“In a Stack of Compassion”

At the Labor Day event, Lara Durback gave me a copy of her ZINECHAPBOOK.

At the event, we were trying to learn how to talk about, as the organizers put it, “our struggle to do two jobs, that is, make artworks and earn a wage to support ourselves”.

I had been thinking about my jobs for weeks, and Lara handed me the whole problem in an object.  The material and form of struggling to understand one’s labor and what happens to it.  Who wants it, why do they want it, where does it go?

Now I keep trying to write about the ZINECHAPBOOK and what I find in it.

I find manila folder, thread, letterpressed ink, photos, discarded & salvaged paper, Lara’s handwriting.  

I find:  getting hired to work at a “cool, activist” print shop that turns out to be a marketing campaign for Levi’s.  And has faulty equipment & insane deadlines.  And asks its staff to put in absurd hours because, hey, we’re an activist art space.  Because, hey, trust us.

I find:  You may have heard that I quit my magical summer job…

I find links to the Levi’s marketing campaign as print shop & storefront on Valencia.   I find links to articles about the town of Braddock, PA and its brand-savant mayor and its re-branding effort linked to the Levi’s marketing campaign.

I find a letter about equipment problems; lists of delaying & obfuscating tactics used by the employer; correspondence with family & friends, and with printers who stayed at the shop.  I find the heart-sword mudra and anguish over a false promise.

As in, when I asked for a contract, he said, “I’ll go get money out of the ATM for you.”

As in, ((“The print ads and billboards will carry headlines like “Ready to work,” “Everybody’s work is equally important” and “We are all workers.”))

I find a description of the structure of an ant colony and I find: I wish I could describe the pain of being in a decoy space.

And I think about the pain of your work, your time, being exploited and about the pain of your image being used to advertise a false promise. Your image used to ensnare others with the fantasy of contented, overflowing, artistic, activist labor-with-a-smile .

I think of how our work gets turned against us.   I think, maybe this chapbook is a bildungsroman.  Which Wikipedia calls a “genre of the novel which focuses on the moral growth of the protagonist from youth to adulthood”.  But I mean that the ZINECHAPBOOK is a bildungsroman for me.  It makes me feel my fumbling education.

I think, the ZINECHAPBOOK is also like the investigative space Cynthia Sailers and I were talking about while hiking in Claremont Canyon.  The space we struggle to open alongside a content (such as a film, or a job, or, uh, life?) that allows us to reflect that content back differently.  We were talking about feminism as one such space, an analytic space.

I think, the ZINECHAPBOOK makes both the content and the investigative space.   As in, I want to create the turmoil that happens in me when I am confronted with incongruous capitalist gentrification machine bullshit in the guise of something else.

And I think back to a fervent conversation with Lara after the Labor Day event.  Talking about the idea of a gift economy, in itself and as it exists in poetry communities.

I had been reading up about gift economies for my talk.  I was excited to gesture and talk with Lara.   (And I hadn’t even read the ZINECHAPBOOK yet, and I didn’t even realize that the ZINECHAPBOOK ends by interpolating from The Gift by Hafiz.)

We talked about chapbooks, printing presses, and magazines, and about the circulation of objects and work and projects.  We also talked about the potential dangers of the gift economy.  When does it become a decoy space.

We talked about the recriminations or blandishments that get inside you, and make you feel that you don’t deserve any return for your work. We talked about the corporations that ride those messages into our heads.  How they ask us to give, or tell us we’re already giving, or how they sell us ourselves by using the image of giving.

And Lara talked about it from a class perspective.  Talked about how, without a family safety net, being asked to give, or told to trust, can be hurtful.  Being asked to give of your substance, out of the supply of time that earns your rent, as though it’s nothing.  As though the potential damage you’re doing to your own security has no worth.

We talked about it from a gender perspective.  About the culture that leans on women to give in a certain, self-abnegating way:  to be helpful, to step back.  About reeling around trying to reconcile the ideal of generosity with the shadow of a Girl Friday, a helpful woman fading into the background.

We talked about ways to escape these mental and worldly traps and snares.  We talked about the idea of reciprocity. How in the old idea of a gift economy, a gift had to be acknowledged and had to be passed on – no giving without receiving.

When I think about reciprocity functioning in poetry communities, I think about Lara’s ZINECHAPBOOK as a gift.  That gifts can intervene into a space, supply some of what’s missing from the frame.

I think of the ZINECHAPBOOK that way: in the space of the Labor Day event and in its effect on me as provocative object.  It’s a gift that demands reciprocity.  I have to engage with it, because it brings itself to me and because I want to talk in its conversation.

That’s why I love it so much.  That, and because it’s so various.   Because I struggle to describe it.  Because it reflects my experiences back and gets me to learn them.  Because I feel in the book the mess and the anger, the stuck feeling.  And the reaching out, the social world, and the hope for another kind of space.

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