you and ones you love. When you die, the members of the hive are not the ones you were born with. Something like that.

For me, writing is calling out, saying there’s room in the comb. Or finding that voice I’ve neglected.

In reading, my body should be an instrument to communicate these multiple voices.

Reading these particular poems is interesting because they many are made from interviews and journals. I’ve shied away from reading those. What’s important about them is the difference of these voices, and I haven’t been able to capture that difference in reading them.

I mean, it’s also a big book—162 pages—2 books, really, written in several modes. I used to want to give short kinetic readings where I would try to bowl over the audience. This is the first time I’ve wanted to do something different—to read for an hour to people on couches in a dark room. Maybe I’d be in a booth, reading into a microphone.

Or to just record a reading of the whole thing, so it can be listened to more ambiently, the tides of the book going in and out.

Anyone out there want to help?

With a little less compression in the space of performance, I could coax more bees out of the hive.

This being said, I love performing and have had the great privilege of doing it a lot.

DG — Was there one passage or poem that was especially difficult to write?

JH — O no, I’m afraid my answers are becoming miserabilist! Still, this is a great question.

“Talk Piece: Mary” took years, partly because I wanted to work on it with my mother, get her feedback and final approval. She didn’t mess around with her comments. One result: the strikethroughs. I published the non-interview parts of this sequence as “Songwork 1-8” in Nate Slawson’s journal. I thought I was done! What’s in Someone’s Utopia is nothing like it. That’s due to these conversations with my mother.

I was also afraid I was projecting my wants and feelings onto my mother, my idealizations of motherhood and subsequent judgements of her through my selection and pairing of texts. It took a long time to put down. Most of all, I wanted to recognize and frame her multiple labors: she built a damn house with her hands while raising kids, all of it unpaid and all of it, she says, too much of a strain on her marriage. I wanted to get it right.

DG — What are you hoping readers take away from this collection?

JH — I began this collection with a question to myself and my loved ones: can you describe your work experiences? It ended up filled with voices of people who worked really hard, some were rewarded, but most told me something else: that their life of work left them worn out, wasted, confused, and/or toxified. It was not their means to happiness, it was the obstacle.

My own story has been that of pursuing what I loved: college teaching and writing and discovering that its wages couldn’t even heat an apartment.

This collection is also about the violence of utopic thinking, the despair that is its beginning and end points.

Of course, it’s poetry—excess of meaning, mystery, polyvalence, etc—but really I would love if people walked away from this more able to recognize the formal and informal work that makes their world, to recognize the viscosities that work creates in workers, to recognize that the work of works of women and people of color are often hidden or erased. I would love it if it would lead them to demand for themselves or others in their own contexts things like shorter hours, a living wage, and compensation for unpaid labor, to fight the neoliberalization of their institutions (I’m looking at you tenured professors). Better pay for affective and reproductive workers! Socialized childcare!

You know, a horizon of liberation from the tyranny of wage labor. For everybody.

A boy can hope right?

These poems won’t do any of these things. Not even remotely. It’s a strange document composed with what I had on hand. It is both excessive and not enough. Not representative of the whole.

Still, I would love it if we could work (it’ll be local and seem to small and feel too unrecognized for narcissist poets like myself) toward good enough (in the sense Winnicott uses it) relations of labor (a long way to go), institutions, states (until they can be abolished!).

Because top-down utopic thinking—here’s a perfect universal system, lets institute it—is Trojan-horse like. It seems good and almost certainly leads to violence and despair, almost certainly leads to the retrenchment of f-ed up hierarchies.

DG — What are you reading these days? Are you working on any new writing?

JH — Working six days a week at a labor library and a bookstore. I can’t escape! It’s really a stick in the eye of my poetry!

For months I have been watching a calamansi plant flower and fruit. One is now yellow-green. It’s thrilling.

I am trying to write some poems that reflect a kind of leftist municipalism. I wonder what a municipalist poetics would look like. I think most people would find it boring or inscrutable unless they lived in that municipality which may be the point.

I am mourning moving from Buffalo and not being able to participate in the small way I was in projects there.

But I am reading. A few months of unemployment opened a space to read marvelous books: Raquel Salas Rivera’s Lo terciario / The Tertiary (go read their interviews too, their emphasis on poetics of solidarity); The Asian American Literary Review Book of Curses, Signal: A Journal of International Political Graphics and Culture; my fellow Ithican Marty Cain’s Kids of the Black Hole, Iron Moon: An Anthology of Chinese Worker Poetry; Sean Thomas Dougherty’s The Second O of Sorrow; Alexander Pope’s Dunciad; Jake Reber’s ASMR: Artificial Seductive Machine Reading; Rosa Alcalá’s MyOTHER TONGUE; Jill Magi’s Labor; Ghayath Almadhoun’s Adrenaline; Tim Liu’s Luminous Debris; Colette Arrand’s Hold Me Gorilla Monsoon; adrienne maree brown’s Emergent Strategy; Samuel Delaney’s Trouble on Triton; Joanna Russ’ We Who Are About To; Allison Cardon’s What was the sign you gave.