What Work Is: Wage Labour & The Poetic Imperative in an Age of Austerity

This was first published in Issue 2 of the Belfast-based culture magazine The Tangerine, which you can purchase here.

Forget you. This is about waiting,
shifting from one foot to the other.
 – Philip Levine

I am sitting in the recycling room of a Catholic Comprehensive School in Liverpool. My feet are resting on a plastic box containing dozens of unread ‘Catholic Pic’ magazines from September. On the cover, The Pope is smiling at someone in the crowd from the top of his fortified car and I have just learned that something called the Krakow Wyd took place in July. I did not know this was a thing. I am sweating and soaked through from a morning spent ferrying this useless information from the office building on the other side of the school yard.

 All told, this isn’t the worst job I’ve had – cutting cables on bundles of unread magazines, ferrying messages to sick pupils, counting the school’s dinner money for the week, washing clerical silverware in the staffroom sink for morning assembly. The accolade for worst job still belongs to the summer I spent with my Great Uncle working as a caretaker, where long hours were spent shovelling wall-size slabs of Styrofoam, moss and broken bottles covered in rat-shit from the spaces between industrial units near the Newry Canal. I was thirteen at the time and received a paltry £20 a week for the pleasure of my labour (my mate got a tenner).

Perhaps, even, it was the six months I spent as a “television specialist” for Sky in a Belfast call-centre. I still have a terror of answering phones as a result of my time there, and am always anxious that there is a manager over my shoulder monitoring my average call-time, or that I will be ferried off to a meeting room somewhere to discuss my reasons for not selling a premium sports package to my mum.

It’s not that I’m averse to work – far from it – it’s more that I always feel the need to keep in mind the distinction between a job and a career (and find that normally it’s a job which will try and rob you of your primary allegiance and attention as well as your time and your effort).

By job of course I mean anything you’ve ever done to “pay the bills”. A career is something which gives you a sense of achievement and satisfaction at the end of the day, as well as a wage for doing something you enjoy. Jobs are what you have when you wake up at 06:30 in a freezing cold flat on India St. to take a bus out to Dundonald, where you’ll sit for nine hours listening to corporate jargon and (re-)learning the fine art of how not to be offensive on the phone. Careers are what you have when you feel enamoured of an early start, because in that lies the possibility of new stimulations in the days and months to follow, as well as (I would argue) a feeling that with it comes a contribution to the well-being of society.

* * *

Unfortunately careers in this day in age are like bosses who won’t ever delegate the more unsavoury aspects of their jobs to underlings – they’re few and far between – especially if, like me, you’re lucky enough to have graduated in the Arts. The result of course are the hundreds of applications for administrative temp work that I send out every year, just so I don’t end up stacking shelves or working as a caretaker in a Canal-side industrial park. We’re told that such jobs are good for bulking your CV: what systems you’ve used, how proficient you are with Excel, whether you’ve dealt with Data Protection and/or legal statute before.

The truth is that whilst I have worked with some of these things, I have often been too distracted with whatever draft of whatever poem I’ve been working on to learn about their actual mechanics. Consequently I know nothing about Excel, very little about legal statute or Data Protection and sweet nothing about the dozens of management systems I’ve used over the years.

What I can tell you is that a lot of different poems and drafts of poems have been written during my time working shit jobs. I think that because a lot of these jobs necessitate a certain level of vigilance and hyperactivity, I have always been able to concentrate better on writing at work than, say, in a café or bar. Alcohol makes me dreamy and coffee won’t allow me to sit still long enough to carry a train of thought through to completion; whereas if I’m sitting in front of a computer screen, or waiting on the next call through from a client trying to make a claim against a company, then I am in a state of hyper-vigilance that allows me to order my thoughts and bring to the fore ideas that otherwise might’ve taken months to get right.

Free time remains my free time when I finish work, too scarce to spend all of it on torturing myself with rhyme schemes or syllabic structures or whether my material might look better rendered as a pantoum. This hyper-vigilance at work drives me to look harder at small details, read around topic areas and look forward to reaping rewards beyond the menial drudgery of receiving a pay-packet.

This morning already I have memorised most of Michael Donaghy’s beautiful poem ‘Haunts’ (Don’t be afraid, old son, it’s only me / though not as I’ve appeared before…) and I have taken care to note a car with flat tyres on Linnet Lane which may (or may not) inspire some sort of poetic narrative later on. If I had been simply coming to and fro along the road, say, and not – as I had been – trudging through the frost on my way to work, I might have missed this extraordinary object: a Mercedes Benz parked with condensation on the inside-back of its windows, fallen leaves tattooed on its roof, stolen dust caps and what looked like an old bedside table lying horizontal on its back seat.

Working shit jobs is, almost by necessity, aspirational, and since what motivates me is finding the time and space to set down what I think and feel in verse, then memorising a few lines from a Michael Donaghy poem or storing up some little detail from an abandoned Mercedes Benz feels like the kind of victory that one might aspire to in order to get promoted in their career.

* * *

Now that I’ve finished recycling these hundreds of ‘Catholic Pic’ magazines in the bowels of the school, I have been drafted to sort through and discard decades’ worth of old invoices in the building’s dilapidated attic. Up here is a treasure trove. Whereas the recycling room was cluttered with the remnants of recent human activity – broken down copiers, crushed boxes, bits of discarded chairs and old desk furniture – the attic feels like a time capsule from some riches-to-rags Dotcom firm gone bust.

The room I’m currently sitting in, for example, is awash with unplugged keyboards covered in dust, untangled spools of long Ethernet cables, expensive looking Canon 500 cameras with ‘not working’ Post-Its stuck on their lens, and a half-used carton of Sriracha hot chilli sauce beside a stack of old CD-ROMs. The door is propped open with a Lever Arch file. There is a hole in the plasterboard where a light-switch should be and the only thing lighting these pages now is the last speck of October sunshine beaming in through a dust-translucent skylight. Every so often I hear footsteps on the stairs and think that my manager is about to bust me for writing an article on skiving off; but I’m completely alone. The only thing between me and the rest of the school now is an upper hallway littered with bin-bags and boxes of past pupil files and old invoices.

Times like these are important, though I must confess to feeling a little on edge whenever I have to write like this. For one thing how can a person be expected to write anything of substance if he/she has an eye over their shoulder all the time? Are these fifteen minute intervals between tasks enough to sustain the kind of quality material that might go toward a collection, say, and what would actually happen if I was to ever get caught?

On the one hand history teaches us that it is possible to be a writer under such circumstances, even if your day job may not be where your passion or interest lies: T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams. But even though, for example, these three managed to put together The Waste Land, Harmonium and Spring & All respectively during their wilderness years, I would suggest that the financial stability afforded by their positions as bankers, lawyers and doctors made it somewhat easier for them to bear the consequences of failure. It is easier to write, after all, without the constant threat of insolvency hanging over your head than it is to write on a zero-hours contract. You can afford to write on the side, in other words, if you are working in a career, you can’t afford to write on the side if you work in a job.

Still, what kind of poetry would we have today if not for the work of people like Philip Levine or Langston Hughes or Carolyn Forché, who were able to write – and crucially, edit – under extremely difficult circumstances as factory workers, Navy crewmen and wartime human rights campaigners? It is possible I think, however difficult, to make great art in the midst of working a not so great job, but you have to be prepared to keep your eye perpetually cocked toward the door. And to answer an earlier question, I do think that, yes, these fifteen minute intervals are enough to sustain the kind of quality material that might go towards a collection; the trick is to always be writing in your head when you don’t have a pen and paper in front of you, and to never surrender your undivided attention to places that don’t deserve it. How, after all, do you think an article like this might have come about, if not for the time spent talking to myself whilst ferrying boxes across a windswept school yard?

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